"Lassie's "Timmy", Jon Provost, to Visit Triad"
June 25th, 2014
Jon Provost has acted alongside Hollywood royalty, including Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford. But his favorite co-star is more famous than all of those others combined. For five seasons, Jon played TV's Timmy Martin opposite an iconic collie named Lassie.
Jonathan Bion Provost was born on March 12, 1950 in Los Angeles, and waited all of two years to begin his film career. The fact is, Jon was one of Hollywood's busiest child actors even before he could memorize lines.
JP: I really have no memory of my first two movies, "So Big" and "The Country Girl". But after that, especially with "Back From Eternity" when I was about four and a half, from there forward the memories are very vivid. Basically I grew up on a sound stage, so it seemed real comfortable.
But even though young Jon was already a big screen veteran, he had to pass an unusual test to succeed Tommy Rettig as Lassie's television master.
JP: Before my parents ever signed the contracts, I went and stayed with Lassie and her trainer Rudd Weatherwax on his ranch for three or four days, to see how we got along. Obviously I got '2 paws up' from Lassie (laughs).
Of course, Jon's co-star's name wasn't always Lassie. Originally it was "Baby".
JP: All of Rudd's dogs had names before they became Lassie, but once they started working, they were only called Lassie.
And while there was never any question about character names, the famous canine DID suffer from gender confusion, because the very feminine Lassie was always played by a male.
JL: Why didn't Rudd ever use a female dog for Lassie?
JP: Because males are larger, more colorful, and more heroic looking. But the main reason is because when the female would come into heat, they would lose their coat and wouldn't work.
JL: I've known some actresses like that.
JP: There you go (laughs). But Rudd said, and I always get in trouble for this, but he said the males were smarter, and easier to train than females. I still think it was more the cycle thing.
Throughout Jon's tenure on "Lassie', the show consistently captured over 40% of the television audience, and was so popular, that sponsor Campbell's Soup saw its profits rise by 70%. It's no wonder then, that in 1964 Campbell's wanted Jon to renew for another three years. But Jon declined the company's offer, so the producers said goodbye to the Martin family, and put Lassie in the care of a forest ranger. I asked Jon why he walked away from the money and the spotlight.
JP: I was just tired of being "Timmy". Tommy Rettig went through the same thing playing "Jeff". He was tired of doing that part, and I was tired of being "Timmy". I was 14, and everybody was still looking at me like I was ten years old. I wanted to continue acting. I was also going through puberty, and looking at girls.
JL: But couldn't Lassie have helped you get girls?
JP: He probably could have (laughs), but it was time to move on.
After his "Lassie" contract ended Jon did continue to act, including a role in 1989's "The New Lassie". He also launched a career in real estate, and was active in a number of organizations, including serving 25 years on the Board of Governors of Canine Companions.
JP: The mission of Canine Companions is to supply service dogs to people with disabilities (other than blindness) free of charge. We have five training centers including two in California, one in Ohio, one in New York, and one in Florida. Thus far we have placed close to 4,000 dogs, and it's not cheap. The cost of supporting a working dog over a lifetime runs about $45,000, and, again, the service doesn't cost the person a nickel.
No doubt Jon's time on "Lassie" formed his love for animals, and a commitment to public service, the latter which can be traced back to how Lassie and her pal spent their summer vacations away from the show.
JP: Every year when we were on hiatus, Lassie and I would travel around the country, and Rudd insisted that if there was a children's hospital in the area, that Lassie and I go visit the kids. This was before they had therapy dogs, and back then, dogs weren't even allowed inside a hospital. But they would let "Timmy" and Lassie in, because the kids watched our show every Sunday night. Those visits had a really big impact on me. For me, being 9 and 10 years old, seeing kids with polio, or having been burned, or in traction from a car wreck, it had a strong impact. The main thing is what our visit did for them. It let them escape for awhile from the hell they were in.
Today "Lassie" is broadcast in over 50 countries, and Jon still uses his celebrity to support and advance a number of causes, including the fight to prevent and end animal abuse.
JL: Don't you think punishment for animal abusers is still too lenient?
JP: Definitely. In fact, I think there should be a registry for people who have been convicted of abusing dogs, and who have operated puppy mills. The abuse is horrible, especially if it's done by a young person. It's been proven that if a child abuses an animal, they will end up abusing people, so yeah, the laws should be more stringent.
In 2010, Jon published his autobiography, "Timmy's in the Well". The title refers to a cult catch phrase which is based on a myth. Truth is, Lassie never once rescued Timmy from a well. Nevertheless, the book is chocked full of wonderful stories. It is also co-authored by Jon's wife Laurie Jacobson, a Hollywood writer who owns "Living Legends Ltd". Her company represents actors from classic films and TV series, and schedules them for personal appearances, such as Jon's visit to next month's Western Film Fair, July 9-12, in Winston-Salem.
JP: I have a good time at these events because I get to meet people, and I also get to run into other celebrities who I may not have seen for years. I really enjoy it. If it weren't for your fans, where would you be?
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