Thursday, July 31, 2014

An Interview with Jon Provost from "Lassie"

One of the most popular child actors of the 1960s, Jon Provost recently appeared as one of the guest stars at the 2014 Western Film Fair. In between signing autographs and chatting with his many fans, Jon agreed to do an interview. Still as charming as when he played Timmy, Mr. Provost talked about his career before, during, and after Lassie.

Café: Your 1957 film All Mine to Give is an extremely moving tale about a frontier family in which both parents die. You played one of the sons at age 6. Realizing that you were about the same age, do you have any memories of making this film?

With Anita Ekberg and Phyllis Kirk
in Back from Eternity (1956).
Jon Provost:  All Mine to Give was the third movie that I made, so I was probably age 5 which would make it 1955. The very first two movies that I made, So Big with Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, and The Country Girl with Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly, I have no recollection at all. But starting with All Mine to GiveBack from Eternity, and Toward the Unknown, I remember all of those. 

Café:  How did you break into show business at age 2?

JP:  My parents weren't Hollywood people. My father is from Alabama and my mother is from Texas. They met in Hollywood and got married in the 1940s. Growing up on the farm, my Mother's idol was Jane Wyman. Well, we were living in Pasadena and Mom read in the L.A. Times that Warner Bros. was looking for a two to three-year-old boy to be in this movie with Jane Wyman. My Mom thought if she took me on the interview, she would meet Jane Wyman and get her autograph. That was the only reason she took me. There were over 200 kids trying out for the part and I ended up getting the job. I'm a real big believer in being at the right place at the right time. 

Café:  In your autobiography, Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story, you recall an amusing anecdote on how Lola Moore became your agent. Can you share that with our readers?

Jon Provost at the Western Film Fair
in July 2014.
JP:  That was for So Big. I had been trying out all day and they were telling the other kids to go home, but they kept telling me to stay. Toward the end of the day, this very flamboyant woman comes up to my mother and says: "I think your son is going to get this job." And my Mom says: "Great, but I haven't met Jane Wyman yet." Then, the woman says: "Don't worry. You'll meet Jane Wyman, but I need to know who your agent is." Thinking she met a real estate agent, Mom said that we owned a home and didn't need an agent. The woman said: "Oh, no, you don't understand. I'm talking about a theatrical agent to represent your son." Mom said she didn't know where to find one of those. The woman said: "My name is Lola Moore and I'm the number one child agent in Hollywood." Mom asked if we had to pay her. Lola said: "No, I just take 10% of whatever your son makes." Mom said: "Okay, I can live with that." So, at my first audition, I got the job and I got an agent--and Mom got a lot more than her autograph from Jane Wyman. 

Café Tommy Rettig preceded you as Jeff on Lassie. The two of you also played the same character at different ages in the 1952 film So Big and later guest-starred together on The New Lassie. Did you know him very well?

JP:  Yes, Tommy and I kept in touch over the years after the series. It was really neat on The New Lassie series to have him do an episode. He was a great guy. Unfortunately, he died very young.

Café Cloris Leachman played your mother on the first season of Lassie and then was replaced by June Lockhart for the next six years. What was it like working with the two of them?

Jon with Hugh Reilly, Baby, and
June Lockhart.
JP:  If you look at the demeanor between Cloris Leachman and June Lockhart, they're pretty opposite. That's why Cloris wanted out of the contract. She figured she wasn't baking cookies for six years. She treated me nicely. The same with June. June and I have kept in touch over the years. She just turned 89 years old in on June 5th and she's still working and in great shape.

Café Rudd Weatherwax owned and trained Pal, the original collie in the MGM movies. During your seven seasons on Lassie, you worked with three of Pal's descendants: his son Lassie Jr. and grandsonSpook and Baby. Which collie was your favorite and why?

JP:  I worked with Baby for five years straight. Obviously, he and I really bonded. He was my favorite and I also thought he was the most intelligent of the ones I worked with. They were all great dogs. 

Café Didn't Rudd Weatherwax give you one of the Lassie pups for a birthday present?

