Jon Provost as Timmy Martin
|First appearance||"The Runaway" (1957)|
|Last appearance||"The Wayfarers" (1964)|
|Created by||Robert Maxwell • Jack Wrather|
|Portrayed by||Jon Provost|
|Occupation||Farm boy • School boy • 4-H member • Cub Scout|
|Family||Jed and Abby Clausen (aged aunt and uncle) • Ellen, George, and Jeff Miller (foster family) • Ruth and Paul Martin (adoptive parents) • Lassie (companion animal)|
Timmy Martin is a fictional character portrayed by child actor Jon Provost in the long-running television series Lassie (1954–1973). Provost debuted in the first episode of the fourth season, "The Runaway" (1957), as the fictional foster child of farm woman Ellen Miller. Both the character and its portrayer were hits with the show's audience. In the middle of the fourth season series star George Cleveland died unexpectedly and producers were forced to overhaul the show. Timmy was adopted by newcomers to the series Paul Martin and his wife, Ruth, who purchase the Miller farm.
Once the Timmy years of the show were launched, Lassie enjoyed its highest ratings, with Timmy appearing in all 226 episodes between his debut and his final appearance in the first episode of the 1964-1965 season. The Timmy character appeared in comic books, novels, Viewmaster reels, and other spinoff materials related to the show. Provost briefly reprised the character as an adult Timmy in the syndicated series, The New Lassie (1989–1990). Jon Provost was nominated in 2003 for a TV Land award connected to his participation in Lassie.
Role in Lassie
In the opener of the fourth season, "The Runaway" fictional midwestern farm family Ellen Miller (Jan Clayton), her son Jeff (Tommy Rettig), and her father-in-law, George Miller (George Cleveland), discover a seven-year-old tattered runaway hiding in their barn. Timmy, they later learn, has fled his aged and ill relatives, believing he is a burden on their slim resources. Ellen contacts the boy's relatives and a social worker, and all agree Timmy would benefit from a summer on the farm.
Midway in the fourth season, Ellen sells the farm to a young couple, Ruth and Paul Martin (Cloris Leachman and Jon Shepodd), after the death of her father-in-law. The Martins adopt Timmy, and Jeff leaves Lassie on the farm with Timmy when he moves to the city, knowing the dog could never adjust to life in a busy city. Leachman and Shepodd would finish the fourth season and then be dropped. Their characters would be played thereafter by Hugh Reilly and June Lockhart. During the years that Reilly and Lockhart were on the show, the writers phased out all mention of Timmy being adopted, leading new viewers to assume that June Lockart and Hugh Reilly played Timmy's biological parents.
In the fourth season episode, "The Ring", Paul's uncle Petrie (George Chandler) joins the cast but proved unpopular with the audience and left the show in the fifth season.
An attempt was made (but failed) to pair Timmy with a pal his own age. Kelly Junge, Jr. played Scott Richards through the last half of the fourth season but did not return for the fifth. Todd Ferrell as Ralph "Boomer" Bates, a chubby, beanie-wearing character, entered the show to recreate something of the popular Jeff and Porky friendship from the Miller years. "Boomer" never became an audience favorite and was dropped at the end of the fifth season. Thereafter, Timmy never had another steady chum on the show though classmate Wilhelmina "Willy" Brewster (Linda Wrather, 1957–1961, daughter of the show's producers Jack Wrather and Bonita Granville Wrather), made several appearances.
In 1959, veteran actor and comedian Andy Clyde was cast in the show's "grandfatherly" role of Cully Wilson, an eccentric farmer, nature lover, and Martin family neighbor. Timmy and Cully were scripted into many adventures together, and Cully became one of Timmy's several adult friends that included Fire Chief Ed Washburne (Dick Foran), veterinarian Doc Weaver (Arthur Space), telephone operator Jenny (Florence Lake), and Sheriff Miller (Robert Foulk). Cully was a hit and, as a result, producers curtailed Paul's presence in the series, fearing two adult males on the show would overwhelm the audience.
As the series aged and environmental issues became a real-life concern across America, producers introduced the subject into the show at the request of the United States Forestry Service. Characters on the show were placed in situations concerning such issues. Timmy and Cully, for example, protest the proposed construction of a road through a pristine forested area. In other episodes, Timmy spearheads a classroom tree planting project called Operation Woodland, he traps and relocates (rather than kills), the beavers wreaking havoc with a local waterway, he builds bluebird nesting boxes, and feeds wildlife during severe winter weather.
In 1963, the multi-part episode, "The Journey" was edited into a feature film called Lassie's Great Adventure. The show's three principal human stars appeared in their well known roles. In the film, Timmy and Lassie are swept away in a carnival hot air balloon which finally descends far from home in the Canadian wilderness. The two travelers have several adventures before being rescued by the Mounties. Ruth's role is confined to tearfully worrying about Timmy and finding comfort in Paul's arms. The couple fly to the wilderness to be at hand when Timmy is found. The episode was the only episode filmed in color during the Martin family seasons.
Lassie debuted in September 1954 and, as its fourth season approached in 1957, child star Tommy Rettig was fifteen-years-old, dating, and driving cars. He wanted to leave the show. His co-star Jan Clayton was considering a return to her roots in musical theater.
