Ruth Martin (Lassie)
June Lockhart as Ruth Martin
|First appearance||"Transition" (1957)|
|Last appearance||"The Wayfarers" (1964, Lassie)
"Roots" (1989, The New Lassie)
|Created by||Robert Maxwell
|Portrayed by||Cloris Leachman
|Family||Paul Martin (husband)
Timmy Martin (foster son)
Lassie (companion animal)
Ruth Martin is a fictional character on the long-running television series Lassie (1954–1973). She was briefly played by Cloris Leachman before June Lockhart stepped into the role. The character makes her first appearance mid-fourth season (1957) and her last in the first episode of the eleventh season (1964); she appears in 208 episodes in total.
Ruth is married to Paul Martin, an agricultural school graduate and a farmer. The couple buys a small farm and adopt Timmy, a foster child living on the farm. Ruth is portrayed as a practical, competent woman, a loving wife and mother, and an active community member.
In 1957, Cloris Leachman joined the cast as Ruth but eventually her feuds with co-stars, her unwillingness to sign a contract, and other troubles forced show producer Jack Wrather to fire her at the close of the season's filming. June Lockhart replaced her at the top of the 1958 season and remained in the role until the cancellation of her character in the first episode of the 1964 season.
Lockhart appeared as Ruth Martin in Campbell's Soup commercials, a feature film edited from a multi-part episode of the television show, and show-related merchandise such as Whitman novels and Dell comic books. The actress received an Emmy nomination for her performance in the role in 1959.
Ruth Martin is the wife of Paul Martin, a young agriculture college graduate and farmer. At the start of the series, the couple buys a small weatherbeaten farm on the outskirts of fictional Calverton from war-widowed Ellen Miller. The two adopt Timmy, a foster child living on the farm; and his companion, a rough collie called Lassie.
Throughout the series, Ruth performs housewifely chores such as cooking meals, ironing and mending, hanging laundry and baking cakes. She milks the cow, gathers eggs, drives about the county in the pickup truck, and participates in Sunday school carnivals, community square dances, and her son's cub scout troop. When her husband is out of the county on business, Ruth manages the farm with the occasional help of neighbor Cully Wilson.
Ruth's housekeeping is sometimes interrupted by Timmy's adventures. She helps him rescue a child trapped in a culvert rapidly filling with flood water, assists him in his 4-H projects, pitches a tent for their overnight accommodation at a Coon Dog Race, and flies into the Canadian wilderness when Timmy and Lassie are swept away in a hot air balloon. Marital affection between Ruth and her husband is only represented through brief kisses and hugs. The role ends when Ruth and Paul emigrate to Australia where Paul will teach agriculture, leaving Lassie with neighbor Cully Wilson. Timmy was reclaimed by the County and eventually adopted by a family named McCullough and began using his middle name, Steven. Ruth and Timmy (Steven) are reunited 25 years later in the seventh episode of the first season of the syndicated television show The New Lassie, entitled "Roots".
Ruth Martin portrayer June Lockhart joked with co-star Hugh Reilly that she had been married to him longer than to any of her real husbands and commented after leaving the show, "In six sexless years of playing a country wife and mother, I was hardly ever allowed to kiss Hugh Reilly on the cheek."
In a conversation with John Barron of the New York Times in 2004, Lockhart was asked what Lassie was all about and why it remains something of a magical memory for those who were children in the 1950s and 1960s. She responded, "This was a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial. Often, if the scene had gone well, and maybe we hadn't gotten the dialogue quite right, if the dog was right, they'd print it."
Lassie debuted September 1954 in the Sunday 7:00 P.M. time slot. Former Broadway star Jan Clayton portrayed Ellen Miller, a war-widow living on a farm with her young son Jeff (Tommy Rettig), and her father-in-law (George Cleveland). The show was an instant hit, winning the Best Children's program Emmy in 1955 and receiving a host of additional honors.
As the 1957 season approached, Rettig wanted to leave the show and Clayton considered returning to her roots in musical theater. Producers planned to ease their characters out of the show while introducing new ones. Six-year-old Jon Provost was hired to play Timmy, a foster child living on the farm. Rettig hoped the plot would be restructured to allow his departure, but producers were content with the status quo, the show was more popular than ever, and it was hoped Rettig and Clayton would reconsider.
Producers were forced to overhaul the show when actor George Cleveland died suddenly on July 17, 1957. The plot was revised with new characters Ruth and Paul Martin buying the Miller farm, and becoming foster parents to Timmy and Lassie. Ellen and Jeff were written out of the show.
With the new storyline ready, Cloris Leachman was quickly hired to play Ruth Martin. As the season's filming progressed, Leachman tired of playing a farm woman. She wouldn't sign a contract, and refused to do PR for the show's sponsor, Campbell's Soup, telling the company, "I make my own soup. I don't eat yours." Audiences found Leachman and co-star Jon Shepodd as Paul Martin "too stiff". The two worked adult glances and touches such as holding hands, hugs, pecks on the lips into their on-screen performances in order to give their characters more depth. Toward the end of the season, George Chandler was hired to play a grandfatherly character and to bring some warmth to the show, but Leachman was soon feuding with him; their disagreements appeared in the gossip columns. With ratings plummeting and public resentment aroused, show owner Jack Wrather summarily fired Leachman and Shepodd in February 1958 when filming for the 1957–1958 season was completed.