JP:  Yes, when I started the series at age 7, Rudd told me: "If you don't bug Lassie for the first year, don't pull his tail, don't ride him, and don't sit on him, I'll give you a Lassie puppy the next year." So, the next year, I got a Lassie puppy for my birthday. It was a male and I named him Rudd after Rudd Weatherwax.

Café What was it like being a child star in the 1960s?

A lunchbox with Lassie, June, and Jon.
JP:  It was totally different than the way it is today. I would get tons of fan mail sent to the studio--and to our home, because my mother would put our return address on the fan mail. If someone wanted a photograph, she would tell people that if they were ever in the neighborhood to stop by and say hi. And people did! Well, you sure can't do that today.

Café What led you to leave Lassie in 1964 at age 14?

JP:  I was really just tired of playing Timmy. I was growing up, I was going through puberty, I was getting interested in girls, and everybody thought of me as little Timmy. The studio wanted to go for three more years for a total of ten. But the option was ours and my parents asked me if I wanted to do Lassie for three more years or if I wanted to quit and do other stuff. I wanted to do other acting. I was just tired of being Timmy. It was time to move on. 

Café Do you have a favorite episode of Lassie and, if so, what was it?

JP:  My favorite episode was a three-parter called "The Odyssey." In it, Lassie inadvertently got locked in the back of a big tractor trailer truck, got hauled halfway across the country, and had to find his way home. By the third episode, we had figured that Lassie was never coming home and, in the last scene, Timmy is burying Lassie's toys in a special place. In the background, you hear this bark and then over the hill comes Lassie. I watch it today and I cry.

Café Wasn't one of the multi-part episodes turned into a theatrical film?

JP:  That was Lassie's Great Adventure. That was the only thing we ever did in color. I did over 250 episodes and only that five-parter was in color. It was the last year and those episodes were shot in Technicolor so they could be released as a movie after the series was over. 

Café You appeared on Mister Ed in the 1965 episode "Jon Provost Meets Mister Ed." It has a great scene in which you talk to Ed and note he's almost as smart as your dog. After you leave, Ed mutters: "Almost as smart as his dog? I'd like to see his pooch make a phone call." What was it like working on Mister Ed compared to Lassie?

Jon as a guest star on Mister Ed.
JP:  Let's put it this way: I went from the smartest dog to the smartest horse. Alan Young, Connie Hines, and the horse were all great. The director of that series was Arthur Lubin and he directed me in a movie called Escapade in Japan for RKO in 1956. That movie is what actually got me the part of Timmy on Lassie. So, it was kind of neat to work with Arthur Lubin again that many years later. 

Café You have long been involved with Canine Companions for Independence, an organization that provides service dogs to the handicapped. What can you tell us about this organization?

JP:  Canine Companions for Independence is a national organization that supplies service dogs totally free of charge to people that have disabilities other than blindness. There are five training centers throughout the United States. I was on the Board of Governors for 25 years. I just resigned last year. We've placed over 3500 dogs totally free of charge to the recipients. If anybody knows someone who has a disability and might need a service dog, they can go to the website: A few years ago, we also implemented a wounded veterans program that provides service dogs for the guys and gals coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who may be missing limbs or with other disabilities. 

Café Do you have a dog today?

JP:  Yes, we have a little rescue. I've always had dogs, but I'd always raised them from puppies and they've always been pure bred. When we lost our last dog, which was a beagle, my wife and I decided to do a rescue. We rescued a senior "special eds" dog, which was a real challenge. We've had him for about five years. He's the best dog we've ever owned. His name is Buddy and he is the total Heinz 57.

No checkered shirt here..but
it's still a great photo.
Café The checkered shirt and jeans you wore on Lassie are on display in The Smithsonian next to Archie Bunker’s chair. And Lassie continues to air throughout the world daily. What do you think is the secret to its enduring appeal?

JP:  It's that bond...that relationship between a boy and his dog. It's a universal thing. I think it's just that. That's why they call dogs man's best friend. 

