Jon Provost made his movie debut when he was 2 1/2, playing Jane Wyman's son in "So Big."
He went on to play the son of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly in "The Country Girl," the son of Teresa Wright in "Escapade in Japan" and toddler roles in several other films.
His breakout finally came — at age 7. He was cast as Timmy in the beloved TV series "Lassie," propelling him to international stardom.
But after seven years of chasing the collie around the Martin farm, Provost grew tired of the role and started chasing around L.A.'s Sunset Strip, where the 1960s were in full bloom. Yet it wasn't long before he fled that wild urban scene and in a figurative sense, returned to the farm, settling in rural Northern California, where he lives to this day.
The Provost saga is told with refreshing candor in his new autobiography, "Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story," which he wrote with his wife, author Laurie Jacobson. (For the record, Timmy never fell in a well.)
Fully a third of the text consists of testimony of family, friends and co-workers. The interruptions are sometimes bothersome, but more often they shine light on a complicated boy and man.
Provost was a natural as a screen actor with his tousled blond hair, bright eyes and innocent face. As an actor, he had the advantage of a hard-driving mother who pursued jobs for him and protected him by being on his movie sets almost every day. His father did not interfere.
One day when his mother wasn't on a location, Jon was required to accompany Lassie on a raft downstream in a river; they would jump overboard before the raft reached the rapids.
"I boarded the raft and pushed it along in the shallow water," he writes. "Lassie sat next to me, alert and ready. I felt like Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn making my way down river."
Then the water changed, swirling around the raft. Jon and Lassie were cued to jump into the water. It was cold, and Jon's wet suit and boots filled with water, causing him to submerge. He slammed into a rock and couldn't breathe. Finally, he was rescued by his stunt double, Whitey Hughes. When his mother learned what had happened, she was furious.
After seven years on "Lassie," Provost was offered a three-year extension. His parents said he could make the decision himself. The actor said no.
"The main problem with being a child star was not having an identity other than your character's," Provost says. "Everybody called me Timmy, which was not my real name; it was Jon. Having that thrust on you and not having any control over it is not good."
As he entered puberty, Provost was able to play more mature roles, notably in "This Property Is Condemned" with Natalie Wood. At about the same time, according to the book, he lost his virginity with a neighborhood girl who invited him over during the Christmas holiday while her mother was out.
His 16th birthday brought another landmark for the actor: his driver's license. He began to frequent the Sunset Strip, where night clubs offered the music of Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, as well as ready access to alcohol and drugs.
"When I turned 18 and graduated from high school, I had been working for 15 years," he says. "So it was time for a break for me, and that's when I left the industry. The last thing I did was a Disney movie with Kurt Russell in 1969."
Eager to escape the Hollywood hoopla, Provost followed a girlfriend north and enrolled with her at Sonoma State University. They didn't last long. She returned to Los Angeles after six months; he stayed.
When he finished his education, Provost went to work in real estate, in which he remained for over 20 years.
In 1979, he married Sandy Goosens and they had two children, Ryan, now 24, and Katie, now 22. The marriage failed in 1995 and Goosens moved out with the children, plunging Jon into the worst depression of his life.
"I spiraled down hard and fast," he writes. "I drank too much. I binged on ice cream. No matter what I did, the depression never seemed to let up. ... I was in the deepest darkest well I'd ever been in, and there was no dog in sight."
Then came those weekend autograph shows that helped Provost escape from his despair. After years of trying to abandon his Lassie identity, the events were like coming home.
"Nowadays, I do a lot of nostalgia shows and autograph shows around the country," he says. "I do a lot of fund raising for pet shelters. Also I've been involved with Canine Companions for Independence that supplies service dogs for persons with disabilities."
At one of his signings, he met Laurie Jacobson, who was autographing one of her Hollywood books. They were married in 1999 and live in Santa Rosa, as do his children.
Provost writes about Laurie at the end of his book:
"She's devoted to my kids, and she is head over heels about our dog, Barney. She tells me I was meant to play second fiddle to a dog my whole life through. That suits me just fine."