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Tommy Rettig

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Tommy Rettig
Rettig in Death Valley Days in 1962
Thomas Noel Rettig

(1941-12-10)December 10, 1941
DiedFebruary 15, 1996(1996-02-15) (aged 54)
Occupation(s)Actor, software engineer, author
Years active1946–1991
Darlene Portwood
(m. 1959⁠–⁠1977)

Thomas Noel Rettig (December 10, 1941 – February 15, 1996) was an American child actor, computer software engineer, and author. He portrayed 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. He also played the young orphan adopted by David Niven in Niven's film titled "No Identity," for the series, "Four Star Playhouse, (Season 1, episode 13.) 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,[2] in which he played Little Jake.

Rettig (left) as Jeff Miller with Donald Keeler as Porky in Lassie (1956)

Rettig was selected from among 500 boys for the role of Jeff Miller, to star in the first Lassie television series, between 1954 and 1957.[3] His character was a young farm boy who 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.[3] 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.

Rettig (left) with Will Hutchins in Sugarfoot (1958)

Rettig graduated in 1959 from University High School in Los Angeles. In the 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.[4]

As a 19-year-old, Rettig had a prominent guest-starring role in the January 1961 Wagon Train episode "Weight of Command".[5] Then in its fourth season on NBC, Wagon Train was the second highest-rated series that year on American network television. The 5 ft 4 in (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 trailmaster Bill Hawks (Terry Wilson), Billy frets that his father doesn't think of him as being 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 wagonmaster 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.

Tommy guest starred in the television series Peter Gunn, as Kevin Daniels in the 1961 episode "I Know It's Murder". He played a young clairvoyant who hires Peter Gunn, Craig Stevens, to prevent the murder of his mother by her new husband Mark Eustis who was played by Hayden Rorke.

From 1965 to 1966, Rettig co-starred with another former child actor, Tony Dow, in the ABC television soap opera for teens, Never Too Young.[6] With the group "The TR-4", he recorded the song by that title on the Velvet Tone label.[7] 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 was produced by Joey Vieira, who under the stage name Donald Keeler played Rettig's sidekick Porky on "Lassie".[8] Producers of Never Too Young, however, chose not to use it.[9] Rettig was subsequently cast as Frank in the 1965 episode "The Firebrand", of the NBC education drama series Mr. Novak, which starred James Franciscus.

Post-acting career[edit]

As an adult, Rettig preferred to be called "Tom". He found the transition from child star to adult to be difficult, and he had several well-publicized legal entanglements relating to illegal recreational drugs, a conviction for growing marijuana on his farm in 1972, and a cocaine possession charge in 1976, of which he was exonerated.[10] 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 and author.[11] He was an early employee of Ashton-Tate and specialized in (sequentially) dBASE, Clipper, FoxBASE and finally, FoxPro. Rettig moved to Marina del Rey, California in the late 1980s.[12]

Later years and death[edit]

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.[13] He was cremated at the Inglewood Park mortuary and his ashes were scattered at sea, three miles off Marina del Rey, California, with the ashes of his friend Rusty Hamer in a combined ceremony.[14]


Rettig with Robert Mitchum in River of No Return (1954)
Year Title Role Notes
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
Elopement Daniel Reagan
Weekend With Father David Bowen
1952 Gobs and Gals Bertram
Paula David Larsen
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


  1. ^ "Tommy Rettig, Played Jeff in Original Cast of Television's 'Lassie'", Rocky Mountain News, February 18, 1996. Accessed December 10, 2007.
  2. ^ 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 September 26, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Actor Tommy Rettig dies at 54". The Washington Post. February 17, 1996. Retrieved August 30, 2019.
  4. ^ "The Man from Blackhawk". Classic Television Archive. Retrieved January 30, 2013.
  5. ^ "Weight of Command on Wagon Train (season 4, episode 18)". TV Guide. Retrieved August 28, 2019.
  6. ^ "Never Too Young on ABC". TV Guide. Retrieved October 15, 2008.
  7. ^ Jimmy Velvet (2007). Inside the Dream. Velvet-Roese. Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Retrieved October 15, 2008.
  8. ^ Amnondoowop (May 7, 2012), TR 4 – Never Too Young 1968 45 -Velvet Tone 105( VERY RARE), archived from the original on December 13, 2021, retrieved March 22, 2019
  9. ^ "The Ringers". Archived from the original on August 11, 2011. Retrieved April 7, 2012.
  10. ^ Stark, John; Lustig, David (November 7, 1988). "Having Weathered Lassie, Drugs and Self-Discovery, Tom Rettig Finds a Warm Haven as a Computer Nerd". Meredith Corporation. People.com. Retrieved July 25, 2020.
  11. ^ "Results for 'au:Tom Rettig' [WorldCat.org]". www.worldcat.org.
  12. ^ Jeff Miller reminiscence, Dec. 27, 2005
  13. ^ Cuneff, Tom (March 4, 1996). "A Boy and His Dog". Meredith Corporation. People.com. Retrieved August 18, 2019.
  14. ^ Wilson, Scott (August 17, 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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