Lassie and Timmy (Special photo)
OK, OK, I admit it. This column is going to the dogs – the TV dogs.
While most of the memorable television characters have been male and female actors, dogs have had important roles for the past six decades.
The first TV weekly series believed to have a dog in a prominent role was “Topper,” which aired from 1953 to 1955 and starred Leo G. Carroll as stuffy Los Angeles bank executive Cosmo Topper. Topper and his wife, Henrietta (Lee Patrick), reside in a house that formerly had been inhabited by George and Marion Kirby, played by real-life couple Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffreys. The Kirbys were killed in an avalanche while skiing and returned to antagonize Topper. They were accompanied by Neil, a martini-guzzling St. Bernard who unsuccessfully tried to save them. Topper is the only one who can see the trio, who manage to cause him some embarrassing moments.
Neil opened the door for many other dogs to follow in his pawprints.
Two of the more well-known shows with dogs debuted in 1954.
“Lassie” aired from 1954 to 1973 and followed the adventures of female collie. This was the fourth-longest TV series after “The Simpsons,” “Gunsmoke” and “Law & Order.” In its first 10 seasons, the show followed Lassie’s adventures in a small farming community with her original two-legged family, Jan Clayton who played farm widow Ellen Miller, George Cleveland who played her father-in-law George “Gramps” Miller and Tommy Rettig as her 11-year-old son, Jeff Miller.
Before its 11th season in 1964-65, “Lassie” was totally revamped with the Miller family moving to Australia. Because Lassie could not go, she began working with U.S. Forest Service workers. With the boy/dog theme eliminated, the show’s ratings began to tumble.
One month after “Lassie” made its debut, “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” aired.
The show starred Lee Aaker as Rusty, a boy orphaned in an Indian raid who, with his German shepherd, Rin Tin Tin, were being raised by the soldiers at Fort Apache in the Arizona territory. James Brown co-starred in the series at Lt. Ripley “Rip” Masters, who was the fort’s commanding officer.
The following year, two other dog shows, “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon” and “The People’s Choice” made their debuts.
Richard Simmons (not the physical fitness guru) starred in the show about a fictitious Canadian Mountie who tried to maintain order in the Northwest territories during the 1890s with the help of his dog, Yukon King, an Alaskan Malamute, and his horse, Rex. The show ran from 1955 to 1958. Each of the show’s episodes ended with the Preston’s official pronouncement, “Well, King, this case is closed.”
Jackie Cooper starred as Socrates “Sock” Miller in “The People’s Choice,” about an ex-Marine who was a city councilman in a fictitious California town. He usually is accompanied by Cleo, his feisty basset hound who observes and then sarcastically comments on his dilemmas. The show, which ran from 1955 to 1958, was the first of several to use a basset hound. Cleo’s presence on the show helped increase the breed’s popularity.
Here’s a list of 10 of the more than 90 national, non-cartoon network shows in chronological order that had dogs in key roles.
Set in the fictitious California town of Bryant Park, “My Three Sons” centered around widower Steve Douglas, played by Fred McMurray, and his problems raising his three sons, Mike (Tim Considine), Robbie (Don Grady) and Chip (Stanley Livingston). McMurray was assisted in the show’s early years by William Frawley of “I Love Lucy” fame who played the boys’ maternal grandfather, Bub. Tramp, a Briard, played the dog in the show which ran from 1960 to 1972. The only actors to perform throughout the series were McMurray and Livingston.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” was about a backwoods family, believed to be from Tennessee, who discovered oil on their property and was transplanted to Beverly Hills. Buddy Ebsen played the family patriarch Jeb Clampett. Irene Ryan played his ornery mother-in-law “Granny” Moses. Vivacious Donna Douglas portrayed Clempett’s tom-boy daughter Elly Mae. Max Baer Jr. played Jed’s not-so-bright cousin Jethro Bodine. The quartet played in virtually all of the show’s 272 episodes. The dog in the show, which aired from 1962 to 1971, was Duke, a laid-back blood hound who enjoyed napping on the front porch of the Clampetts’ mansion.
Peter Faulk starred at Lt. Columbo, an unkempt Los Angeles homicide detective, in “Columbo,” a series that ran from 1968 to 1978 and from 1989 to 2003. It originally was part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery Movie rotation with “McCloud” and “McMillan & Wife.” It later included “Hec Ramsey” and “Quincy, M.E.” The “Columbo” series employed the inverted detective mode where the viewers saw the crime and the killer and then watched as Columbo solved the crime. Columbo was usually accompanied by his basset hound, Dog, who regularly remained in his car.
