Ellen Miller (Lassie)
Jan Clayton as Ellen Miller
with Jon Provost as Timmy
|First appearance||"The Inheritance" (1954)|
|Last appearance||"Timmy's Family" (1957)|
|Created by||Robert Maxwell
|Portrayed by||Jan Clayton|
|Family||Jeff Miller (son) • George Miller (father-in-law) • Timmy (foster son) • Lassie (companion animal)|
|Spouse(s)||John Miller (deceased)|
Ellen Miller is a fictional character in the long-running television series Lassie (1954–1973). Ellen is a war widow living on a weatherbeaten midwestern farm with her young son Jeff and her father-in-law George Miller. The character was created by producer Robert Maxwell and Lassie trainer Rudd Weatherwax, and was portrayed in the series by Jan Clayton. Ellen makes her debut in the premiere episode, "The Inheritance" (1954) and her last appearance in the mid-fourth season episode, "Timmy's Family" (1957). Clayton was nominated for two Emmy Awards for her performances as Ellen Miller on Lassie, and the series itself won two Emmys during her stint on the show.
Ellen Miller is a strong, loving, and intelligent woman. She is a widow whose husband John was killed in World War II. When the series opens, she lives on a small midwestern farm with her eleven-year-old son, Jeff and her father-in-law, George Miller. She attended college and entertains the daughter of a college friend in "The Ballerina." She is a musician and sometimes plays the organ in the farmhouse parlor. In one episode, she is offered a job as a singer on a radio station. Ellen provokes the jealousies of both Jeff and her father-in-law when she dates the local constable, Clay Horton. Ellen and her family provide a foster home for a seven-year-old runaway boy called Timmy. Following the death of her father-in-law, she and her son sell the farm to the Martins (who adopt Timmy and Lassie), and move to the city where she plans to teach music and Jeff plans to attend a science high school.
In 1943, Eric Knight's fictional rough collie, Lassie, made her film debut in MGM's Lassie Come Home. The success of the film generated six more MGM Lassie films, and, with the seventh feature, The Painted Hills (1951), Lassie's MGM career came to an end. Pal, a male dog, played Lassie in all seven films, and, when his MGM career had run its course, Pal's owner and trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, took all rights to the Lassie name and trademark in lieu of back pay. Weatherwax and Pal then toured America in an 18-minute program re-enacting Lassie's film exploits. Producer Robert Maxwell convinced Weatherwax that the dog's future lay television. The men developed a television scenario set on a small midwestern farm about a struggling war widow, her son, and her father-in-law.
Casting and characterization
Jan Clayton, a musical theater star and television quiz show panelist, was signed to a four-year contract to play Ellen Miller, the show's war widowed mother. George Cleveland was cast as her father-in-law, George Miller, and Tommy Rettig as her eleven-year-old son, Jeff. Rettig later remembered Clayton as a "second mother to me," and dialogue coach Lloyd Nelson remarked, "I adored Jan Clayton. She was wonderful, a real neighbor, a real friend."
Ellen appeared with two dogs on the show: Pal, the star of the MGM films, and his son Lassie Junior thereafter. Pal appeared in only the two pilots. Lassie Junior was joined on the set by a stand-in rehearsal dog, a dog for long distance shots, and a "fight" dog for battles with other animals.
As the fourth season approached, discontent was brewing. Rettig was a fifteen-year-old teen who wanted to leave the show in order to enjoy the life of a normal teenager. Clayton had suffered the death of a teenage daughter in a car wreck and was considering leaving the show to return to her roots in musical theater. The show's owner and producer Jack Wrather was aware of the discontent and decided the series should strike a different course, with Rettig and Clayton eased out of the show in a three-part episode.
A new storyline was developed that brought child actor Jon Provost to the show as Ellen's seven-year-old foster child Timmy. Lassie and Timmy were teamed together and the boy began playing a greater role in episode plots as filming progressed. Rettig and Clayton expected to be released, but producers were pleased with the status quo and made little effort to write either performer out of the show. Hoping Clayton would change her mind and remain with the show, they proposed a plot in which Ellen would wed and adopt Timmy. Clayton rejected the idea.
A crisis was reached when series star George Cleveland died suddenly on July 17, 1957. Producers were forced to completely rework the series. An episode called "Transition" was quickly scripted with a simple but believable plot: Ellen and Jeff sell the farm to Paul and Ruth Martin, a young couple new to the area. The Martins adopt Timmy and Lassie. Ellen and her son leave the farm for life in the city where Ellen plans to teach music. Jeff was never referenced on the show again but Ellen made her final appearance in the episode immediately following "Transition". There, she returns to the farm at Ruth's invitation to advise her on raising a little boy. The Miller years of Lassie were almost immediately sold into worldwide syndication as Jeff's Collie.
In 1957, Clayton received an Emmy nomination for Best Continuing Performance by an Actress in a Dramatic Series for Lassie, and, in 1958, the actress received yet another Emmy nomination for Best Continuing Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Dramatic or Comedy Series for Lassie. Clayton also received a star on the Walk of Fame for Television at 6200 Hollywood Blvd.
- Collins, Ace. Lassie: A Dog's Life. Penguin, 1993.