Tommy Rettig

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Tommy Rettig
Death Valley Days Tommy Rettig 1962 No 1.jpg
Rettig in Death Valley Days in 1962.
Born Thomas Noel Rettig
(1941-12-10)December 10, 1941
Queens, New York City,
New York, U.S.
Died February 15, 1996(1996-02-15) (aged 54)
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.
Cause of death
Heart attack
Occupation Actor, software engineer
Years active 1946–1991
Spouse(s) Darlene Portwood (m. 1959–77)

Thomas Noel Rettig, known as Tommy Rettig (December 10, 1941 – February 15, 1996), was an American child actor, computer software engineer, and author. Rettig is best remembered for portraying the character "Jeff Miller" in the first three seasons of CBS's Lassie television series, from 1954 to 1957, later seen in syndicated re-runs as Jeff's Collie. He also co-starred with another former child actor, Tony Dow, in the mid-1960s television teen soap opera Never Too Young and recorded the song by that title with the group The TR-4.

Early life and acting career[edit]

Rettig was born to a Jewish father, Elias Rettig, and a Christian Italian American mother, Rosemary Nibali, in Jackson Heights in the Queens borough of New York City.[1] He started his career at the age of six, on tour with Mary Martin in the play Annie Get Your Gun, in which he played Little Jake.

Tommy Rettig as Jeff Miller with Donald Keeler as Porky in Lassie (1956).
With Will Hutchins in Sugarfoot (1958).

Before his famous role as Jeff Miller in the first Lassie television series, Rettig also appeared in about 18 feature films including So Big, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (written by Dr. Seuss) and River of No Return with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. It was his work with a dog in The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T. that led animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax to urge him to audition for the Lassie role, for which Weatherwax supplied the famous collies.

Rettig later told interviewers that he longed for a life as a normal teenager, and after four seasons he was able to get out of his contract. He was also critical of the treatment and compensation of child actors of his day. He reportedly received no residual payments from his work in the Lassie series, even though it was syndicated and widely shown under the title Jeff's Collie.

On October 28, 1958, Rettig guest-starred in the episode "The Ghost" of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Sugarfoot, with Will Hutchins in the title role. In the segment, Rettig played Steve Carter, a troubled youth whom Sugarfoot is taking to Missouri to collect an inheritance. In this episode, Rettig sang "The Streets of Laredo".[2]

He graduated in 1959 from University High School in Los Angeles.

At eighteen, he was cast as Pierre in the 1959 episode "The Ghost of Lafitte", set in New Orleans, of the ABC western series The Man from Blackhawk, starring Robert Rockwell as a roving insurance investigator. The black actress Amanda Randolph was cast in the same episode as Auntie Cotton.[3]

In 1964–65, he co-starred with another former child actor, Tony Dow, in the ABC television soap opera for teens Never Too Young.[4] He was cast as Frank in the 1965 "The Firebrand" of the NBC education drama series Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus.

With the group "The TR-4", he recorded the song by that title on the Velvet Tone label.[5] While he was the TR-4 group's co-manager, he did not sing with them. Rettig only co-wrote the song in hopes of the TV soap using it as their theme. It was not chosen.[6]

Post-acting career[edit]

As an adult, Rettig preferred to be called "Tom." He found the transition from child star difficult, and had several well-publicized legal entanglements relating to illegal recreational drugs (a conviction for growing marijuana on his farm, and a cocaine possession charge of which he was exonerated). Some years after he left acting, he became a motivational speaker, which—through work on computer mailing lists—led to involvement in the early days of personal computers.

For the last 15 years of his life, Rettig was a well-known database programmer, author, and expert. He was an early employee of Ashton-Tate, and specialized in (sequentially) dBASE, Clipper, FoxBASE and finally FoxPro. Rettig moved to Marina del Rey in the late 1980s.[7]

Later years and death[edit]

Rettig made a guest appearance in an episode of the later television series The New Lassie, with Jon Provost, which aired on October 25, 1991. The series featured appearances from two other Lassie veterans, Roddy McDowall, who had starred in the first movie Lassie Come Home (1943) and June Lockhart, who had starred in the 1945 movie Son of Lassie, and the television series (as Timmy's mother in the years after Rettig left the show).

He died at fifty-four of a heart attack. His memorial service in Marina del Rey, California was attended by Roger Clinton, Jr., the half-brother of then U.S. President Bill Clinton, and several former child stars, who were featured in a photo spread in The National Enquirer.

Selected filmography[edit]

Rettig with Robert Mitchum in River of No Return (1954)
Year Title Role
1950 Panic in the Streets (not credited)
The Jackpot Tommy Lawrence
Two Weeks With Love Ricky Robinson
For Heaven's Sake Joe
1951 The Strip Artie Ardrey
Elopement Daniel Reagan
Weekend With Father David Bowen
1952 Paula David Larsen
Gobs and Gals Bertram
1953 The Lady Wants Mink Ritchie Connors
The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T Bartholomew Collins
So Big Dirk (aged 8)
1954 River of No Return Mark Calder
The Raid Larry Bishop
The Egyptian Thoth (son of Meryt)
1955 The Cobweb Mark McIver
At Gunpoint Billy Wright
1956 The Last Wagon Billy

Notable quotes[edit]

  • "It really pissed me off — producers had this general impression that whatever talent and gifts you had learned how to use as a kid, as soon as you were twenty-one it dried up. That was for boys. Girls were a different story. They can go from cute to gorgeous."[8]
  • "Yeah, I met her right after I graduated;— 1959. We got married that December; I was eighteen, she was fifteen. My son Tom came in the first year. I wanted to live life as a normal guy. I wanted to know what real life was like. I sold men's clothes, I delivered flowers."[8]
  • "I just wanted to have a chance at the real world. Then I found out through working a series of straight jobs that straight jobs suck! But you sell fourteen pairs of Levis and you go home that night and it doesn't make you feel like cracking open the champagne."[8]
  • "Out of necessity, not choice, I wound up with my own production company, Potpourri Productions. I had that from 1967 to 1971. Won a few awards for my quality, produced over a hundred TV commercials and business films;— all L.A. stuff."[8]
  • "Once in a while there was some TV offer, and I'd take it."[8]


  1. ^ "TOMMY RETTIG, PLAYED JEFF IN ORIGINAL CAST OF TELEVISION'S 'LASSIE'", Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 1996. Accessed December 10, 2007.
  2. ^ "The Ghost". Classic Television Archives. Retrieved December 11, 2013. 
  3. ^ "The Man from Blackhawk". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved January 30, 2013. 
  4. ^ "Never Too Young on ABC". TV Guide. Retrieved 2008-10-15. 
  5. ^ Jimmy Velvet (2007). Inside the Dream. Velvet-Roese. 
  6. ^
  7. ^ Jeff Miller reminiscence
  8. ^ a b c d e BrainyQuote

External links[edit]