It’s one of those Hollywood legends that just doesn’t seem to die, even after Jon Provost — who played young Timmy Martin for seven years in the popular CBS series “Lassie” — penned his 2009 memoir with its tongue-in-cheek title “Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story” disproving the myth that his character ever did fall down a well (see www.jonprovost.com).
“When I wrote my autobiography with my wife Laurie, I looked through the synopsis of all 249 half-hour episode scripts and there was no mention of Timmy ever falling into a well,” said Provost from his home north of San Francisco. “We just don't know where that came from.”
Provost’s character may have never tumbled down a well, but he did fall out of the sky on several occasions, the first being in the griping 1956 disaster movie “Back from Eternity” where he crash-landed in the South American jungle.
“It’s an excellent movie and still holds up today,” said Provost who turned 5 during shooting which including filming in a studio mock-up aircraft and being subjected to simulated thunder, lightning, and violent rocking to mimic the crash-inducing storm.
“As a child, I was intrigued by all those special effects and knew they weren’t real, so it didn't scare me at all,” he said. “I always became friends with the special effects men and especially loved it when they blew stuff up – what kid wouldn’t?”
With an all-star cast including Robert Ryan, Rod Steiger, and Gene Barry, one cast mate stood out.
“Beautiful Anita Ekberg befriended me on the first day,” he recalled. “She was hugging me and let me sit on her lap, and it would continue like that the whole time we were shooting. After the first couple of days some of the crew members came up to me and said, ‘Hey kid, we’ll give you five bucks to trade places.’ I didn't have a clue what they were talking about then, but I sure do now!”
It didn’t take long for Provost to plummet from the sky again. In 1957, he appeared in “Escapade in Japan” where he was rescued after another plane crash, this time off the coast of Japan.
“It was the first movie filmed in Japan after World War II, only a decade after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the country, so it was a landmark movie,” he explained. And surprisingly, perhaps, he says the locals welcomed the American film crew. “Everywhere we went we were just swarmed, but in a nice and loving way.”
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Another near Hollywood disaster for Provost was actually in an episode of “Lassie” where Timmy and his faithful canine companion accidentally fly off in a hot air balloon only to come crashing down safely in pine trees.
So with all those unpleasant aviation experiences for a young boy, did it make him leery about flying?
“Not at all,” said Provost, laughing. “But it’s funny, my father was an aeronautical engineer who designed airplanes. He had his own aircraft, but when my parents got married (my mother) made him quit flying because she thought it was too dangerous!”
A frequent guest at autograph shows and classic film/TV events, Provost says he still gets asked the same questions about “Lassie.”
“One big question is about the dogs – people have the perception that we had three or four dogs on the set at the same time to do different things, but that was not the case. Rudd Weatherwax, Lassie’s owner and trainer, would only allow one real Lassie on the set at a time, although Lassie did have a double that was used for long shots like running, climbing, or swimming.”
Provost worked with three different Lassies during his time on the show. “One was the son of the original for one year, his son for one year, and then the great-grandson for 5 years – he and I bonded, and I really loved that last dog,” he said.
And these days, with the ever-informative Internet, he says most people know all the dogs were males rather than the females portrayed in the series.
Then there’s that persistent question of Timmy and the well, which he says always comes up.
“That one will follow me forever!”