Remembering Tommy Rettig

Tommy Rettig and A Pair of Terwilliker RejectsYesterday, December 10th, would have been the 67th birthday of talented child actor Tommy Rettig, who might be best known to aging baby boomers as the television Lassie’s first boy owner.  Rettig was one of those screen moppets who didn’t manage to turn a successful acting career as a youngster into their life’s work, but he managed instead to leave a legacy both in entertainment and in the world of computer programming, as unlikely a pairing as that might sound.  Though many grew up loving him as Lassie‘s Jeff Miller, I have always been particularly fond of him as the piano lesson-challenged Bartholomew Collins in 1953′s colorful fantasy musical The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, written by Dr. Seuss.   Natural, not overly-cute, sincere and obviously intelligent, Tommy Rettig was a child actor who didn’t get on your nerves.   And that’s saying quite a bit.

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dgpfMxYFSmE]

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Tommy Rettig in "The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T"Born in 1941, Rettig  started his career in stage work, touring with Mary Martin in Annie Get Your Gun in the early 1950s, then made the transition to live TV work and roles in motion pictures such as Panic in the Streets, Two Weeks with Love, and Paula.  In 1953 he got the role in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, to be directed by Roy Rowland, who had helped turn humorist Robert Benchley into a star of comedy shorts at MGM, and then moved into directing features such as Lost Angel, Boys Ranch, Tenth Avenue Angel, and Excuse My DustDr. T is one of those underappreciated features that eventually gets its due, its fame spurred on by the collective happy memories of us boomers who might (or might not!) have seen this as a kid, and remembered its unique qualities.  Also heartily embraced by lovers of the weird and wonderful, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was certainly a cult film in-the-waiting.

Of course everybody loves Hans Conreid as Dr. Terwilliker, the flamboyant, frustrated and flirtacious mad genius music teacher who captures young boys and forces them to play his enormous piano.  There’s nothing I like more than watching his charming rendition of “Do-Me-Do Duds” aka “The Dressing Song”, seen here:

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"The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T" Movie PosterI also love the effortless everyman quality of Peter Lind Hayes as Mr. Zabladowski the Plumber who comes to the Collins’ house to fix the pipes.  Barthelomew also has a lovely widowed mother, played by Mary Healy, and there is an attraction between the two adults, of course.  Hayes and Healy were married in real life, a singing and dancing duo who were a sensation onstage and starred in several TV series together.  (Probably during the 1970s, at least the local L.A. PBS station ran Mr. and Mrs. Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healyepisodes of their variety show, which were adorable.)  I had also been aware of Peter Lind Hayes from his very appealing appearance in an episode of Outer Limits called “Behold Eck!” as an oculist who befriends a lost alien needing a special lens made in order to return to his world.   Hayes’ unflappable humorous presence in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is definitely low-key but tremendously effective, like a gentle but heroic nerd; he always reminds me of the equally cool and  more-hilarious-than-at-first-glance Ozzie Nelson in his TV series.  (Am I the only one who feels this way?  Hope not!)  Mary Healy doesn’t get the chance to be particularly funny in the movie, but she was an adept comedienne as well as musical performer.  Both Hayes and Healy did other movies and television apart from each other, but their collaboration, including their marriage in 1940, was pure gold.  They were married until Peter’s death in 1998, and Mary is retired and living in a Southern California desert community.

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Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Tommy Rettig in "River of No Return"Rettig’s performance in The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T was the first of his two major film appearances in 1953, the other one a co-starring role, with Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe, in the adventure River of No Return.  Rettig had a special friendship with Monroe, and “escorted” her to at least one Hollywood event, a cute gimmick that gathered some notice.  Shortly after this he picked up the role in the Lassie series, reportedly having been recommended for the role by Lassie’s trainer Rudd Weatherwax with whom Rettig had interacted in Dr. T — he had a dog in the movie.   Tommy lasted three seasons on the show, until Jon Provost, as Timmy, took over the boy role.  Rettig continued acting in guest roles, but the older teen didn’t get the caliber of parts he wanted, and eventually he left the business and more or less became a regular person, at one point moving to Northern California. Lassie and Tommy Rettig photographed by George Silk for Life Magazine in Nov-1953

Rettig embraced the drug culture, resulting in some scrapes with the law and general hard times.  For a fascinatingly honest account of those adventures, check out this interview from High Times magazine, which was archived on the terrific “Bill’s Tribute to The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” Website (which is only accessible now via the web archive site, but it’s there, at least!)  Even more amazing — or perhaps not, Rettig was clearly super-smart — was the last career he pursued, that of a computer software guru in the dBase programming world and for the FoxPro company.  He was an innovator and an accomplished and appreciated participant in a world which couldn’t have been further from his days as a child star.  

Unfortunately, Tommy Rettig’s life was cut short when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of fifty-four, in February of 1996.  His fans will always fondly remember his movie and television appearances, his computer co-workers will remember his contributions to their projects, and we are all fortunate to have been able to appreciate the many and varied gifts of Tommy Rettig.   Here we can watch his expressive little boy face listening to a litany of terror as he descends into Dr. T’s dungeon lair:

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16 Responses Remembering Tommy Rettig
Posted By Patricia : December 12, 2008 10:12 am

Ozzie and Peter cool? You betcha!

When my kids were of the “music for kids” age, Michael Feinstein released an album for kids which featured songs from “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” and freed me from the old folkies who foist themselves on the rugrats.

Posted By Patricia : December 12, 2008 10:12 am

Ozzie and Peter cool? You betcha!

When my kids were of the “music for kids” age, Michael Feinstein released an album for kids which featured songs from “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T” and freed me from the old folkies who foist themselves on the rugrats.

Posted By Medusa : December 12, 2008 12:18 pm

Hi Patricia!

