Best known as Jeff Miller, the star of the TV series “Lassie,” Queens native Tommy Rettig was a child actor who appeared in numerous films and television shows in the 1950s and ’60s. He performed alongside Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum and Ronald Reagan.
Rettig struggled finding more mature roles in the 1960s, and he fell into legal troubles associated with drug use. The former star became a successful computer programmer and IT consultant in the ’80s before his death in 1996. He left behind three sons: Tom, Deane and Mason Storm, singer in the funk/rap band “The Jigawatts.”
Thomas Noel Rettig was born Dec. 10, 1941, and grew up in Jackson Heights. His father, Elias, was an aircraft parts inspector for Lockheed and his mother, Rosemary, a housewife. He began his acting career at 5 when he was discovered by an acting coach who lived in the same apartment building. Before beating out nearly 500 other boys for the leading role in “Lassie” in 1954, Rettig already had a lengthy acting résumé.
After touring with Rogers and Hammerstein in “Annie Get Your Gun,” Rettig also appeared in the films “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T,” a fantasy film written by Dr. Seuss, and “The Western River of No Return,” where he acted alongside Monroe and Mitchum.
Rettig endured stiff competition in the casting of wholesome Midwestern farm boy Jeff Miller in “Lassie.” Appearing in the leading role for the first four seasons of the program, the child actor bonded so closely off screen with his canine co-star that the dog began to disobey his trainer so the two could then only interact on screen.
He soon discovered, however, that dreams of stardom were replaced by grueling, long hours on the set and a rapidly disappearing childhood. The star complained bitterly of his treatment in the industry, and it is reported that he did not receive any residual payments for his performance in the series. After four seasons as everyone’s boy next door, the boy from Queens wanted to come home and was released from his contract.
Acting work, however, soon began to dry up as Rettig struggled to transition from “Lassie” to the increasingly in demand “Rebel without a Cause” roles for young men in the late 1950s. He landed occasional acting work, including an appearance in the Western series “The Man from Blackhawk” and the soap opera “Never Too Young” in 1964. Finding it difficult to support his wife and two young sons, he left Hollywood for a farm in rural California. Here his litany of scrapes with the law began, chalking up arrests for growing marijuana and cocaine possession.
Only after hitting rock bottom did the former child celebrity begin to turn his life around. Going on the road as a motivational speaker, Rettig built a new career based upon newly discovered computer skills he developed building databases for his mailing lists.
Starting in the early 1980s, the star of “Lassie” shone once again as a computer programmer and author. He was one of the earliest employees of software company Ashton-Tate, and later founded software consulting firm Tom Rettig Associates.
In 1991, Rettig revisited his roots with a guest appearance in the series “The New Lassie” along with former co-star Jon Provost. Rettig’s new beginning was sadly cut short when he died of a heart attack in 1996 at age 54.
His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean near his home in Marina Del Rey, with Lassie, a descendant of his TV sidekick, there to say goodbye.
In his later years, looking back on the elusive, fleeting nature of his childhood dreams, Rettig confided, “I wanted to be a real kid and see what the real world was like. I wanted to be one of those people I portrayed.”
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©2013 Community News Group
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