You can learn more about Jon Provost and check out his upcoming appearances at his web site: You may also be interested in his autobiography Timmy's in the Well: The Jon Provost Story, which was co-written with Laurie Jacobson.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pitfall: A Suburban, Middle-Class Film Noir

In a 2006 article for L.A. Weekly, French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier called Pitfall (1948) "a film to rank among the best, the sharpest and the most original of noirs." I'm not sure I'd rank Pitfall with the genre's finest, but it's nonetheless a highly-effective drama that breaks free of the typical film noir conventions. There are no femme fatales, no bleak streets, and no hardened criminals.

A family breakfast scene in a film noir?
Instead, the protagonist is a middle-class insurance adjuster who lives in a suburban neighborhood with his loving wife and son. The problem is that John Forbes (Dick Powell) is disenchanted with his idyllic life. He's tired of playing bridge every Thursday. He's tired of going to work at the same time every morning and getting home at the same time every evening. When his wife Sue (Jane Wyatt) informs him that his breakfast is on the table, he retorts: "Where else would it be?"

Lizabeth Scott as Mona.
Johnny's life gets turned upside down when he tries to recover property purchased with embezzled money. The recipient of the "gifts" is Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a pretty store model who oozes vulnerability. An afternoon visit turns into an unexpected boat ride, a dinner invitation...and more. Private detective Mac McDonald (Raymond Burr), who is already infatuated with Mona, observes her interest in Forbes. One evening when Forbes arrives home late, Mac emerges from the shadows and administers a beating. Guilt-ridden and sinking in a sea of lies, Forbes decides to end his relationship with Mona. Unfortunately, it's too much too late.

Director Andre de Toth, in an interview in the book de Toth on de Toth, noted that the women dominated the film. For the role of Mona, he said: "I did not want a fashionable Hollywood bambola to cheapen the story...I wanted a warm, sincere, vulnerable human being." Strangely enough, de Toth thought Lizabeth Scott--who played her share of husky-voiced bad girls--was perfect for the part. And he was right. She's excellent as the young woman who seems to specialize in the wrong kind of man: one who commits a crime for her; one that's uncomfortably obsessed with her; and a nice guy that's already married (though she doesn't know that initially).

While Jane Wyatt's wife is a background figure for most of the film, she has two excellent scenes in the final ten minutes. In fact, she's the driving force behind an ending that Tavernier calls "one of the strongest, the iciest and the least complacent in movies of the era."

Mac (Burr) ogles Mona as she models.
Yet, while it's the female characters that propel Pitfall, it's Raymond Burr's slimy private eye that provides the film's necessary menace. In one of the film's most disturbing scenes, he visits the fashion store where Mona works and makes her model a slinky evening gown as he leers at her. He also visits the prison to tell Mona's jealous ex-boyfriend about her dalliance with Forbes. Still, he's not responsible for bringing adultery and murder into the Forbes' household.

Wyatt in the uncompromising final scene.
That distinction belongs to no one but John Forbes. With one horrible decision, he puts his family at peril, potentially destroys his marriage, and commits an act that will haunt him forever. Ironically, Forbes complains at the beginning of Pitfall that he's "in a rut six feet deep." By the end of the film, he has placed himself into a far deeper rut, one person is buried six feet deep, and another borders on death. He has allowed the bright cheery life that he took for granted to be invaded by the invisible shadows of film noir.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Parker Stevenson Talks About The Hardy Boys, Probe, and His Passion for Photography

Stevenson as teen detective Frank Hardy.
Parker Stevenson can still make ladies swoon. I recently attended the 2014 Western Film Fair, where the star of the The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries (1977-79) was one of the guests. As I rode up the elevator with a mother and daughter, the former was staring off into space. The daughter looked at me, smiled, and said: "Mom is still gooey from meeting Parker Stevenson." As agreeable in real life as he is on the screen, Mr. Stevenson sat down for an interview with yours truly.

Café: How did you go from Princeton University to acting?

Stevenson signing autographs at
the Western Film Fair.
Parker Stevenson: I needed a job (laughs). I graduated from the architecture program at Princeton, but decided I didn't want to keep doing architecture and I really didn't know what to do. I'd been acting since I was 14, doing movies, television, and commercials. Just as I was graduating, I got offered The Hardy Boys, so I made the switch and really committed to acting at that point.

