Teaching new dogs old tricks Television: Die-hard 'Lassie' fans are determined to stop a production company from dropping the descendant of the original Lassie in their new series.

November 10, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you were upset when you found out that NBC was trying to force Johnny Carson into retirement so it could replace him with the younger, less expensive Jay Leno, brace yourself and hold on tight to your channel changers. Another television icon -- this one bigger than Carson, Cronkite or any of the rest -- is getting the same shabby treatment: Lassie.

Yes, Lassie, the ever-faithful and indefatigable collie who's been rescuing less-intelligent humans in TV land since 1954, is in big trouble. And, since neither Timmy nor Gramps nor Ruth Martin is anywhere to be found, Lassie fans say she needs your help.

A phony Lassie is about to be dumped on unknowing viewers -- this one as much as 30 pounds lighter than the real Lassie and wearing makeup to give it the classic Lassie marking. This is no way to treat a lady who's been there for us since the 1943 feature film "Lassie Come Home."

That's the way Joan Neidhardt, a 47-year-old data processing manager from Abingdon, sees it anyway. She and what appear to be thousands of other Lassie lovers are rallying to the legendary canine's defense in an Internet-based campaign that could be a textbook case of how viewers can use the Web to let television producers and programmers know how they feel.

"They don't understand the power of Lassie. They think it's a show for 2- to 8-year-old kids. But we've got news for them: Lassie is an American icon who baby boomers grew up with," Neidhardt says.

"We're sick of losing our heroes, seeing them downsized with cheap imitations by corporations that couldn't care less. Lassie never let us down, and now we'll be there for her. Lassie lovers will accept nothing less than the real thing, and we'll fight them until we get it."

There are several "them's" targeted by the Save Lassie campaign, but the main one is a Canadian film company, Cinar.

Two years ago, the Montreal-based firm started producing new episodes of "Lassie" for television distribution worldwide. In the United States, the series now airs in first-run on Animal Planet, one of the cable channels owned by Discovery, which is headquartered in Bethesda.

Lassie lovers had no problem with Cinar or its updated version of the classic, which now finds Lassie, Timmy and Timmy's recently widowed mom, a veterinarian, living in Hudson Falls, Vt.

So what if Timmy was an orphan in the original CBS series that ran from 1957 to 1964? Lassie is what matters. And the Lassie used in the new Cinar episodes is an eighth-generation direct descendant of the original Lassie, Pal.

(Yes, despite all the "good girl" talk, all the Lassies were male. OK, so you knew that. But did you also know that this is where the expression "You go, girl" was born? In Episode 415 of the 638 episodes that were made, Timmy says, "Lassie, get help," for the 10,000th time and follows it with, "You go, girl." OK, I'm kidding.)

Just as important as the bloodline is the fact that the dog seen in the episodes now airing on Animal Planet is trained and handled by Bob Weatherwax, son of the famed Rudd Weatherwax who raised and trained all the previous Lassies on his farm in California.

The trouble started last summer when Cinar was getting ready to film a new season of 26 additional "Lassie" episodes that are scheduled to start airing March 2 on Animal Planet. Cinar broke off negotiations with Weatherwax and started calling collie breeders in the United States to find a cheaper version of Lassie.

"Rumors started to circulate on the collie circuit," Neidhardt says. "And, when we checked into it, we found it was true: Cinar had bought two 10-month-old pups with no training from a breeder in Minnesota and hired a French trainer to train them. This Canadian company was dumping an American icon and trying to keep it quiet."

Not likely on the collie circuit. Neidhardt -- who has two collies of her own, Shane and Becky -- is also the publisher of COLLIEc-tively Speaking, a newsletter for collectors of Lassie and collie memorabilia.

Neidhardt has another part-time business, creating Web pages: Colliewoode Productions.

Neidhardt hooked up with two other die-hard Lassie lovers on the Web -- Loren Gates, a computer consultant from Independence, Mo., and Cathy Schmidt, a former data processing manager from Tampa -- and a movement was born. The trio now meets nightly in an online chat room to work out strategy and update their Save Lassie Web page (http: //members .aol.com/LassieNet/savelas.htm), which has been visited more than 24,000 times since Sept. 1.

There are now 30 pages' worth of statements of support from around the world.

Click here on the Web page and you can sign a petition of protest to Cinar. Click there and you can send a letter to the sponsors of "Lassie" on Animal Planet warning them of a boycott if any episodes with a phony Lassie air.

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