Yes, I’ve heard Feinstein’s version of “The Dressing Song” and it’s delightful! Perfect for any age!

Glad you agree about Peter and Ozzie! :-)

Posted By Medusa : December 12, 2008 12:18 pm

Hi Patricia!

Yes, I’ve heard Feinstein’s version of “The Dressing Song” and it’s delightful! Perfect for any age!

Glad you agree about Peter and Ozzie! :-)

Posted By moirafinnie : December 12, 2008 2:02 pm

Gee, Medusa,
As a kid I was definitely not a fan of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, (too scary for this mouse) or, for that matter, much of what was written by Dr. Seuss, (call me un-American, but I didn’t want the Cat in the Hat visiting my house, rain or shine). Still, I always liked Tommy Rettig, especially as one of the more mature members of the expeditionary party in River of No Return and The Jackpot, as the kid who gets his head stuck in the bannister.

Thanks for reminding me of this guy. Last I’d heard, he had fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs. I’m glad to read that he did find a way to turn his sadly abbreviated life around before leaving this mortal coil.
Your faithful reader,
moira

Posted By moirafinnie : December 12, 2008 2:02 pm

Gee, Medusa,
As a kid I was definitely not a fan of The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, (too scary for this mouse) or, for that matter, much of what was written by Dr. Seuss, (call me un-American, but I didn’t want the Cat in the Hat visiting my house, rain or shine). Still, I always liked Tommy Rettig, especially as one of the more mature members of the expeditionary party in River of No Return and The Jackpot, as the kid who gets his head stuck in the bannister.

Thanks for reminding me of this guy. Last I’d heard, he had fallen down the rabbit hole of drugs. I’m glad to read that he did find a way to turn his sadly abbreviated life around before leaving this mortal coil.
Your faithful reader,
moira

Posted By Rick : December 12, 2008 5:03 pm

Back in 1953 I was a music student. My music instructor, who was also the band conductor, told us about the movie and said we should see it. I remember the movie, and it did have an impact on me, especially the boy in the base drum. I believe a lot of grade school music students saw this movie.

Posted By Rick : December 12, 2008 5:03 pm

Back in 1953 I was a music student. My music instructor, who was also the band conductor, told us about the movie and said we should see it. I remember the movie, and it did have an impact on me, especially the boy in the base drum. I believe a lot of grade school music students saw this movie.

Posted By Phyllis : December 17, 2008 11:53 am

I only remember him from Lassie. As a kid I was terribly disappointed when the at least SOMEWHAT normal looking “Tommy” was replaced by the horribly-quintessentially Disney-fied-fake-cutesy “Timmy.”

Posted By Phyllis : December 17, 2008 11:53 am

I only remember him from Lassie. As a kid I was terribly disappointed when the at least SOMEWHAT normal looking “Tommy” was replaced by the horribly-quintessentially Disney-fied-fake-cutesy “Timmy.”

Posted By jbl : December 19, 2008 11:34 pm

I have fond memories of this movie, or I should say parts of it; I believe it was the first movie I was ever taken to see in the theater (not that there was any other way to see it back then!). it was only many years later, probably measurable in decades, that I was able to see it again on television and link together the colorful scenes in my memory into a single coherent whole.

I’m also old enough to think that Jeff was the real owner of Lassie (assisted by Jan Clayton and “Gramps”, if I’m not mistaken); Timmy was a mere replacement as far as I was concerned.

Posted By jbl : December 19, 2008 11:34 pm

I have fond memories of this movie, or I should say parts of it; I believe it was the first movie I was ever taken to see in the theater (not that there was any other way to see it back then!). it was only many years later, probably measurable in decades, that I was able to see it again on television and link together the colorful scenes in my memory into a single coherent whole.

I’m also old enough to think that Jeff was the real owner of Lassie (assisted by Jan Clayton and “Gramps”, if I’m not mistaken); Timmy was a mere replacement as far as I was concerned.

Posted By Kevin : December 28, 2008 8:24 am

Not only was this film entertaining because o Mr.Geisel’s

“Dr.Seuses’”script and the songs..?

It was also wonderful because of the fine perfomances by the

cast members.

Who made the story work so well.

I first watched this movie at a summer camp in upstate New

York in the summer of 1963(A summer camp that I would prefer

to forget).

I’m glad that TCM is screens this film..complete and

uncut and commercial free for their loyal viewers.

I can only hope and pray that they never go commerical

and they show this film and other movies edited and with those

damn sponsor plugs as American Movie Classics do right now.

P.S.Mrs.Mary Healy Hayes has just published the memiors

that she wrote with her late husband Mr.Peter Lind Hayes.

The book(I’m sorry but I forgot the title)is know available at

Amazon.com.

Posted By Kevin : December 28, 2008 8:24 am

Not only was this film entertaining because o Mr.Geisel’s

“Dr.Seuses’”script and the songs..?

It was also wonderful because of the fine perfomances by the

cast members.

Who made the story work so well.

I first watched this movie at a summer camp in upstate New

York in the summer of 1963(A summer camp that I would prefer

to forget).

I’m glad that TCM is screens this film..complete and

uncut and commercial free for their loyal viewers.

I can only hope and pray that they never go commerical

and they show this film and other movies edited and with those

damn sponsor plugs as American Movie Classics do right now.

P.S.Mrs.Mary Healy Hayes has just published the memiors

that she wrote with her late husband Mr.Peter Lind Hayes.

The book(I’m sorry but I forgot the title)is know available at

Amazon.com.

Posted By Monday inspirations for the week ~ Thanks to Theodor and Elizabeth « Lady of the Lake : March 2, 2009 10:52 am
Posted By Monday inspirations for the week ~ Thanks to Theodor and Elizabeth « Lady of the Lake : March 2, 2009 10:52 am

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