Other shows using the basset hound as the primary canine were Green Acres (1965-71) and Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85).
“The Brady Bunch,” which aired from 1969 to 1974, was the first series with a blended family and centered on the problems surrounding the six youngsters. The series opened with Mike Brady (Robert Reed) marrying Carol Martin (Florence Henderson). Brady had three sons, Greg (Barry Williams), Peter (Christopher Knight) and Bobby (Mike Lookinland) and she had three daughters, Marcia (Maureen McCormick), Jan (Eve Plumb) and Cindy (Susan Olsen). Brady’s housekeeper, Alice (Ann B. Davis), played occasional referee and confidant for the children.
Tiger, the family dog, appeared in most of the early episodes. The original dog was run over by an automobile and died from his injuries. A replacement look-alike was found and he remained until midway through the second season, when he was eliminated from the series.
One of the best family shows was “The Waltons,” which focused on three generations of a family living in the Virginia mountains trying to survive during the depression. The show ran from 1971 to 1981.
The show centered on John Walton Jr., known as John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the oldest of seven children of John Walton (Ralph Waite) and Olivia Walton ( Michael Learned). The other children were Jason (Jon Walmsley), Mary Ellen (Judy Norton Taylor), Erin (Mary Elizabeth McDonough), Ben (Eric Scott), Jim-Bob (David W. Harper) and Elizabeth (Kami Cotler). Grandpa Walton (Will Geer) and Grandma Walton (Ellen Corby) lived with the family. The family dog was Reckless, a brown hound dog who only appeared during the first two seasons.
“Hart to Hart” starred Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers as Jonathan and Jennifer Hart, a wealthy married couple who lived on a California estate and attempted to solve crimes as a hobby. The amateur sleuths were assisted by Max (Lionel Stander), their butler, cook and chauffer. They named their dog, Freeway, because the Harts rescued the Lowchen running loose on a California freeway. The show ran from 1979 to 1984.
Tom Selleck became a major star playing the lead in “Magnum, P.I.,” which aired from 1980 to 1988. Selleck played Thomas Magnum, a private investigator living on Oahu, Hawaii, on a 200-acre estate of author Robin Masters. Jonathan Higgins III (John Hillerman) was in charge of the estate and usually conflicted with Magnum. Higgins was aided by Apollo and Zeus, a pair of Doberman Pinschers, who helped him protect the massive estate.
“Married … with Children,” which aired from 1987 to 1997, focused on the dysfunctional Bundy family who lived in a Chicago suburb. Al (Ed O’Neil), the family patriarch, endured an unrewarding career selling women’s shoes in a local mall, and endured a family that mocked him. Al’s wife, Peggy (Katey Sagal), had an aversion to cooking and cleaning. Their daughter, Kelly (Christina Applegate), was a stereotypical dumb blond. Their son, Bud (David Faustino), was the first Bundy to attend college and his older sister made fun of him because of his lack of success with women. Buck, a Briard mix, was the wise-cracking family dog who insulted the Bundys. Buck “died” during the 1995 season and was replaced by Lucky, a Cavalier Spring Charles Spaniel.
A spinoff from the “Golden Girls” series, “Empty Nest” centered on Harry Weston (Richard Mulligan), a pediatrician and his two grown, self-sufficient daughters still living at home. Carol (Dinah Manoff) was the oldest daughter and a divorcee and Barbara (Kristy McNichol) was the middle daughter and an undercover police officer. Dreyfuss, a mix of a St. Bernard and Golden Retriever, was the family dog and Dr. Weston’s confidant. The show, situated in Miami, ran from 1988 to 1995.
“Frasier” was a spinoff from the “Cheers” series. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammar) moved from Boston to his hometown of Seattle to open a psychiatric practice. His idyllic bachelor life was dramatically altered when his father, Martin Crane (John Mahoney), a retired Seattle police detective came to live with him. The series, which ran from 1993 to 2004, also featured Niles Crane (David Hyde Pearce), Frasier’s younger brother and also a psychiatrist, and Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves), a therapist hired by Frasier to assist with his father. Frasier tolerated his father’s pet dog, Eddie, a Jack Russell Terrier who was involved throughout the series.
Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.