Rettig in Death Valley Days in 1962
Thomas Noel Rettig
December 10, 1941
|Died||February 15, 1996 (aged 54)|
|Occupation||Actor, software engineer, author|
Darlene Portwood (m. 1959–1977)
Thomas Noel Rettig (December 10, 1941 – February 15, 1996) was an American child actor, computer software engineer, and author. Rettig is 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 with the title Jeff's Collie. And Leave it to Beaver. 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
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. 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.
Rettig was selected from among 500 boys for the role of Jeff Miller, starring in the first Lassie television series between 1954–1957. His character, a young farm boy, lived with his widowed mother, Ellen (Jan Clayton), grandfather (George Cleveland), and his beloved collie, Lassie.
In addition to his famous role as Jeff Miller in the Lassie television series on the CBS network, Rettig also appeared in 17 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 collie.
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 later very popular in syndication, 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 series installment, Rettig played Steve Carter, a troubled youth whom Sugarfoot is taking to Missouri to collect an inheritance. Rettig also sang the popular ballad "The Streets of Laredo" in the episode.
Rettig graduated in 1959 from University High School in Los Angeles. That same year, at the age of 18, he was cast as Pierre in the 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. Actress Amanda Randolph was cast in the same episode as Auntie Cotton.
As a 19-year old, Rettig had a prominent guest-starring role in the January 1961 Wagon Train episode, "Weight of Command". Then in its fourth season on NBC, Wagon Train was the second-highest rated series that year on American network television. The 5' 4" (164.5 cm) Rettig played the part of a 16-year-old boy, Billy, who is traveling with his family on the wagon train. Although his father reluctantly allows his son to go on a buffalo hunt with assistant trail master Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson), Billy frets that his father doesn't think of him as a man yet. When the hunters are attacked by a band of renegade Indians, they take refuge in an empty house. Hawks manages to escape, but Wagon Master Seth Adams (Ward Bond) makes the difficult decision not to attempt Billy's rescue, lest the entire wagon train be vulnerable to attack. Hawks, who had promised Billy he would be rescued, is outraged by the decision to abandon the besieged youth to his fate. When Billy manages to survive the Indian attack on his own, he earns his father's respect.
In another Western, the 1962 episode "Davy's Friends" of the syndicated series Death Valley Days, Rettig played Joel Walter Robison, a fighter for Texas independence. In the storyline, Robison, called a "friend" of Davy Crockett, is sent on a diversion but quickly shows his military ability and is made a first lieutenant by Sam Houston. Stephan Chase played Sam Houston, and Russell Johnson was cast as Sergeant Tate in this episode.
From 1964 to 1965, Rettig co-starred with another former child actor, Tony Dow, in the ABC television soap opera for teens Never Too Young. With the group "The TR-4", he recorded the song by that title on the Velvet Tone label. While he was the TR-4's co-manager, he did not sing with them. Rettig only co-wrote the song in hopes that the TV soap would use it as the series' theme. The record itself was produced by Joey Vieira, who under the stage name Donald Keeler played Rettig's sidekick Porky on "Lassie". Producers of Never Too Young, however, chose not to use it. Rettig was subsequently cast as Frank in 1965 episode "The Firebrand" on the NBC education drama series Mr. Novak, which starred James Franciscus.
As an adult, Rettig preferred to be called "Tom." He found the transition from child star to adult difficult, and he 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.
Later years and death
Rettig made a guest appearance as a grown-up Jeff Miller in an episode of the television series The New Lassie with Jon Provost, which aired on October 25, 1991. The updated series featured appearances from Lassie veterans Roddy McDowall, who had starred in Lassie Come Home in 1943, the first feature-length Lassie film, and June Lockhart, who had starred in the 1945 sequel film Son of Lassie. She had also co-starred on the television series, portraying Timmy's mother in the years after Rettig and Jan Clayton left the show.
On February 15, 1996, Rettig died of heart failure at age 54. He was cremated through Inglewood Park mortuary, and his ashes were scattered at sea three miles off Marina del Rey, California with the ashes of Rusty Hamer.
|1950||Panic in the Streets||Tommy Reed||Uncredited|
|The Jackpot||Tommy Lawrence|
|Two Weeks With Love||Ricky Robinson|
|For Heaven's Sake||Joe Blake|
|1951||The Strip||Artie Ardrey|
|Weekend With Father||David Bowen|
|1952||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|
- "TOMMY RETTIG, PLAYED JEFF IN ORIGINAL CAST OF TELEVISION'S 'LASSIE'", Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 1996. Accessed December 10, 2007.
- Leszczak, Bob (2015). From Small Screen to Vinyl: A Guide to Television Stars Who Made Records, 1950-2000. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 275. ISBN 9781442242746. Retrieved 26 September 2017.
- "Actor Tommy Rettig dies at 54". Washington Post. February 17, 1996. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
- "The Ghost". Classic Television Archives. Retrieved December 11, 2013.
- "The Man from Blackhawk". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
- "Weight of Command on Wagon Train (season 4, episode 18)". TV Guide. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
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- "Never Too Young on ABC". TV Guide. Retrieved 2008-10-15.
- Jimmy Velvet (2007). Inside the Dream. Velvet-Roese.
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- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-08-11. Retrieved 2012-04-07.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
- "Results for 'au:Tom Rettig' [WorldCat.org]". www.worldcat.org.
- Jeff Miller reminiscence, Dec. 27, 2005
- Cuneff, Tom (4 March 1996). "A Boy and His Dog". Meredith Corporation. People.com. Retrieved 18 August 2019.
- Wilson, Scott (17 August 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons (3rd ed.). McFarland Publishing. p. 310. ISBN 9780786479924.
- Best, Marc. Those Endearing Young Charms: Child Performers of the Screen (South Brunswick and New York: Barnes & Co., 1971), pp. 215–219.
- Dye, David. Child and Youth Actors: Filmography of Their Entire Careers, 1914-1985. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1988, pp. 197–198.
- Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995, Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, pp. 230–231.
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