The Littlest Hobo was a Canadian television series from the 1970s and 1980s about a stray dog who roamed the Great White North, stopping only to save the days of strangers before vanishing just as mysteriously as he appeared. It ran for six seasons, and was actually the third version of the story, following a 1958 American movie and an early-1960s Canadian television series of the same name. That name, again, being The Littlest Hobo. And this gets even better. I’ll let Wikipedia elaborate.
All three productions revolved around a stray German Shepherd, the titular Hobo, who wanders from town to town, helping people in need. Although the concept (of a dog saving the day) was perhaps similar to that of Lassie, the Littlest Hobo’s destiny was to befriend those who apparently needed help. Despite the attempts of the many people whom he helped to adopt him, he appeared to prefer to be on his own, and would head off by himself at the end of each episode.
Never actually named on-screen, the dog is often referred to by the name Hobo or by the names given by temporary human companions. Hobo’s background is also unexplained on-screen. His origins, motivation and ultimate destination are also never explained.
I didn’t know any of this until a little while ago, which means two things: First of all, everyone in Canada is dead to me for not bringing this to my attention years — nay, DECADES — ago. And second, I dropped everything upon finding out to watch the pilot episode, titled “Smoke,” on YouTube. (Part 1 and Part 2 here.) It was amazing. You won’t even believe the ending. Top 5 greatest thing I’ve ever seen on a TV show.
But we’ll get to that. You probably have some questions. Please, fire away.
What is the plot of the first episode?
Nope. Wrong first question. Ask me about the opening credits.
Uh … okay. What’s up with the opening credits?
The opening credits are perfect. Here’s a version from a later episode. In the span of about a minute, they feature the following things, all set to a jaunty, horn-filled song about wandering: Hobo swimming in a lake; Hobo running through a field; Hobo jogging down the side of the road (like a hobo!); a random, unexplained shot of multicolored hot air balloon flying through the sky; and Hobo running through a different field, this time while he’s holding a rifle in his mouth.
Wait. He’s running through a field with a rifle in his mouth?
He sure is!
And they put it in the credits?
They sure did!
Okay. You have my full attention.
Great, because I am going to need all of it to explain the plot. Here we go: After a forest fire near a small Canadian town, all the wild animals flee the woods and start roaming around people’s yards and chicken coops looking for food and shelter. The locals get restless (and scared, and angry), and rally behind the owner of a local feed and grain store named Rooker, who starts selling them painful metal traps and rat poison that they can scatter around their lawns.
We meet Hobo during said forest fire, when he pulls two baby bobcats out of the blaze and carries them in his mouth to a friendly park ranger. They immediately become best friends, and the ranger decides to call him “Smoke,” partially because he appeared from the smoky forest, and presumably, partially because Smoke is a cool as hell name for a dog.
It really is. But back up for a second. Tell me more about this Rooker character.
Sure. He’s evil. You can tell he’s evil because he has a mustache. The ranger shows up to give him the business about using traps and poison to kill wild animals, and while he’s there a trap outside snares a large cat of prey. Rooker runs outside with his gun to put the animal down, and he and the ranger get in a hilarious fist fight. This is where that shot of Hobo with the gun in his mouth comes from. Because when Rooker loses the gun in the fight, Hobo picks it up and brings it to the ranger. Then they bring the wounded animal to the vet.
Got it. So about this bonkers ending…
We’re getting there. First, you need to know that Rooker is undeterred by the fist fight with the ranger. And that he has a bowl of rat-poison-laced raw meat sitting outside his store.
And that a man and his young son show up to get traps, and on the way out Rooker says “Those coyotes are pretty smart. Traps might not do the job. Just to be sure, why don’t you come back in and let me sell you some rat poison?,” which is just a masterful bit of salesmanship. Coyotes are smart, better buy some rat poison. In another life, Rooker could have run an excellent Ponzi scheme.
So Rooker and the customer go back inside, and the customer leaves his kid outside on the porch…
Hold on. He left his kid outside? Alone?
Isn’t this whole episode about how a bunch of dangerous wild animals are on the loose in the area? And didn’t Rooker like, just catch a bobcat 30 feet from the front of the store?
