September 16, 2004
At Lunch With June Lockhart, Jon Provost and Lassie
By JAMES BARRON
t may not be up there with rescuing Timmy from the well or chasing away the shotgun-happy neighbor, but there is news on the Lassie front. Just this week, Lassie learned to eat with a fork.
Oh, the surprises of lunch with June Lockhart and, well, a dog answering to Lassie.
Forty-six years after the former starred in a show that had the same name as the latter, one looked back and the other found a way to do something Lassie did not do when Lassie was a farm boy's dog, and television was black and white. And consider what was on the fork. Chicken, yes. But who knew? One taste of broccoli, and Lassie was hooked.
Oh, and Timmy has bifocals. Jon Provost, who played Timmy from 1957 to 1964, is 54 now and has hair that is kind of thin in places where it used to hang down. And what was that under his sport jacket? A flower-print shirt, not a checkered one like the one he wore week after week on "Lassie." (The original, for the record, is in the Smithsonian.)
The dog across the table was not, of course, the Lassie he frolicked with on "Lassie" - that Lassie is long gone. This is a successor who has been helping them promote a DVD with 18 episodes from a series that managed to be prim - profanity was a no-no on the show and on the set. After all, Mr. Provost was 7 when he joined the cast.
"We couldn't talk dirty," Ms. Lockhart, 79, said, turning to Mr. Provost, "till after you'd gone home, because you were so little."
Here is a secret from those days, one that not even Ms. Lockhart knew when she was playing Ruth Martin: Some of the "Lassie" scripts came from writers who had been blacklisted after refusing to name names in the heyday of McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
She mentioned Adrian Scott, one of the Hollywood 10 who went to prison for contempt of Congress. His wife, writing as Joanne Court, attended story conferences and gave her husband notes so he could do rewrites. She also mentioned Robert Lees, who was listed in the credits as J. E. Selby. (He was murdered during a break-in at his home in Hollywood in June. He was 91.)
"So when people come up to me and say, 'Well, sure wish we had wonderful American shows like that the way we used to in the 50's,' I say, 'Let me tell you who wrote those scripts,' " Ms. Lockhart said. "Yes, they were good Americans, and they were in jail."
Here is another secret, though it is less well guarded. All the Lassies, going back nine generations, have been male collies.
The early ones had names like Pal, Junior and Baby. This one's real name is HeyHey. But when there is a fork nearby or a hand with cut-up hot dog, he answers to - well, you know. Or he looks as if he is looking at the camera. He is really looking just behind the camera. There, where only Lassie can see, hovers Lassie's trainer, Carol Riggins, waving a treat. Click goes the shutter. Down goes the cut-up hot dog.
Here is another secret: Off camera, Mr. Provost was not emotionally involved with the dog. For one thing, there was never just one dog. There was the main Lassie, of course. But there was also the stand-in used in rehearsals, and a stunt double and the fighter dog (the dog who rough-housed with the main Lassie when the script called for a fight scene). That was four dogs not to get emotionally involved with, because, he said, the trainers discouraged emotional involvements.
"People always asked me, 'If you told Lassie to sit or shake hands ' " He paused, shifting in his chair. "If I did, Lassie would look at me like, 'You're not my trainer.' "
Just as there was more than one dog on the set, there was more than one trainer. Usually, Ms. Lockhart said, there were two. Each teetered on a stepladder, where only Lassie could see. Each had a job to do - like Ms. Riggins, waving meat at Lassie.
"It would look as though Lassie was looking at Jon, but he was really looking past Jon at the piece of beef," Ms. Lockhart said. When Mr. Provost delivered his line, the trainer behind Ms. Lockhart would whisper "Lassie!" and wave another chunk of meat. Lassie's head would turn. Ms. Lockhart would say her line. Then the trainer behind Mr. Provost would get Lassie's attention again, and Mr. Provost would do the next line.
"The sound editor would cut out all that," Ms. Lockhart said, and as an actor, she added, "you finally got to where you never heard the trainers."
Which is about the way lunch went. HeyHey - make that Lassie - turned out to have impeccable table manners, once he finally reached the outdoor table at Tavern on the Green. But Lassie is a star with things in the works - Lassie's handlers think pet-care products where other stars' handlers think perfumes or designer clothes, and Lassie's Web site (www.lassie.tv) talks about a new feature film and an animated series. So first there was the entrance. Heads turned. Waiters halted. People whipped out cameras.
Then there was the seating problem. Lassie is too big for the kind of white metal chairs that Ms. Lockhart and Mr. Provost settled into, and too short to reach the table by just sitting on the ground. Someone brought over a little podium, like one a bandleader would stand on. Lassie climbed on. Just right.
Soon, without thinking about it, Ms. Lockhart speared a piece of the chicken on Lassie's plate with a fork. Lassie ate as if a fork were no big deal. Ms. Lockhart offered the broccoli. Lassie gobbled that up, too.
"He's excited," said Ms. Riggins, the trainer. But Lassie was not much for table conversation. Lassie barked a couple of times, but Lassie also disappeared - off to Central Park again.
The conversation with Ms. Lockhart and Mr. Provost turned to what "Lassie" was all about and why, in the minds of people who were children in the 1950's and 60's, it remains something of a magical memory.
"This," Ms. Lockhart said, "was a fairy tale about people on a farm in which the dog solves all the problems in 22 minutes, in time for the last commercial."
Which made it as dog-driven as this lunch? "Often," she said, "if the scene had gone well, and maybe we hadn't gotten the dialogue quite right, if the dog was right, they'd print it."