Millionaire oilman Jack Wrather had recently purchased the show from producer Robert Maxwell and anticipated a long and successful run for his $3,250,000 Emmy-winning investment, but he was concerned that Rettig was growing too old for the boy and his dog plot. Aware of the stars' wishes, executives reworked the show intending to introduce new characters and eventually write the Rettig and Clayton characters out of the show. A seven-year-old character called Timmy was woven into the plot. The character was named for Associate Producer Bonita Granville Wrather's mother, "Timmie."
With a new storyline waiting in the wings, Wrather personally selected Jon Provost, a child actor with several film credits, for the role of Timmy. Provost was the only actor considered for the role. The Timmy character debuted in the fourth season opener, "The Runaway" and was an instant hit with audiences.
Leaving the show
As the Lassie 1964 season approached, Jon Provost was a fourteen-year-old with his contract up for a three-year renewal. Provost however did not look forward to playing Timmy Martin until the age of seventeen, describing the role as a "vacuum" and stating,
"The character wasn't changing. If they had let him grow up a little, maybe I would have wanted to stay on. I knew that I wasn't going to sign up for another three years, and my parents were behind me all the way."
Stars Lockhart, Reilly, and Andy Clyde received their notices, with producer Bob Golden telling the press they'd done all the "boy and his dog" stories possible. With only Provost and producers knowing the real reasons for the show changes, speculation among the cast hinted that the decision to clean house was based on money. Lockhart was quoted as saying Provost's mother wanted too much money, and Reilly later stated that the producers' decision was based upon trading four advanced salaries for Robert Bray's starting salary.
Associate producer Bonita Granville Wrather kept the audience guessing through the summer of 1964 about the show's future by stating,
"We have built up such an adult audience; we are looking for stories with a wider scope. That's what our whole purpose will be in making any change that people might think we're making...our ratings have jumped in the past two years and it's because we do new things."
Without a boy in the cast as a principal character, producers reworked the show from a different angle. Several episodes which featured Lassie in the wilds such as "The Odyssey" and "The Journey" had proven popular with audiences. Jack Wrather and his associates decided to take Lassie off the farm and send her into the wilderness with a Forest Ranger who had previously appeared on the show in the tenth season's "Disappearance", Corey Stuart, played by Gary Cooper look-alike Robert Bray. Lassie would become the companion, not of boys, but of rugged, outdoorsy men sometimes working in dangerous places and situations.
Producers sent the Martin family to Australia where Paul would teach agriculture. Lockhart commented wryly, "We were supposed to go over there so that Paul could show the Australians how to grow things. We hadn't had a successful bean crop in six seasons. What could they possibly learn from us?" Lassie's three human companions then made their last appearances in the first part of "The Wayfarers" (1964), the opening three-part episode of the eleventh season. Lassie was forced to remain in the States due to Australia's strict quarantine regulations, and, though the dog would become the companion animal of a succession of forestry workers and see several seasons of new adventures, Timmy Martin would never be seen, heard, or referenced again on the show.
Awards, nominations, and honors
Jon Provost received a 2003 TV Land Favorite Pet Human Relationship Award nomination for Lassie (1954). The actor has also received a Star on the Walk of Fame (Television) at 7080 Hollywood Boulevard, and, in 1990, a Young Artists Former Child Star Lifetime Achievement Award. Long after the show's cancellation, Provost's Keds were placed on display in the Smithsonian Institution's television collections.
The highest rankings in the Nielsen ratings for Lassie were the Martin family years: #24 in 1957, #22 in 1958, #15 in 1959, #15 in 1961, #21 in 1962, #13 in 1963, and #17 in 1964. The only year the show did not climb into the top twenty-five was 1960, when it ran opposite Walt Disney Presents on ABC and Shirley Temple Theatre on NBC. With the departure of the Martin family in the eleventh season, the show began a steady decline in ratings.
Impact on popular culture
Appearances in other media
The character Timmy Martin was reprised for the 1989 syndicated series The New Lassie. Provost returned to play the role of Timmy, who was now an adult who went by the name Steve McCullough. In the seventh episode of the series June Lockhart also reprises her role as Ruth Martin, and viewers are told that Timmy was never properly adopted by the Martins. As such he was left behind when Paul and Ruth emigrated to Australia at the end of the original Lassie, causing him to feel extremely bitter towards the Martins, and changed to using his real first name of Steve instead of his middle name Timmy, and took on his new adoptive parents last name. At the end of the episode, he reconciles with his former adoptive mother.
Photographic and painted images of Jon Provost as Timmy Martin wearing his red-and-white gingham checked shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers were frequently used to promote a variety of merchandise marketed during Timmy years of the show. Provost as Timmy appeared on the covers of Whitman novels, a punch out book, Dell comic books, Campbell's Soup labels and in the soup company's television commercials. A complete line of boys' wear—shirts, pants, sweaters, ties, and more—bore the label: Jon Provost, Timmy of the Lassie series.
"Timmy's in the well!" became a popular catchphrase years after the show's cancellation in reference to the many show situations in which Timmy's safety and welfare were placed in jeopardy. Although Timmy never fell into a well on the show, Jon Provost chose the phrase as the title for his 2007 memoirs, Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. Provost points out that Timmy fell into abandoned mine shafts, off cliffs, into rivers, lakes and quicksand, but never fell into a well.
- Collins, Ace. Lassie: A Dog's Life. Penguin, 1993.
- Provost,Jon, and Laurie Jacobson. Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. Cumberland House, 2007. ISBN 978-0-14-023183-0