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Lassie’s Buddy “Timmy”
Remembers The Good Ole Days

By Mike McLeod

A favorite question Jon Provost, who starred as Little Timmy in the popular Lassie series, is almost always asked is, “How many Lassies did you work with on the show?”

The answer is three, but he spent most of the time (five years) with the third Lassie.

Jon worked with Lassie for 250 episodes in the heartwarming TV show that ran from 1957 to 1964. It was the only American show that was aired in the U.S.S.R. at the time because it featured no violence and no capitalism. In 1962, it was the longest-running drama on air with more adults watching than kids. Forty percent of the total TV- viewing audience watched the show during its fifth year.

Jon humbly attributes those gigantic numbers to that day and age. “There were just three networks then. More people are watching TV today, but there are so many channels,” he said.

Maybe so, but it’s a sure bet that the sponsor, Campbell’s Soup, wishes for those numbers again today. By advertising on Lassie, its profits rose by 70%. At one time, Campbell’s offered a Lassie wallet in return for sending in five labels. As a barometer to the popularity of Timmy and Lassie then, fans mailed in 6.7 million labels and received 1,343,509 wallets.

“It’s hard to find a Lassie wallet today,” Jon remarked. “They go for a premium on eBay.”

Just to get one thing clear, Timmy never fell down a well on the show, contrary to the popular joke among comedians. He fell down hills and off cliffs, but Timmy never fell down a well.

Jon’s career really began just before he turned three with the movie, So Big, starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden. He won the role at an audition that attracted about 300 kids. What made Jon stand out from the crowd were his composure and his willingness to follow directions. While other kids cried or fidgeted, Jon sat quietly. When asked to say “Hello, Daddy,” to an actor, Jon did it. Most of the other kids balked at talking with a stranger.

Jon’s mother, Cecile Provost, took him on that first audition. Her husband B.A. Provost thought it was a waste of time. Both were shocked when they learned the part paid $70.

“Is that a month?” B.A. asked after Jon won the part.

“It’s a day,” his wife replied.

After So Big, some minor movie roles followed, and then Jon was hired for Back From Eternity with Robert Ryan and Anita Ekburg.

(An airplane crash lands in a jungle, and the survivors are attacked by cannibals.) More movie appearances followed, including Escapade in Japan, which was shot on location.

Then came his big break with Lassie. Timmy was hired to be the friend of Lassie’s first owner, Jeff Miller, played by Tommy Rettig. Jon joined the show after Tommy had starred in more than 100 episodes with Jan Clayton, who played his TV mom, Ellen. Tommy was a teenager who had been acting since the age of two, and he was ready to return to the normal life of going to a public school and dating girls. Clayton also wanted to leave the show.

Replacing them were not June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly, as many may think. Cloris Leachman (recently of Dancing With The Stars and earlier of The Mary Tyler Moore Show) and Jon Shepodd were first hired to play Ruth and Paul Martin. But Leachman wasn’t happy with the role, and other complication led to June and Hugh assuming the identities of Ruth and Paul.

Jon worked full days on the set (with breaks for meals, tutoring and recreation) for nine months out of the year. In those days, they filmed TV shows with just one camera, so they shot the same scene over and over again to get it from different angles. To fight boredom and to keep himself amused, Jon pulled pranks. He moved props around between takes when no one was looking. If a glass of milk was on the kitchen table by the everpresent plate of cookies, Jon would drink half the glass or add milk to the glass. Next time you watch an old episode, look for one of Jon’s pranks.

When the show finally ended in 1964, Jon was 14, a teenager and ready to move on. He got a part in the Disney movie, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, with Kurt Russell in 1966, and The Secret Forest in 1970. In 1989, The New Lassie began airing starring Dee Wallace and her real-life husband Chris Stone as the owners of a descendant of Lassie’s. Jon was called on to play Steve, the brother of Chris. A young Leonardo Di Caprio also guest starred in the 32-episode show that ran until 1992. June Lockhart also made a guest appearance.

Lassie, in all its television and movie versions, has been a “comfort food” for TV viewers ever since it aired. Its feel-good stories have appealed to just about everyone.

“Most shows of that time were family shows, wholesome shows,” Jon explained. “They had moral values that the shows of today don’t have, which is one reason why it has held up so long. It is shown in 60 countries today. I was in Branson, Missouri, recently, and people visiting from Japan, told me, ‘I saw you in Tokyo last week, and you spoke perfect Japanese.’”

People all over the world still watch and love Timmy and Lassie. Is there an audience out there now for a boy-and-his dog show?

“I think there is. When I talk with people, they ask me why I don’t have a show today. Shows like Little House on the Prairie would work today, and audiences would enjoy them.”

The Smithsonian contacted Jon about donating a memento from the show to its History of Television exhibit.

“When I got the letter in 1989, I asked my mom, and she said, ‘I have your whole outfit.’”

The “Timmy outfit” was the red-checked shirt, jeans and high top tennis shoes that he always wore.

“She sent it, and when I opened box, I had déjà vu all over again. My son, Ryan, was 6, and he wanted my tennis shoes. I explained to him that they were going to a museum. After I packaged the outfit and sent it, I took Ryan to the mall got him some high tops.”

Jon invited his whole family, including June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly, to the exhibit’s opening. Timmy’s outfit was placed between Fonzie’s jacket and Archie Bunker’s chair.

Today, Jon is busy, doing commercials and appearances with the current Lassie.

“Bob Weatherwax has the ninth generation Lassie that his family has bred and trained.” Bob is the son of Rudd Weatherwax, the original owner and trainer of Lassie.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of the show, and Jon has been on tour promoting an autobiography he co-wrote with his wife, Laurie Jacobson. Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story is an in-depth look at Jon’s life before, during and after Lassie, and it has photos on almost every one of its 313 pages. For Timmy and Lassie fans, it is a must-read.

Jon writes in the book of his feelings about the show and his career: “ ‘Being Timmy’ has acted like a universal passport, gaining me immediate entry into hearts around the world. Wherever I am, when people realize I was Timmy, they travel right back in their minds to that warm, happy time where, for thirty minutes every week, they were transported by the adventures of a boy and his dog; and I am greeted with warm smiles, hugs, and even some tears along with many stories about what it all meant to them. And today, I love it. I am proud of my legacy and grateful for the opportunity to have left such a mark.” 

Jon in a scene from Escapade in Japan (1957), the first American movie shot on location there
after WWII.

Anita Ekburg with Jon.

Child Stars Jon Provost and Ron Howard At
Jon’s Birthday Party


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