Café: How did you get the role of Frank Hardy?

PS: I got it because the producers has seen me in a couple of the movies I'd done. In fact, I had done one with Pamela Sue Martin a couple of years before (1974's Our Time) and she ended up being Nancy Drew. So, I think that was the connection for them.

Parker Stevenson and Shaun Cassidy.
Café: How did you and Shaun Cassidy get along on the show?

PS: Great. He's really an easygoing guy and his sense of humor is like mine. That's probably why we got cast together, because we just liked each other. Part of what the show was about was two brothers who actually get along and get into trouble together. I'm still in touch with Shaun. He's still a good friend.

Café: Had you read any of The Hardy Boys books or seen the serial from The Micky Mouse Club?

PS:  I hadn't seen the serial. I was familiar with bits and pieces of the books, but I hadn't read them. I was really late getting started on my reading, which now I'm crazy about. But in those years, I wasn't much of a reader. I discovered the books really doing the show.

On Baywatch (of course!).
Café: How did you get cast on Baywatch?

PS: I did a movie called Lifeguard with Sam Elliott and the producers thought I might be okay playing a lifeguard (laughs). Really.

Café:  You've appeared in a number of popular series like Melrose Place and Falcon Crest in addition to The Hardy Boys and Baywatch. Out of all your TV series, which one is your favorite and why? 

With Ashley Crow on Probe.
PS:  My favorite was Probe (1988), which I did for ABC. It ran a year. I loved the show. It was Isaac Asimov's Probe, so it had really trippy interesting stories. It was up against The Cosby Show or something, so it struggled in the ratings. It was the closest to me in terms of how I think and what I'm like in real life.

Café:  I recently came across your photography website How did you become interested in photography?

PS:  I was one of those kids that had a Brownie camera and was always shooting. I'd take pictures of my friends or just doing goofy things in the backyard. By the time I was 14, I was shooting weddings for people, which was really not a good idea (laughs). They liked my pictures. I delivered and was responsible. Then, I hit a point where I didn't want to shoot people anymore. I felt too intimidated. Even if you just walk up and shoot someone, you feel like you're imposing and invading. My photography shifted to architecture, landscapes, and still lifes until about 15 years ago when some friends asked me to shoot them. I shifted all the way back to people again. Portraits are what I shoot the most now.

Parker snapped a selfie of the two of us;
he's the one on the right!
Café:  You recently appeared in an episode of Longmire, so what's the secret to Parker Stevenson's lengthy career?

PS:  I asked Burt Reynolds a similar question years ago. The question was: "Burt, you've been the #1 box office star for ten years now and you have this sort of Cary Grant ease about you. How have you managed to maintain that?" He said: "There are a lot of guys that are better looking or more talented than you or I, but they didn't hang in there." I took that to heart. I always wanted a career where I could keep working and trying new things and working with new people. I wanted a Jimmy Stewart career, not a huge, hot, short career. So, Burt's advice that you've got to hang in there is the answer.

Café:  Do you have any upcoming films, TV roles, or convention appearances that you want to share with our readers?

PS:  I'm doing a play in L.A. in later July called Chasing Smoke, which hopefully will have a long run. I love the script and it's close to my heart. Hopefully, I'll be back on Longmire. It looks like I might be. And I will be at another convention, the Hollywood Show, in Chicago on August 15-17. 

Café:  Thanks so much, Mr. Stevenson.

PS:  It was my pleasure.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Movie-TV Connection Quiz (July 2014 Edition)

What could Bruce & Bogie share in common?
In this third edition of the connection game, you will once again be given be a pair of films, TV series, performers, or any combination thereof. Your task is to find the common connection between the pair. It could be anything--two stars who acted in the same movie, two movies that share a common theme, a film that inspired a TV series, etc. As always, don't answer all the questions so others can play, too. There is a single best answer for each question.

