Metro-East Living

Some who left popular TV shows barked up wrong tree

Tommy Rettig in a cover shot for the TV series “Lassie.”
Tommy Rettig in a cover shot for the TV series “Lassie.”

Q: A lot of actors have left successful TV shows at the height of their popularity, some to pursue a career in movies so they won’t be typecast, I guess. Two come to mind who left and never had much success in movies: Don Knotts from “The Andy Griffith Show” and Shelley Long from “Cheers.” Can you think of others — successful and not successful?

C.P., of Edwardsville

A: If you’re looking for acting careers that went to the dogs (in more ways than one), you need look no further than Tommy Rettig and Jon Provost, the two child stars of the long-running TV series “Lassie.”

Even before he hit his teens, Rettig looked like a Hollywood force to be reckoned with as he appeared in more than a dozen movies, including “So Big” (1953) with Jane Wyman and “River of No Return” with Maryilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum. In fact, it was his performance with a dog in “The 5,000 Fingers of Mr. T” (co-written by Dr. Seuss) that prompted animal trainer Rudd Weatherwax to urge him to audition for “Lassie.”

Easily winning the role of Jeff Miller, Rettig began his adventures with the beloved collie when the show debuted in the fall of 1954. But after just three seasons, Rettig, who was about to turn 16, longed for the life of a normal teenager, so during the 1957-58 season Jeff and his family were written out of the series.

“When I found out it was my last season on ‘Lassie,’ I was ecstatic,” he later told interviewers. “I had gotten to the point where I really resented not being able to go out except on Saturday nights. Of course, when I did date girls, their parents always trusted me because of my goody-goody TV image. The fools!”

After graduating from University High in Los Angeles in 1958 and marrying 15-year-old Darlene Portwood, Rettig tried to return to acting with little success. For a while, he went on a downward spiral, convicted of growing marijuana before successfully battling a cocaine possession charge. In the meantime, his days on “Lassie” were being re-shown in syndication as “Jeff’s Collie” — for which he reportedly received no residuals. Finally in 1980, he found his niche as a computer programmer. He died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 54 — five years after he had made a guest appearance with Provost on “The New Lassie.”

In 1957 Provost, who by that time also was a silver-screen veteran, became Lassie’s new young master, Timmy Martin. For seven years, audiences fell in love with the tow-headed youngster and the three “Lassies” he would frequently hug — Lassie Jr. (son of the original Pal from the MGM movies) along with Baby and Spook, Pal’s grandsons. But when Provost turned 14, he, too, chose not to renew his contract even though Campbell’s Soup — the show’s sole sponsor — wanted three more years.

“I left ‘Lassie’ when I wanted to,” he said later. “I didn’t want to be Timmy until I was 17 or 18, and that’s what they wanted.”

Although

Lassie may have rescued Timmy from the well, she couldn’t do much for Provost’s future film career. After roles in “This Property is Condemned” and “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes,” Provost went to college and disappeared from Hollywood for nearly 20 years. Finally he reportedly overcame near-crippling depression to eventually start directing and hosting online videos about dogs and cats for Purina as well as starring in “The New Lassie” with Dee Wallace for three years. Now a 65-year-old father of two, he wrote about his early career at length in his 2007 autobiography “Timmy’s in the Well.”

So as you can see, leaving a TV series at its zenith has been a phenomenon that has rankled viewers from the earliest days of the medium. Here are 10 of the potentially most traumatic:

William Petersen: For me, the most devastating blow to any series in my long TV-watching history was Gil Grissom’s exit after heading the “CSI” crime lab in Las Vegas for nine years. Were there ever any more sensual, captivating plots than when Gil matched wits with Lady Heather while the sparks continued to fly between him and Sara? Yes, the show continued to do well in the ratings, but Lawrence Fishburne was dreadful, Ted Danson wasn’t much better and the team’s cohesiveness disappeared when Petersen returned to live theater.

George Clooney: You could hear hearts breaking around the country when Dr. Doug Ross, the handsome hunk at County General Hospital on “ER,” left after five seasons to pursue fame on the big screen. But it proved to be the right move as Clooney gave movie fans such award-winning pictures as “Argo,” “Syriana,” “The Descendants” and one of my all-time favorites, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Of course, we can’t forget “ER” ran so long that the show also saw the exits of a string of other well-known actors, including Anthony Edwards, Noah Wyle and Julianna Margulies, who now tops TV ratings as “The Good Wife.”

“Saturday Night Live”: After 40 years, the show is still going strong, but my heart still has a soft spot for the original troupe of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner.

“Law & Order”: Another king of TV cast turnover is Dick Wolf’s classic procedural crime drama, from which Chris Noth went on to portray Mr. Big in “Sex and the City,” Michael Moriarty won an Emmy for his work on “James Dean” and Jerry Orbach returned to the Broadway stage. And let’s not forget Christopher Meloni saying goodbye to Mariska Hargitay after 12 years on “SVU.”

David Caruso: Despite critical raves and a Golden Globe, Caruso left “NYPD Blue” early in the show’s second season over a salary dispute and the itch to become a movie star. Those plans quickly flopped, so he returned to the small screen in “CSI: Miami.”

Katherine Heigl: After months of rumors, Heigl turned in her doctor’s license on “Grey’s Anatomy” to build on her movie career, which already included “Knocked Up” and “The Ugly Truth.”

Farrah Fawcett: With her famous feathered hairstyle and pinup-poster physique, Fawcett was instrumental in quickly propelling “Charlie’s Angels” to No. 3 in the ratings. But she left after just one season and went on to give several award-nominated performances, including “Extremities,” “The Burning Bed” and “Small Sacrifices.” In the same vein, a colleague reminded me that Suzanne Somers left “Three’s Company” after five years.

“M*A*S*H”: Despite the loss of Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson), Trapper John (Wayne Rogers) and Frank Burns (Larry Linville), the laughs kept coming at Mobile Army Surgical Hospital #4077 — including the highest rating ever for a series finale in 2010.

“All in the Family”: This groundbreaking series lost much of its heart when Rob Reiner and Sally Struthers left in 1978. The show itself died a year later, and its sequel — “Archie Bunker’s Place” — never held the same appeal to me.

Dan Stevens: Even PBS isn’t immune from actors walking away from long-running series. Stevens wanted to leave the hit “Downton Abbey” in 2012 so producers obliged him by killing off Matthew Crawley in the Christmas special during the third season. Since then, I don’t know if you’ve noticed him in such films as “The Fifth Estate” and “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”

Today’s trivia

Before June Lockhart took over the role, who played Timmy Martin’s adoptive mother for one season on “Lassie”?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: On Aug. 9, 2012, Shannon Eastin became the first woman to officiate a National Football League game when, because of an ongoing officials’ strike, she was hired to be the line judge in a preseason game between San Diego and Green Bay. A month later, she worked the Detroit Lions’ season home opener — against the St. Louis Rams.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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