Tommy, or Thomas Noel Rettig, was an American child star, best remembered for his role as the honest and upright farm boy ‘Jeff Miller’ in the series ‘Lassie.’ He was also a well-known computer software engineer and an author. Born in New York, he entered the acting profession at 6, with a role in the play ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ After touring with the drama company, he moved to California with his family and worked in a number of movies, including ‘Weekend with Father,’ ‘So Big,’ ‘River of No Return,’ and ‘The 5,000 fingers of Dr. T.’ After his memorable role in ‘Lassie,’ he worked in a few series but did not achieve much success in his adult career. Rettig tried several occupations, but his failure led to drug habits and legal issues for the use of recreational drugs. Later, he turned vegetarian and also became a motivational speaker. This got him interested in personal computers. Soon, he became a renowned database programmer and an expert in programming languages. He had two sons from his wife, Darlene. They divorced later. Rettig died of a heart attack at 54.
Childhood & Early Life
Rettig was born on December 10, 1941, in Jackson Heights, Queens County, New York. He was the only child of Elias Rettig, a Jewish aircraft parts inspector, and his Christian Italian–American wife, Rosemary Nibali.
When Rettig was 5, an acting coach from their apartment building spotted him. Soon, he got the role of ‘Annie Oakley’s little brother, ‘Jake,’ in the play ‘Annie Get Your Gun.’ The play starred Mary Martin in the title role. Rettig toured with the drama company for 2 years. Following this, he worked on a New York radio show. In 1949, he and his family moved to California.
Rettig made his film debut in 1950, when Elia Kazan cast him as the lead pair’s son in the movie ‘Panic in the Streets.’ Soon, Rettig was signed by ‘20th Century Fox.’ He appeared with Natalie Wood, another child star, in the movie ‘The Jackpot’ (1950). Later, he was loaned to ‘Universal Studios,’ where he played Patricia Neale’s son in ‘Weekend with Father’ (1951). He also worked with ‘Warner Brothers,’ appearing as Jane Wyman’s son in the film ‘So Big’ (1953).
Rettig’s best-remembered movie role was that of Robert Mitchum’s son in the film ‘River of No Return’ (1954), in which he appeared alongside Marilyn Monroe. He co-starred with Richard Widmark in ‘The Last Wagon.’ Rettig’s other important role was that of an imaginative boy made to stay at home and practice piano, in the movie ‘The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T.’ The movie required him to perform with a dog, and this led to an audition for the TV series ‘Lassie.’
Reportedly, the producers of ‘Lassie’ had chosen three boys from the auditions for the role of Lassie’s master, ‘Jeff Miller.’ They allowed Lassie to choose the actor, and the dog walked over to Rettig. He thus got the role. The 12-year-old child actor formed a special bond with his canine co-star and said, “With Lassie, I’d gladly work for free.” The series ‘Lassie’ was launched on September 12, 1954, on ‘CBS.’ He continued with the series for three (Some references say four) seasons. The series showed him handing over his pet to a new family. The show was aired in syndicated re-runs as ‘Jeff’s Collie.’ During this series, he had to shoot 39 shows a season and 6 days a week. Thus, he was relieved to get out of the contract, as according to him, he wished to lead the life of a normal teenager.
In 1958, Rettig made a guest appearance in the Western series ‘Sugarfoot’ and also sang the famous American cowboy ballad ‘The Streets of Laredo.’ He attended the ‘University High School’ in California, from where he graduated in 1959. Later, he appeared in a few episodes of other series, such as ‘The Man from Blackhawk’ (1960) and ‘Death Valley Days’ (1962).
Rettig played the role of ‘Jo Jo’ in the ‘ABC’ teen soap opera ‘Never Too Yong’ (1965–1966). He recorded a song titled ‘Never Too Young’ with the group ‘The TR-4’ and also worked as their co-manager and co-writer.
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As an adult, Rettig could not achieve the same success as he had in his child-star days. At times, his lack of success as an adult star was attributed to his short height of 5’4’’. He already had a wife and two sons to support. When film or TV roles were difficult to come by, he tried working several other jobs. He had thus worked as a photographer, a tools salesman, and a health club manager.
With multiple failures in his life, Rettig turned toward drugs. He and his family moved to a farm near Arroyo Grande in rural California. He and his wife started farming, and he also cultivated marijuana. Rettig got into trouble with the law for growing marijuana and also for possessing cocaine. In 1972, he was given a 2-year probation, and in 1975, he was given a 5-year sentence for cocaine possession. However, the latter charge was dropped after an appeal.
After his conviction was overturned in 1979, Rettig turned to vegetarianism and conducted workshops as a motivational speaker. While making mailing lists for these workshops, he got addicted to computers. In the early 1980s, he started writing programs for personal computers.
In 1983, Rettig was one of the initial programmers of ‘Ashton-Tate,’ and by 1985, he had launched his own software consulting firm, ‘Tom Rettig Associates.’ He was considered an expert in the software business and had published ‘Tom Rettig's Library’ and ‘Tom Rettig's Help.’
In 1991, Rettig made a guest appearance in the series ‘The New Lassie,’ with former co-star Jon Provost. He played the role of a grown-up ‘Jeff Miller.’
Family & Personal Life
After his high-school graduation, Rettig met aspiring singer Darlene Portwood. They got married in 1959. The couple had two sons, Tom and Deane. After his problems with the law, the two separated in 1977.
During his later years, he was in a relationship with Ellen Sander, a freelance writer and computer consultant.
On February 15, 1996, Rettig died of a heart attack at his Marina Del Rey home. He was 54. His ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean, near his place in Marina Del Ray.