1. Come and Get It and King Kong (1976).

2. Otto Preminger and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

3. The films Operation: Kid Brother and Diamonds Are Forever.

4. The film The Green Slime and the TV series Wagon Train.

5. Peter Lorre and Doris Day.

6. Bruce Lee and Humphrey Bogart.

7. The TV series The Fugitive and Dr. Kildare.

8. The TV series Mission: Impossible and the movie Muscle Beach Party.

9. The TV series The Green Hornet and The Dukes of Hazzard.

10. The TV series The Patty Duke Show and the film A Stolen Life (1946).

11. The film Mad Love (1935) and the TV series The Addams Family.

12. The TV series Have Gun--Will Travel and the film The Thomas Crown Affair (1968).

13. Elizabeth Montgomery and Katherine Ross.

14. The film The Graduate and the TV series Get Smart.

15. Vincent Price and Claude Rains.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Western Film Fair Brings Classic Stars and Fans Together

Hawthorne Hotel and Conference Center.
Last week, I joined over 500 Western movie buffs as they assembled in Winston-Salem, NC for the 37th annual Western Film Fair. One of the oldest fan conventions in the U.S., this year's event featured guest stars such as Piper Laurie (The Hustler, Carrie), Jon Provost (Timmy on Lassie), Johnny Crawford (The Rifleman), Parker Stevenson (The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries), and Joyce DeWitt (Three's Company). All the celebrities had a Western connection, ranging from Piper Laurie's co-starring role in 1955's Smoke Signal to Parker Stevenson's guest appearance on the contemporary Western TV series Longmire.

The format was the standard one for film fan conventions, consisting of: panel discussions and autograph sessions with the stars; movie screenings; and a room full of vendors selling DVDs, movie posters, comic books, etc. My goal was to interview some of the celebrities for this blog, though--having never attended a fan festival--I didn't know if my plans were realistic.

The wonderful Piper Laurie.
On my first afternoon, I approached Piper Laurie at the autograph table and asked if I could interview her. I spent the next 45 minutes sitting next to her, asking detailed questions about her career, her co-stars (e.g., Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis), and personal life as she stopped periodically to autograph photographs. The charming Ms. Laurie discussed life as a Universal contract player in the 1950s, her three Oscar-nominated performances, and acting on the stage and in live television drama. If my Western Film Fair experience had ended right there, I would have deemed it an unqualified success.

Parker Stevenson--on the right--and me.
Still, that same afternoon, I scored interviews with Jon Provost and Parker Stevenson. Both actors were incredibly gracious and gave delightful interviews. Stevenson even insisted on taking a selfie of the two of us, warning me not to crop myself out of the picture. The only disappointment of the day was a minor one. I spent a half-hour sitting next to Johnny Crawford--but a constant stream of fans prevented an interview.

Most of the stars signed the Western Film Fair program for free. However, they charged $20 to $30 for an autographed photo and $10 to autograph an item provided by a fan. One gentleman had Piper Laurie sign a mint-condition, one-sheet poster of her horror film Ruby, which undoubtedly increased the value of that collectible significantly. By the way, Ms. Laurie posted a sign stating that all the proceeds from her autographs would be donated to the Wounded Warriors Project. Such a classy lady!

Johnny Crawford.
I was amazed by the patience exhibited by the stars, who would listen intently as gushing fans described favorite TV episodes or other stars they had met. Some of these encounters lasted for five to ten minutes (even when other people were waiting in line). None of the celebrities charged to pose for a photograph with one of their fans. I know these stars appear at fan conventions to make money, but, frankly, I was impressed at the way they treated their fans.

Jim Rosin with one of his books.
On the second day, I interviewed Jim Rosin, an actor and writer who penned several episodes of Quincy M.E. (and played an alien in the popular cult film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai). Rosin has also written several books on classic TV series such as Wagon Train, Route 66, and The Naked City. That's no surprise as he was a great storyteller, sharing anecdotes about working with Jack Klugman, interviewing George Maharis, etc. Rosin also served as the moderator for the panel discussions with the stars.

