What does a tiny toothless senior pooch living out his golden years in Santa Rosa have in common with Lassie, the most famous Hollywood dog of all time?
Both canines captured the heart of Jon Provost, the actor who played young Timmy Martin on the Lassie television series from 1957 to 1964. Provost was already a veteran actor when, at the age of seven, he began working side-by-side with Lassie, the majestic rough collie.
Actually, Provost co-starred with three different Lassies during his seven-year tenure on the top-rated CBS program. Like all the dogs who played the role of the female Lassie, Timmy’s three faithful companions were males.
“We only had one Lassie at a time,” Provost, 73, told me during an interview earlier this month. “The last dog [Baby], I worked with for five years, so he and I bonded like crazy. I loved that dog. He loved me. But if I told him to do something, give him a command, he’d look at me and say, ‘You’re my buddy, not my trainer.’”
Today, Provost’s love affair with dogs continues. He and his wife, Laurie Jacobson, recently adopted Casper, a 12-year-old Maltese, who had been surrendered to a shelter. The family of three resides in Santa Rosa, where Casper is settling into a new routine filled with affection, lots of treats and leisurely strolls.
That’s how I had occasion to chat with Provost and Jacobson. Casper came from Muttville, the Bay Area’s senior dog rescue, where I’ve volunteered for years.
Casper’s story certainly pulls on heartstrings. But I couldn’t resist learning more about the fictional little boy, Timmy, and his dog, Lassie. Fortunately, Provost was happy to reminisce about Lassie and his days as a child actor.
His acting career began when he was two years old, while his family was living in Pasadena. Provost’s mother responded to a newspaper ad placed by Warner Brothers. The studio was seeking a two- to three-year-old boy for a film, So Big, starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden.
“My parents were not show business people,” Provost said. “My mother grew up on a farm in Texas, and her idol was Jane Wyman, the actress. Mom took me to the audition because she wanted to meet Jane Wyman and get an autograph. I got the job and then a contract with RKO.”
Before landing the role of Timmy in Lassie, Provost appeared in about 10 movies. He acted alongside Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby in the 1954 film, The Country Girl, and with Rod Steiger and Anita Ekberg in the 1956 film, Back from Eternity. There were also parts in early live television programs.
Then came the role of a lifetime, Timmy Martin. Provost remembers the seven years on Lassie with great fondness, especially his TV mom, June Lockhart. It was Lockhart who instilled in him that although he was a little boy, he was still a professional actor on the same playing field as the adults.
“June is still with us,” Provost said. “She’s 98 years old. We are the only living members from the series and have kept in touch over the years. Every birthday, every Christmas.”
Lassie’s owner and trainer, Rudd Weatherwax, also played a pivotal role in Provost’s life. Weatherwax, a surrogate grandfather to Provost, wasn’t above bribing the young actor.
“Rudd sat me down when we first started shooting, and said, ‘Look, if you don’t bug Lassie—don’t pull his tail, don’t ride him, don’t sit on him—for your eighth birthday, I will give you a Lassie puppy.’ I worked very hard that first year to do everything I was supposed to do,” Provost said.
True to his word, Weatherwax presented Provost with a male rough collie puppy. Provost named him Rudd, to honor Weatherwax.
“That was the only collie I ever owned,” Provost said. “Collies are a lot of maintenance. Lassie was constantly groomed—24/7.”
Provost starred in 249 episodes of Lassie. Week after week, Timmy and Lassie embarked on adventures. Lassie pulled Timmy’s loose tooth, freed him from quicksand and helped him bring an escaped baby circus elephant out of the woods. However, Lassie never rescued Timmy from a well.
“Timmy never fell in the well,” Provost said. “My mother saved every script. Somebody fell into the well, and Timmy and Lassie saved him.”
Jacobson, who helped write her husband’s autobiography, concurs. Although most Americans have heard the “Timmy fell down the well” tale, it never happened.
“We don’t really know where it came from,” Jacobson said. “We know everybody uses it. They use it when their dogs bark. Stephen Colbert on The Late Show uses it once a month. It’s everywhere.”
While Provost still accepts the occasional acting role, he and Jacobson are currently focusing their energy on helping Casper, their senior Maltese, adjust to his new digs.
“Casper has pretty severe separation anxiety,” Jacobson said. “He went through a lot before we got him.”
Indeed, he did. The adorable little Maltese lived with the same person for most of his 12 years, until she was forced to give him up because of a change in her housing situation. After that, Casper went to two different shelters before ending up at Muttville, the senior dog rescue. Along the way, he was diagnosed with severe dental disease.
“Casper lost his original owner and all his teeth within a matter of weeks,” Jacobson said. “It’s no wonder he has separation anxiety.”
Still, Casper captivated Provost and Jacobson when they met him at Muttville, and they instantly knew he was the perfect dog for their family. Coincidentally, the couple has just launched Spray, Mix ’n Go!, a calming CBD product for dogs who suffer from separation anxiety, a condition that causes distress for canines when they’re apart from their humans.
From Lassie to Casper, Provost has provided friendship to famous dogs and dogs in need. And he doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“Dogs and Timmy are synonymous,” Provost said. “I learned a lot from Rudd [Lassie’s trainer], his philosophy. Lassie was treated like royalty. All the training was through rewards and respect. That’s what I learned from Rudd—respect. I saw the benefit of what canines can do for people. The rest is history.”