When fact is stranger than fiction: Dive into the 1953 poker game that won John Wayne the most famous dog in the world, Lassie.
How’s this for an anecdote? It feels too surreal to be fact, but as history buffs know – fact can be far stranger than fiction.
Such is the case with an incredibly high-stakes poker game involving none other than John Wayne and Rudd Weatherwax. While The Duke needs no introduction, Weatherwax was a prolific Hollywood dog trainer. It was his male collie, Pal, who would become the original Lassie in 1943’s ‘Lassie Come Home.’
To make a long story a tad shorter, these two Hollywood titans of the time wound up working on the same film. Weatherwax’s fellow animal trainer, Frank Inn, would work that picture, too. For it, Inn trained one of Weatherwax’s collies which would serve as a companion for John Wayne’s dastardly lead. And Inn recalls the unbelievable poker game in full detail:
“Hondo’ was the name of the picture,” Inn begins, citing the famous Warner Bros. Western that fans of The Duke will instantly know. “During that time, Rudd got in a poker game with John Wayne and it went [all the way]. Rudd had a beautiful hand, and he just knew he was going to win. But they had table stakes, and [Rudd] didn’t have the money in his pocket.”
As it turned out, Rudd Weatherwax was a gambling man. Despite not having the funds to match Wayne’s bet, he had full faith in his hand – and wanted a strong wager.
“So John Wayne says, ‘Well look, you know you’re gonna win… Put your dog up,” Inn recalls of the deal. And that’s exactly what Rudd did.
“So they wrote out a deal there about Lassie and all the dogs in his kennel. And this was a terrific bet – $5-6,000 dollars,” Inn continues.
John Wayne, Lassie, and a Remarkable Bluff
By today’s terms, it seems ludicrous to offer up an asset like Lassie and kin against a mere $6,000. But inflation has run rampant in the decades since 1953. Adjusted for said inflation, this is a bet worth an estimated $59,000+. It is a bet Weatherwax would soon wish he’d never made.
“And sure enough, John Wayne won,” Inn says with a smile. “And he never said anything about it.”
But the papers were signed on the poker table. And Lassie, along with Weatherwax’s famous training kennel, now belonged to John Wayne.
“In the meantime, Lassie died and they did the last picture with a stand-in double. So MGM had decided they’d had about all they could do with Lassie,” Frank Inn continues. “And they owed [John Wayne] a certain amount of money for that year. So instead of giving him money, they gave him the name – but he couldn’t use it for three years!”
Still in disbelief? So are we. Relive the rest of this remarkable Hollywood legend below, courtesy of the Archive of American Television‘s fantastic interview with Frank Inn: