He was the favorite boy of America's favorite dog. For Jon Provost—“Timmy” on the “Lassie” television show—50 years later, life is still very much about dogs.
His recently released autobiography, Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story (co-authored with wife, author and Hollywood historian Laurie Jacobson), marks the half-century anniversary of his role on “Lassie.” The photo-filled book reads like a carefully tended family scrapbook with a tell-all twist. The story of a sheltered child star on a hit series includes a bumpy transition into a “Summer of Love” teen and, ultimately, Provost’s happy landing as an adult celebrity known for animal activism. He says he owes a lot to one clever Collie.
“When I was 10, 11, 12, Lassie and I would travel around the country for parades and special events. In every city, we visited children’s hospitals,” Provost said. Lassie’s trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, insisted that Lassie be allowed to visit ailing children at their hospital bedsides, something unheard of at the time.
“Rudd had a saying: Every child should have a dog and every dog should have a child. He just knew that the thrill of meeting Lassie would do a child good,” Provost said. Those visits also had a profound impact on Provost. He feels that the special bond he had with Lassie taught him empathy for animals, ingraining in him the conviction that caretakers must always be loving guardians.
His mother took him on his first audition after reading about a “cattle call” for children in a Hedda Hopper newspaper column. He made his film acting debut in 1953 at age three in So Big, a film starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, based on Edna Ferber’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about the struggles of a widow trying to support herself and her son. A year later, his film parents were Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
An interesting chapter in his new book focuses on his relationship with Lassie’s trainer, the late Weatherwax. A hard-working, hard-drinking, old-school sort, Weatherwax was also something of a grandfather figure for Provost.When the series’ initial boy, Tommy Rettig, who played Jeff Martin, left the show, Weatherwax insisted on checking out Provost’s rapport with Lassie before any filming. The boy-dog chemistry was quickly confirmed.
“One thing that Rudd really instilled in me was respect for animals. On sets you see animal trainers of all sorts.Rudd always trained his dogs with lots of love,” Provost said.Weatherwax’s Lassies (now raised by his descendants) were all males; a primary Lassie usually had five or six backups for long shots or special stunts.
After earning 100 “Lassie points” for good behavior on the set, Provost was given his own Collie. The dog, whom Provost promptly named “Rudd,” grew up running through orange groves near the Provosts’ home in Pomona.When a move to Beverly Hills meant Rudd was limited to an average-size backyard, a family decision focused on what was best for the dog.
“We’d take Rudd on summer visits to my grandmother’s.After a few summers on 120 acres in Arkansas, Rudd retired from Hollywood to chase rabbits there. He got the true Lassie life in the end,” Provost said.