Hollywood's top dog born to stardom

July 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

After prelims with her manager, the reporter is at last allowed to speak to the star herself.

He is not without some qualms: he has interviewed a remote Jack Nicholson, an Athena-like Kathleen Turner, a glowering Harrison Ford, a grimly taciturn Paul Newman, an unbearably creepy Harold Pinter, the blissfully shallow Kevin Costner, even had an audience, man on man, with the great Redford and the great Eastwood. But they were mere actors; we are talking a star.

After a moment she comes to the phone.

The voice is instantly recognizable -- powerful, confident, radiant, mesmerizing.

"Growf!" she says. Then, "Growf, growf!"

OK, so? She's a dog.

Yes, she is. Lassie, a star since 1943, with eight earlier films, plus 23 years of TV behind her, is back in the spotlight, starring in "Lassie," which opens today.

Of course, the secret scandal of Lassie has long been known: she is a guy.

"It has nothing to do with anything like intelligence," explains poor Rob Weatherwax, 53, Lassie's trainer, owner and keeper of the Lassie Flame he inherited from his father, Rudd. He sounds as if he's only answered this question 700,000 times before, possibly because he has. "It's the coat. A female collie's coat sheds significantly in the winter months. Obviously in movie work, you've got to have a dog that looks the same all year round."

Something in Weatherwax's voice communicates that this isn't the time to do cross-dressing jokes or to compare Lassie to Milton Berle or Jack Lemmon in "Some Like It Hot." Weatherwax has the lieutenant-colonel's grimness of focus that suggests a man who's heard too many Lassie jokes in his time, loves his dog too passionately and is too professional to brook much irony.

He will point out, for example, with dead seriousness, that the original Lassie was born June 4, 1940, and he was born Jan. 4, 1941. So there.

On to other Lassie arcana.

The current animal is a direct, eighth-generation descendant from that dog that father Rudd trained for MGM for the original 1943 production of "Lassie, Come Home," the sire of the series. Rob assisted his father through most of the movies and over 350 of the subsequent television shows, following the generations, father to son and father to son.

"You never compare Lassies," he says. "You have to live with the one you've got," as if, he seems to be saying, they are holders of a throne, which in a sense they are.

"Of the eight dogs," he says, "I would say five were truly outstanding. Three tried hard and were good but didn't quite have the projection."

Any scandals? Any Lassies who abdicated and went off to be with the woman they loved?

"No scandals. We did have one unfortunate situation. Lassie No. 4 died of cancer. We usually start the next dog at 2 1/2 , but we had to rush Lassie No. 5 in to work too early. It was too much stress and he didn't last very long; we retired him early."

The current one, Weatherwax says, "is one of the outstandinones. "He's the prettiest of them all and one of the most outgoing. And very smart."

But Weatherwax says the animal's intelligence can also be hindrance. Collies, by nature shepherds, which means watchers, are preternaturally alert. They respond to everything and with keen eyesight can locate motion a 1/4 -mile or so away. This is fine in the mountains, but on a busy movie set, with 140 people standing around, it can be a liability.

But Weatherwax still prefers movies to television, because the pace is easier on the dog.

"Frankly," he says in a tone that suggests he means it, "I have a reputation in the business as [being] a pain.... I won't do anything that hurts the dog. I'm not the easiest man to work with."

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