And didn’t you say there’s a big pile of poisoned meat sitting out there?
That kid’s not going to … I mean, he wouldn’t eat raw meat that had been sitting outside for God knows how long, right?
HE WOULD. AND HE DID. ONE POISONED CHILD, COMING RIGHT UP!
Now we’re getting to the good part. The only doctor in town is away, so they have to take the little boy to the vet. They also need to figure out how to get to the doctor in time to get the antidote, since the forest fire burned out the only route connecting the towns.
OH NO. WHAT ARE THEY GONNA DO?
Well, luckily, the ranger has a plane.
And guess who goes with him.
WE GOT A DOG ON AN AIRPLANE, PEOPLE.
What?! Why the hell would a ranger take a stray dog that he just met like 24 hours ago up in a tiny airplane as part of a mission that involves a young child’s life hanging in the balance? Aren’t there literally hundreds of things that could go wrong? What if the dog got scared and started freaking out? How is a dude supposed to fly a plane and deal with that at the same time? It could end up bringing the plane down! And then not only will the little boy die, but so will the ranger. Seems needlessly reckless, doesn’t it? And even if they keep the plane in the air, what if the dog poops when it gets frightened? My grandma’s dog used to do that. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a stinky plane with a stray dog.
All fair points. But everything will make sense momentarily. Kind of.
If you say so.
So the ranger and Hobo pick up the doctor and start heading back to town. But there’s a violent storm developing, and they won’t be able to land the plane. The ranger asks the doc if he knows how to fly, because if the doc can get the plane back to the other town, then he can parachute out and deliver the antidote. No dice, unfortunately. The doc can’t fly or parachute out, which leaves them in a pickle. Until the ranger gets an idea: What if there was another occupant of the plane who could parachute out with the medicine?
Yup. This is happening.
THEY PUT THE RAT POISON ANTIDOTE IN A BACKPACK AND HAD HOBO, A DOG, PARACHUTE OUT OF AN AIRPLANE DURING A VIOLENT STORM SO HE COULD DELIVER IT TO A DYING BOY.
WHAT IS THIS SHOW EVEN DOING?
BEING GREAT, MOSTLY.
Anyway, Hobo lands safely on the ground and gets the medicine to the vet’s office just in time. The day is saved, the ranger and the vet start making out a little, and, as promised by the Wikipedia description, Hobo slips away quietly and continues on his journey, like an adorable superhero canine nomad. The ranger gives a little speech about it at the end that you should definitely watch. It’s so hammy and overacted that it makes William Shatner look like Daniel Day-Lewis. I love it.
Okay, fine. I’m sold. This is amazing.
I told you.
So, let’s say I want to watch more episodes. Where should I start?
Well, I haven’t seen any other episodes yet so I’m not exactly an authority, but I just went back to the show’s Wikipedia and pulled these actual episode descriptions, which seem like a solid place to start.
Season 1, Episode 9
Hobo befriends a down and out ex-vaudevillian who has been shoplifting with every intent to pay it back when she becomes a star again.
Season 1, Episode 20
Hobo mans a disco control panel and helps the victim of an underworld frame-up.
Season 1, Episode 21
When a distraught Eastern European woman named Ines, who is in Canada illegally, abandons her baby daughter Maria on the steps of a church, Hobo appoints himself guardian of the child – eventually managing to reunite mother and child.
Season 2, Episode 13
Hobo helps find a hijacked truckload of diamonds.
Season 3, Episode 8
Hobo comes across an old farmhouse where a young mute girl and her father are being blackmailed into conducting fake seances. By cleverly investigating and manipulating the mechanics of the ruse, Hobo is able to break the blackmailers’ hold, stop the fraud, and free the father and daughter.
Season 3, Episode 9
A rival tries to have a harmonica player fired.
Season 3, Episode 13
A farmer and his mail-order bride seem incompatible.
Season 3, Episode 19
Hobo joins forces with inept private eye Rex Badger, who perfected his style watching old movies. As Badger plods through a series of comic clues, Hobo keeps several steps ahead of him and enables him to finally put the pieces together and wind up with the credit.
REX BADGER, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR?! Everything about this show is perfect, isn’t it?
It really, really is.