Timmy never fell in the well, but he did almost drown on the set of Lassie.
These are some of the reminiscent excerpts from an interview I had with Jon Provost, the childhood star of the beloved series. The Collie, with whom throngs of viewers fell in love with, became one of television’s greatest canine stars. His sidekick, Timmy, is a beloved American icon.
A newspaper ad catapulted the bright-eyed Provost into the annals of television history. “My mom read an ad in the L.A. Times that Warner Bros. was looking for a two- to three-year-old boy to be in a movie with Jane Wyman,” he recalls.
With a dream of meeting Wyman, Provost’s mom whisked him away to the set, and his Hollywood career began.
A few years later, the producers of Lassie were looking for a young boy to fill a role originated by Tommy Rettig. Provost was in Japan making a movie at the time, but upon his return the youngster auditioned for the part of Timmy Martin. He landed it.
Rudd Weatherwax, the man who taught and trained Lassie, was unsure how the duo would get along, so Provost stayed at his ranch for three days.
“We got along really well,” he remembers. “Basically, Lassie gave me two paws up and I got the role.”
“Timmy has fallen off cliffs, into rivers, quicksand, and even mine shafts, but never into a well,” Provost says. “We don’t know where that catchphrase came from, but it was a natural title for my book. Letterman or Leno mention the phrase at least once a month.”
Provost has shared his life with many animals. He grew up with horses, goats, dogs, and cats, among others. He even had a Collie, a gift of sorts from Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax.
When he was seven, Weatherwax promised Provost that if he did not pull Lassie’s tail, ride him, or otherwise misbehave with the dog, that he would receive a Lassie puppy the following year.
“My second year on the series, I received a male Collie puppy and named him Rudd after the trainer,” Provost says. “He was a great dog, but not trained like Lassie. He was the only Collie I ever had.”
Provost recalls one scene where he and Lassie were on a river and the raft broke up.
“We couldn’t rehearse it. Back then they could not use stunt doubles. They needed to see our faces and there were no computer-generated images,” he remembers.
Since they were unable to rehearse the scene and had no idea what might happen, Provost almost drowned. His stunt double jumped in and saved Provost but almost ended up drowning, too.
When Provost turned 14, he declined to renew his Lassie contract. He was tired of playing the part, and his parents agreed with the decision.
He went on to have a small recurring role on the television series Mr. Ed, where he says he went from working with “the smartest dog to working with the smartest horse” (of course, of course). He went on to film three more movies. At the age of 18, he graduated high school and wanted a change.
Provost moved from Hollywood to Northern California to go to college. He ended up staying there and raising a family. He now resides with his wife, Laurie Jacobson, in Sonoma County, an hour north of San Francisco.
Jon returned to television in The New Lassie series in 1990, and in 1994, he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The check shirt and jeans that Timmy wore for seven years hangs in the Smithsonian right next to Archie Bunker’s television chair.
At the present time, Jon and his wife have a little senior rescue dog. He is involved with Canine Companions for Independence and has been on its northwestern board for 23 years.
When asked which of the two he prefers to work with, Provost chuckles. “Well, the people made more mistakes than the dog did. When you are a kid working with a dog, it’s a whole different story.”
Currently, Jon does personal appearances, and fans can visit his website to learn more about the legendary actor.
Do you remember the Lassie show growing up? Any favorite episodes? Bark at me in the comments!