Posted by medusamorlock on December 11, 2008
Yesterday, 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.
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 Dust. Dr. 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:
I 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 episodes 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.
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.
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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