Lassie's Story, Jon Provost Isn't Falling Into A Well
Jon Provost was about to participate in a special event in his honor at the Chicago Museum of Broadcast Communications when I asked, “What if you fell into a well on your way from the airport to the museum?” The now 63-year-old actor, who played Timmy on TV’s popular “Lassie,” politely chuckled, though he’s likely been asked that question every day of his life. In fact, Provost pokes fun at it in his book, “Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story” (with Laurie Jacobson, Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, TN, 2007; $22.89).
The actor offered the shocking revelation that “Timmy never fell into a well, not in a single episode,” Provost was seen in over 250 half-hour episodes of “Lassie” from 1957 to 1964.
Another shocker: All of the Lassies appearing on TV and in the many Lassie movies were actually male, even back to the original film with Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowall, “Lassie Come Home,” in 1943. “Males are more colorful, and it was thought more heroic-looking,” explained Provost. “Of course, males don’t go into heat.” He said Lassie’s legendary trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, was ahead of time, using positive reinforcement so effectively that Lassie was a better actor and typically required fewer rehearsals than most humans.
Provost offered one example. “Of course, Lassie could open a screen door, easy. He did it every episode, a million times. One time, Lassie walked up to the door and stopped — just couldn’t do it. He just looked back at Rudd as if to ask, ‘How do you expect me to do this?’ It turned out they’d changed the door latch. In five minutes, Rudd taught him with the new latch.”
The way Provost got into acting in the first place is one of those legendary show biz stories. He explained that his mother idolized actress Jane Wyman, and wanted to meet her. She read that two or three-year-old blond boys were being auditioned for a new Wyman film. “All my mother wanted was her autograph, and with 200 little boys there — including girls whose hair was cut like boys’ — I got the part.”
Mom got that autograph, and Provost got a part in the movie called so “So Big.” Ten more films followed, including “The Country Girl,” with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, “Toward the Unknown,” with William Holden, and “Escapade in Japan,” with Clint Eastwood.
When the “Lassie” show began in the early 1950s, Tommy Rettig played the boy (his character actually not named Timmy, but Jeff). When Rettig was getting too old for the role, Provost was seriously considered.
“I went to live with Rudd Weatherwax for four days to insure that I’d pass Lassie’s test,” he recalled. “I loved dogs, but you can’t fake the bond with a dog. Meanwhile, I was offered to play Boy in Tarzan, but my mom thought I’d be safer indoors and with clothes on. And, it turned out that Lassie gave me two paws up.”
The wardrobe budget on “Lassie” was frugal. It seemed like Provost was always wearing a red-and-white shirt, jeans with Keds sneakers. “The only time we dressed up was to go to Capital City or to church,” he recalls. “It was out of necessity because we worked with three different scripts in a single day, and didn’t have time to change wardrobe. It was a lot to learn.”
That’s an understatement, when you consider that when “Lassie” first began, Provost was too young to read. His mom would repeat the lines, and he ‘d learn them. “It all came so natural to me,” he said. “Even the crying.”
It seemed each episode would end with Timmy tearfully hugging Lassie. Provost concedes that sometimes those tears were manufactured. Either glycerin was used or a Vick’s inhaler (which was blown gently into his eyes). And when, after several takes, Lassie would give up on “kissing” Timmy, he was persuaded to keep going after butter was rubbed on the actor’s face.
In 1964, Provost decided to cycle off the iconic series. He continued to appear on TV periodically. His last movie was “The Computer Wears Tennis Shoes,” with Kurt Russell, in 1969.
Provost recalls, “I had just turned 18 and (after) working 15 years, it was time for a break.” He attended college, majoring in psychology and minoring in special education. He ultimately went into real estate. Provost moved away from Hollywood to northern California, where he still lives. “I left at the right time, just before the drugs,” he said. “Besides, I’ve always been grounded in family.”
While, he’s always had dogs, Provost only owned one Collie. For many years, he has served on the board of Canine Companions for Independence , a non-profit that trains assistance dogs.
Today, those Keds sneakers are at the Smithsonian Institute. And, of course, Lassie is known around the world.
“I’m proud to be a part of supporting what relationships with dogs can be about,” said Provost. “When it comes down to it, it’s really simple: The show was about a boy and his dog.” Of course, “Lassie” is still seen in reruns worldwide. After all, while the world has changed — relationships between boys and dogs have not.
As Provost leaves the museum, I say, “Safe travels. Don’t fall into a well!”
©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services