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Ex-Child Stars Squandered and Lived to Sell the Tale

SunAmerica puts three 'cultural icons' on the talk show circuit to promote retirement-planning services.

July 16, 1999|GREG JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The next time Jon Provost gets into financial trouble, the former child star won't have to send Lassie for help. In a twist that blurs the already-fuzzy line between programming and advertising, the actor who played Timmy in the long-running "Lassie" TV series is joining forces with SunAmerica Inc. to promote its retirement-planning services.

The Los Angeles-based financial services giant is paying Provost, 49, and two other onetime child stars to join the talk show circuit, chronicling how bad financial planning led them to squander their Hollywood fortunes. At the end of the spiels, talk show hosts will be encouraged to mention a toll-free telephone number that consumers can call to order a free SunAmerica brochure.

The former child stars aren't directly identified as paid spokespeople. Rather, talk show fans will be told that the actors are making a national tour, sponsored by SunAmerica, that urges Americans to save for retirement.

SunAmerica is betting that the aging but familiar faces will appeal to baby boomers tackling retirement planning. "This is a very subtle, very clever way to brand SunAmerica products in people's minds without appearing to take advantage of these guys," said Stan Friedman, president and managing partner of WorldCom, an Oakland-based consulting firm. "They subliminally want you the listener to make the connection."

Some talk shows will balk at giving the three--and SunAmerica--a free soapbox. "That wouldn't fly here," said the producer of one nationally syndicated television show. But other talk show gatekeepers say booking decisions are driven by whether a candidate has star appeal.

"Guests are chosen on their celebrity status," said a spokeswoman for KTTV-TV, which produces the "Good Day L.A." morning talk show.

The actors already have been booked on such programs as KLOS-FM's "Mark & Brian" radio show and "Good Day New York" on Fox Broadcasting's WNYW-TV, said SunAmerica Vice President Don Spetner. Additional bookings on syndicated and network talk shows will be pursued when television's summer rerun season ends.

Former child stars talking about fortunes won and lost to an audience in star-struck Southern California "sounds like a good human-interest story," said Erik Braverman, an assistant program director with KABC-AM and KLOS-FM in Los Angeles. "But if they want to talk only about the product, we'd cut them off in five minutes."

The talk show gambit is part of SunAmerica's effort to build brand recognition in a hotly competitive financial services industry. Observers say SunAmerica hopes to broaden the appeal of its chief product: annuities, which are retirement-savings products whose main appeal is their tax-deferral feature. At the same time, annuities often charge high fees, drawing criticism from some financial advisors.

In June, SunAmerica launched a $25-million brand ad campaign. While the former stars don't appear in commercials, their message is the same: There probably won't be much of a future for people who spend like there's no tomorrow.

The three former stars, each of whom has settled into non-acting careers, offer a combined tale of youthful excess that features such Hollywood staples as fast cars, easy sex, substance abuse and, ultimately, empty bank accounts.

Provost now lives in Santa Rosa, where he sells real estate and is writing his autobiography. His teenage spending spree began when he dropped $6,000 for a Lotus sports car. "I pretty much partied my money away," Provost said. "When I turned 18, I'd been working for 15 years and thought, 'Now it's time to have some fun.' "

Brandon Cruz, 37, starred in the 1970s hit show "The Courtship of Eddie's Father." One day in 1981, the teenager bought 12 surfboards, six wetsuits and airline tickets--then headed off on a round-the-world search for the perfect wave. He subsequently lost a significant portion of his income through poorly advised real estate deals.

Paul Petersen (Jeff on the "Donna Reed Show" from 1958 to 1966), now 52 and living in Los Angeles, founded A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit group that serves as an advocate for up-and-coming childhood stars and athletes. Petersen talks openly of "terrible choices in my 20s: drugs, alcohol, bad people." During one stretch he purchased 20 cars, five homes and 30 televisions. "If I could have bought one less house than I did, I'd be in better shape."

SunAmerica won't say how much it is paying the trio. The company is making a $10,000 donation to A Minor Consideration. Petersen said only that the payment to his foundation and his fees for personal appearances are "significant."

By Friedman's calculations, SunAmerica could reap a "seven-figure windfall in free publicity from its $10,000 donation and whatever personal-appearance fees they're paying. That's nickels and dimes for SunAmerica, in contrast to what they stand to gain."

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