Jon Provost as Timmy Martin with Lassie. [Jon Provost]

Tinseltown Talks: No, Timmy never fell down a well

It's one of those Hollywood legends that doesn't seem to die, even after Jon Provost - who played young Timmy Martin for 7 years in the popular CBS series "Lassie" - penned his 2009 memoir disproving the myth. Its tongue-in-cheek title is "Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story."

"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 in an interview 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 gripping 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 mockup 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 Americans.

"My mother and I spent three-and-a-half months in Japan and the people were lovely to us. I was real blonde at the time and my mother was a beautiful woman with blonde hair and the Japanese people were so intrigued by the color of our hair. So everywhere we went we were just swarmed, but in a nice and loving way."

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 she made him quit flying because she thought it was too dangerous!"

Young Jon's mother put more pressure on her husband later, when the popularity of their son's TV series grew.

"We didn't even own a television when I started the show," recalled Provost. "I was on 'Lassie' for a year before my mother convinced my father that he needed to buy a TV to see his son is on television every Sunday night. My dad's initial response was 'We'll just go over to Bob's house and watch it.' But mom said no to that and bought one."

A frequent guest at autograph shows and classic film/TV events, Provost says he still gets asked the same questions about "Lassie" a lot.

"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 five years. He and I bonded and I really love that last dog."

He even had his own Lassie.

"During the first year, Rudd Weatherwax said if I was kind to the dog - not pull his tail or try to ride him, etc. - he would give me a Lassie puppy for my eighth birthday, which he did, and I named him Rudd!"

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 the persistent question of Timmy in the well, which he says still comes up.

"That one will follow me forever!"

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 750 magazines and newspapers. See www.getnickt.org.