After screening the Western Smoke Signal, I stayed for the panel discussion with Piper Laurie. Jim Rosin spent the first half-hour asking questions about her career, from her start in Hollywood at age 18 to a recent appearance in the stage musical A Little Night Music. Ms. Laurie then spent another thirty minutes fielding questions from the audience of about 60 people. Of her Smoke Signal co-star Dana Andrews, Piper Laurie said she idolized him as a teen ("My girlfriend and I would go to see films he did with Linda Darnell six times"). Yet, when she first met him at his Burbank home, he was "out cold" from intoxication in the backseat of his car. He struggled with alcoholism throughout the making of Smoke Signal. Ms. Laurie ended, though, by adding: "Mr. Andrews became sober, rehabilitated himself completely, became president of the Screen Actors Guild, and became a useful member of society and a star of Broadway after all this."

Tommy Hildreth, one of the organizers.
That evening, after the panel discussion, I watched The Mississippi Gambler starring Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie (she won the role over Linda Christian, who was then Mrs. Power). The film, which also featured Julie Adams, was shown on 16mm. I learned later that the print belonged to Tommy Hildreth, one of the Western Film Fair organizers. When I asked him to name some of his all-time favorite guests at the event, he deferred initially. But when I pressed for an answer, he admitted that Julie Adams and Piper Laurie were probably his favorites, adding that he had been a fan of both actresses since the 1950s.

The Purple Monster!
During the convention's three days, over 70 digital and 16mm films were screened in multiple rooms, from ten o'clock in the morning until after midnight. While most of them were "B" Westerns featuring cowboy stars such as Hoot Gibson, there were also TV series episodes and serials. The latter included one of my childhood favorites, The Purple Monster Strikes, about an evil Martian decked out in a very cool--if impractical--costume.

Bob "Fuzzy" Brooks.
A primary attraction for many of the Western Film Fair attendees was the vendor room. Collectors scoured the vendor tables carefully, looking for desired items at good prices. Of course, you could also purchase non-collectibles such as Fuzzy's Bunkhouse Brew Coffee, which was being sold by Bob (Fuzzy) Brooks. Heck, Fuzzy has a Facebook page (Westerns Trails Stars of the Silver Screen) with almost 6,000 "likes." He has been a staple at the Western Film Fair for the last four years. Decked out in full Western gear, he certainly attracts attention. In fact, he recounted an amusing story about going to an Atlanta restaurant in his fuzzy outfit and being mistaken for Stinky Pete from Toy Story.

A WFF attendee.
I missed the awards banquet, the convention's culminating event, on Saturday evening. I'm sure it was a delightful affair--combining live music, the presentation of the Ernest Tubbs Award, and attendance by many of the stars. Yet, for all the celebrities and the movies, Hildreth made an insightful observation when asked about the enduring appeal of the Western Film Fair: "I think a lot of people would come even without the guest stars. They look forward to getting together year after year with their friends and talking about the Westerns they love."

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Build-Your-Own Blogathon!

For the final 2014 blogathon hosted by the Café, we wanted to do something different. So, this blogathon was "built" by the participating bloggers over the last month. During a span of 20 days, 20 bloggers will write about 20 classic movies. Each movie will somehow be connected to the next--but the connections will vary. The films may be connected by be an actor, director, theme, location, etc. Each participant selected the blogger that follows them--well, except for The Blonde at the Film (who holds the distinction of closing out the blogathon). The schedule is below...and it's a very diverse list of films!

Posting date in August

connected to Jubal by composer David Raksin
connected to The Bad and the Beautiful by Kirk Douglas
connected to Lust for Life by Vincente Minnelli
connected to Designing Woman by editor Adrienne Fazan
connected to Anchors Aweigh by Frank Sinatra
connected to Tony Rome by Richard Conte
connected to Cry of the City by Victor Mature
connected to My Darling Clementine by producer-writer Samuel G. Engels
connected to Bernadine by writer Mary Chase
connected to Harvey by Wallace Ford
connected to T-Men by director Anthony Mann
connected to Bend of the River by genre and setting
Connected to Rooster Cogburn by producer Hal Wallis
connected to Sorry, Wrong Number by actor Jimmy Hunt
connected to Belles on Their Toes by Myrna Loy
connected to Test Pilot by director Victor Fleming
connected to Mantrap by actor Rolfe Sedan
connected to The Last Performance by Conrad Veidt
connected to All Through the Night by William Demarist