By Richard Verrier Los Angeles Times
LOS ANGELES — She’s an American icon with her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But it has been four decades since she had her own prime-time TV show, on which her courage, loyalty and knack for saving the day endeared her to millions of baby boomers.
Can Lassie really come home again?
A Hollywood studio is hoping so. DreamWorks Animation, creator of the “Shrek” and “Kung Fu Panda” movies, plans to put the charismatic collie back in the public eye, along with Mr. Peabody and Sherman, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and other decades-old characters.
Lassie, who will celebrate her 75th anniversary in December, is still the world’s most famous dog. Introduced in a 1938 Saturday Evening Post short story, and then popularized in a bestselling novel, the fictional dog became the star of the 1943 motion picture “Lassie Come Home,” opposite Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, after catching the eye of MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer. Six more films followed.
By 1954, she had her own TV series. The CBS show “Lassie,” in which the canny canine managed to save Timmy each week from a burning barn, falling tree or runaway automobile, ran for nearly 20 years before going global in syndication and reruns.
“She’s heroic, she’s loyal, she really is man’s best friend,” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, DreamWorks Animation’s chief executive. “She’s the single most recognized pet in the world.”
A survey conducted by the research firm Penn Schoen Berland this spring found that Lassie had an 83 percent brand awareness among those polled in the U.S.
But familiarity doesn’t necessarily translate into ticket sales. Witness the recent flop of the big-screen reboot of Walt Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” and early failed attempts to make new movies out of old TV brands such as “Sgt. Bilko,” “McHale’s Navy” and “Car 54, Where Are You?”
“They may be iconic to people of a certain age, but people of the age they will be targeting have no idea who Lassie is,” said analyst Doug Creutz of Cowen and Co.
“I’m just not sure how much these brands resonate anymore.”
Efforts to revive Lassie’s Hollywood career have had mixed results. A 1994 “Lassie” movie from Paramount Pictures made $10 million in U.S. theaters. An Anglo-Irish remake of the 1943 movie, released in 2005 and starring Peter O’Toole, was critically acclaimed but didn’t do much business at the domestic box office.
But Lassie has one advantage over other aging properties: The character is still “alive.” The 10th-generation descendant of the original Lassie — a male collie named Pal trained by the late Rudd Weatherwax — still lives in the L.A. area and makes occasional appearances at dog shows.