Wanting to protect his $3,000,000 investment, Wrather began a search at once for two new stars to fill the roles of Ruth and Paul Martin. Casting Paul involved a good deal of effort, but Hugh Reilly, a Broadway actor with a reputation for being a solid and cooperative performer, was signed. Actress June Lockhart, who had appeared in the second of MGM's popular Lassie films (Son of Lassie), had been considered for the role of Ruth Martin before Leachman was signed. Lockhart however was working in New York at the time and declined the role. Eight months later, she had moved back to California and was working on both coasts. Once again, she was offered the role, but, stipulating she only would be interested in a one year commitment, producers were forced to decline. Then she reconsidered:
...I thought about what I had been offered and I said to myself, "What am I being so damn grand about? I have two children to support, the part they want me to play has a lot of dignity, the show is already on the air, I wouldn't have to film a pilot, and they have a sponsor. This is really a great gift that has been offered me. I'd be stupid not to at least look into it."
Lockhart was finally hired to play Ruth Martin and debuted with Reilly in the opener of the fifth season, "The Storm" (1958). No explanation was offered the audience regarding the new faces on the show. In order to protect the All-American perception of the show and its sponsor, Campbell's Soup, the producers wrote long clauses into cast contracts fobidding them from appearing in anything that would damage their wholesome image.
In 1963, the multi-part episode "The Journey" was filmed in the High Sierra and later edited into a feature film called Lassie's Great Adventure. The plot follows Timmy and Lassie as they are swept away in a carnival hot air balloon. Ruth and Paul fly into the wilderness to be at hand when Timmy is found. The episode was the only episode filmed in color during the Ruth Martin seasons. Ratings skyrocketed.
As filming for the 1964 season approached, fourteen-year-old Jon Provost chose not renew his contract. Stars Lockhart and Reilly were fired. With only Provost and the producers knowing the real reason for the changes, the press was told the show had done all the "boy and his dog" stories possible, but Lockhart speculated that Provost's mother wanted too much money. and Reilly later stated that the producers' decision was based upon trading four advanced salaries for future star Robert Bray's starting salary. Lockhart loved her role as "Lassie's mother", but accepted her fate, telling columnist Bob Thomas:
It was an actor's dream -- steady work, excellent pay, a wonderful cast and crew, and a chance to do a good scene now and then...Now I'm ready to go back playing all those tramps and neurotic and alcoholic women. They're good fun, but motherhood pays off better in the long run.
In "The Wayfarers", the first-part of the three-part 1964 season opener, producers shipped Ruth and her family off to Australia where Paul would teach agriculture. Lassie was forced to remain in the States due to Australia's strict quarantine regulations and would become the companion animal of Corey Stuart, a forestry service worker. Lockhart commented, "We were supposed to go over there so that Paul could show the Australians how to grow things. We hadn't had a successful bean crop in six seasons. What could they possibly learn from us?"
The actress later recalled:
Back then I didn't realize the power of my character. I didn't realize the image I had created and what it meant to so many people. Ruth was so underwritten, so what I was able to bring to it was what made it special to me. The looks, the affection, the pats on the head, the tone and inflection. I got to bring that to her character, and that was all I thought there was. I didn't know what was being received on the other side of the screen.
Lockhart joked with Reilly that she had been married to him longer than to any of her real husbands and commented after leaving the show, "In six sexless years of playing a country wife and mother, I was hardly ever allowed to kiss Hugh Reilly on the cheek."
According to one writer, "the character who really held the series and the family together was the mother". In commenting on her Ruth Martin character, Lockhart said, "Without a doubt it was the mother who ran the farm. Mother was the strong one. She was certainly a liberated woman who didn't take any guff off anyone."
Lockhart and Provost reprised their Lassie roles in "Roots", the seventh episode of the syndicated television show, The New Lassie. After the episode, Ruth disappeared and was never mentioned again. In "Roots", the viewer learns Ruth and Paul never properly adopted Timmy, and he was forced to remain in the States while his parents emigrated to Australia. Timmy was then adopted by a family called the McCulloughs.
Adventure Books, Golden Books, coloring books, puzzles, Halloween costumes, and other items were all manufactured around the show. Ruth Martin appeared in several Lassie Dell comic books as well as in Whitman novels, and a Whitman punch out book. Ruth Martin appeared in television ads for Campbell's Soup.
In its seventeen-year run on CBS, Lassie placed first in its Sunday 7:00 p.m. EST time slot. The highest rankings in the Nielsen ratings for Lassie were the Martin family years: #24 in 1957, #22 in 1958, #15 in 1959, #15 in 1961, #21 in 1962, #13 in 1963, and #17 in 1964. The only year the show did not climb into the top twenty-five was 1960, when it ran opposite Walt Disney Presents on ABC and Shirley Temple Theatre on NBC. With the departure of the Martin family in the eleventh season, the show began a steady decline in ratings.
Nominations and honors
June Lockhart received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6362 Hollywood Boulevard for her television work. The actress also received a 1959 Emmy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role (Continuing Character) in a Dramatic Series for Lassie.
- Provost, Jon; Laurie Jacobson (2007). Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. Nashville: Cumberland House. p. 174. ISBN 978-1-58182-619-7.
- Barron, John (2004-09-16). "At Lunch with: June Lockhart, Jon Provost and Lassie; Three TV Stars; One's Not Talking". New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-23.[dead link]
- Collins, Ace (1993). Lassie: A Dog's Life: The First Fifty Years. New York: Penguin. p. 166. ISBN 0-14-023183-8.
- Staff (1959-07-04). "The Life and Times of 'Lassie'". TV Guide. Philadelphia: Triangle Publications, Inc. 7 (327): 18.
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- "Roots". The New Lassie. Season 1. Episode 4. 1989-10-21. CBS.
- Collins, pp. 92, 115, 121
- Collins, p. 166
- "Awards for June Lockhart". IMDb. Retrieved 2009-02-04.