Jeff Miller (Lassie)
Tommy Rettig as Jeff Miller in debut (1954)
|First appearance||"The Inheritance" (1954)|
|Last appearance||"Transition" (1957)|
|Created by||Robert Maxwell
|Portrayed by||Tommy Rettig|
|Occupation||Farm boy • School boy|
|Family||Ellen Miller (mother) • George "Gramps" Miller (paternal grandfather) • Timmy Martin (foster brother) • Lassie (companion animal)|
Jeff Miller is a fictional character in the long-running television series Lassie (1954–1973). Jeff is an eleven-year-old boy living on a weatherbeaten farm in the American midwest with his war-widowed mother, Ellen Miller, and his paternal grandfather, George "Gramps" Miller. The character was created by producer Robert Maxwell and Lassie trainer Rudd Weatherwax, and was portrayed by child actor Tommy Rettig. Jeff makes his first appearance in the series premiere, "The Inheritance" (1954), and his last appearance in the mid-fourth season episode, "Transition" (1957). The series won its only Emmy Awards during the character's stint on the show.
Jeff is the typical 1950s American boy. He enjoys boyhood adventure, collects baseball cards, and struggles a bit with school work. He is eleven-years-old when the show opens and is the son of slain war hero John Miller and his wife, Ellen. With his mother and paternal grandfather George Miller, Jeff lives on a weatherbeaten farm on the outskirts of the fictional small midwestern town of Calverton. Some fifty miles distant is Capitol City which Jeff sometimes visits. In one episode, he hitch-hikes to Capitol City to find medical help for Lassie when she loses her eyesight. On the not-so-nice side, Jeff surreptitiously listens-in on party-line telephone conversations at home, much to the annoyance of his mother. Jeff attends a one-room schoolhouse and has his own horse, Domino.
In 1943, Eric Knight's fictional rough collie, Lassie, made her film debut in MGM's Lassie Come Home. Canine star Pal, a male dog, appeared in the titular role. 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's owner and trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, took all rights to the Lassie name and trademark in lieu of back pay owed him by MGM and toured America with Pal in an 18-minute program starring "Lassie". Producer Robert Maxwell convinced Weatherwax that the dog's future lay in television. Together the men developed a scenario set on a weatherbeaten farm in Middle America about a struggling war widow, her son, her father-in-law, and their dog.
Broadway star and television quiz show panelist Jan Clayton was cast as widowed, Ellen Miller, and septuagenarian film veteran George Cleveland cast as her father-in-law George Miller, but the boy in the scenario eluded producers until Rudd Weatherwax's brother Frank (who was working on the Dr. Seuss film, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.) apprised its young star, Tommy Rettig of the Lassie television series being readied for production. Rettig later recalled,
"...I was called in for an interview. At that time I was screen-tested, I read for the part and evidently I impressed some people. A few weeks later, it came down to me and two other kids. One was Lee Aker, who would eventually star in Rin Tin Tin. They decided that all three of us could do the role. So the decision as to who got the role was essentially left up to Lassie...I spent a week with Rudd [Weatherwax] and Lassie out in North Hollywood at the Weatherwax's home. The other finalists did, too. The fact was that Lassie liked me better than he did the other two kids. I loved animals, and this seemed to be very important to Rudd, too."
Shortly after the show debuted, producers and writers decided Jeff needed a male companion his own age. Auditions were held with young actor Donald Keeler (Joey D. Vieira) defeating hundreds of other applicants for the role of Jeff's pal, Sylvester "Porky" Brockway. In conjunction with the role, writers created Porky's father, Matt Brockway, Porky's mother Birdie Brockway, and Porky's basset hound, Pokey (who appeared so frequently he was considered a regular by crew). Porky debuted in the show's first season episode, "The Lion" and saw his last appearance in the fourth season episode, "Timmy's Family" (1957). He was scripted into many episodes with Jeff, but, unknown to the show's audience, neither boy liked the other and feuded constantly off-screen.
Jeff makes his first appearance in the series premier, "The Inheritance" (1954). Shot in British Columbia, the episode was one of two pilots filmed for the show, the other being "The Well" which aired late in the first season.
"The Inheritance" brings Lassie and Jeff together when the boy receives the dog as a bequest from neighbor Homer Carey. Lassie however will have nothing to do with Jeff, breaking his heart time and again when she flees nightly from his bedside to sleep on the cold hearth in the dark and empty Carey house. There she remains hour after hour until Jeff solves a mystery involving a cache of hidden money and a hired hand with theft on his mind. The climax pitches Lassie against the thief in a tense battle.
In the episode's emotional last moments, Jeff has returned to the Miller farmhouse and waits anxiously on the doorstep with his mother and grandfather for Lassie to join him. Lassie remains at the end of the driveway, gazing down the road as if contemplating a return to her old home. Then she turns and bounds happily to Jeff. "She's mine now, isn't she, Gramps?" Jeff cries joyously to his grandfather. "Yes, she's all yours," Gramps replies, "She done her deciding."
Pal, the star of the several MGM "Lassie" films of the 1940s, appeared in the two pilots, and his son, Lassie Junior (or, Junior) appeared thereafter. Lassie Junior was joined on the set by several other dogs: a stand-in for rehearsals, a stunt dog for long distance action shots, and a "fight" dog for battles with other animals.
Leaving the show
As the fourth season approached, Rettig was fifteen years old and had grown tired of playing the Jeff Miller role. He was dating, driving cars, making college plans, and wanted to leave the show to enjoy the life of a normal teenager.
Producer and show owner Jack Wrather realized Rettig couldn't play a boy forever and developed a new storyline with seven-year-old Jon Provost cast as Timmy, a foster child on the Miller farm. Timmy was teamed with Lassie for the sorts of adventures formerly assigned to Jeff. Rettig expected to be released any day but producers were happy with the status quo and made little effort to write Rettig out of the show.
A crisis was reached when series star George Cleveland died suddenly on July 17, 1957. Producers and writers were forced to completely overhaul the show. An episode called "Transition" was quickly scripted with a simple but believable plot: Ellen Miller and Jeff decide to sell the farm to Paul and Ruth Martin, a young couple new to the area. The two adopt Timmy. Jeff gives Lassie to Timmy, and then leaves for the city. Rettig was dropped and the character of Jeff was never seen on the show again. The Miller years of the show were almost immediately sold into world-wide syndication as Jeff's Collie.
Lassie won its only Emmy Awards (Best Children's Program 1955, and Best Children's Series 1956), during the Jeff years of the show. Tommy Rettig and co-star Donald Keeler jointly accepted the 1956 award. The show also received a 1956 Peabody Award.
- Jenkins, Henry. "Lassie". The Museum of Broadcast Communications, [nd].
- Collins, Ace. Lassie: A Dog's Life. Penguin Books, 1993.