Memories of TV's 'Dennis' still menace ex-child star Jay North

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jay North was supposed to stay 7 years old forever. As television's Dennis the Menace, he would remain frozen in time: a happy-go-lucky extrovert in striped overalls, his wispy blond locks flopping around as he made a mess of every situation.

But while the TV series "Dennis the Menace" has aged into an antiquated and innocent piece of Americana -- canceled 30 years ago by CBS -- its star has evolved into someone quite different than we remember.

Even during the four years he reigned as the adorable Dennis Mitchell, the image was an illusion. Jay North was a tortured kid, he admits now. He was kept sheltered from any semblance of a normal childhood and -- as he says today -- abused on the show's set by a tyrannical aunt and uncle.

Mr. North said in an interview last week that his aunt was an unyielding taskmaster who would slap him across the face and otherwise abuse him physically and emotionally if he performed a scene below her perfectionist standards.

"If it took me more than one or two takes, I would be threatened and then whacked," he said.

Indeed, our memories of "Dennis the Menace" hardly match the reality. What was merry for the sunny Dennis was a nightmare behind the scenes for Mr. North. Even the blond hair was deceptive, bleached every two weeks to keep the locks golden.

Then Mr. North grew up, or tried to. It hasn't been pretty: a couple of divorces, years of self-imposed exile, a psychological turmoil that wouldn't abate, an acting career that screeched to a halt and longtime status as what he calls "a professional has-been."

As an adult, Mr. North clearly headed south. Dennis the Menace became Wrong-Way Jay.

So you'll have to excuse Mr. North if he isn't falling all over himself to see the new "Dennis the Menace" feature film that's being released Friday in theaters everywhere.

Too many bad memories

Mr. North doesn't watch the reruns of his old TV series, either. He said he hasn't ever seen a single episode all the way through, in fact. Ever. Too many bad memories.

The Jay North who has shown up for the interview is 41. He sports a significant paunch and a puffy face. His hair is graying. The eyes are accented by tired circles that give testament to a life of emotional struggle. He also complains of bursitis in his left arm.

Yet Mr. North, born in Studio City, Calif., and a resident of North Hollywood throughout his adulthood, is in good spirits while sitting in the North Hollywood chiropractic offices of Dr. Jeannie Russell.

This is the same Jeannie Russell who played the role of Dennis' playmate Margaret on the show.

It's the last time that Mr. North and Ms. Russell will have a chance to visit for a while. In March, Mr. North married a woman who lives in Lake Butler, Fla., near Jacksonville, and on Tuesday he packs up the car to move there -- into a three-bed room lakefront home they recently purchased.

For a man who has lived an identity crisis, the move out of the San Fernando Valley represents a chance to begin again.

The break from Los Angeles and his past is more than merely symbolic. Mr. North understood that in order to "put this 'Dennis the Menace' thing behind me at last," he had to leave the area that kept his heart and soul under lock and key.

They have resided there since Mr. North's time on "Dennis the Menace" between 1959 and '63, during which he aged from 7 to 11. It should have been a joyful time for a talented kid who had won the role from more than 200 other boys who auditioned.

Instead, it was a nightmare.

Sheer terror

Since his mother, Dorothy, had a full-time job and was unavailable during the day, Mr. North's now deceased aunt and uncle were assigned as his adult caretakers on the set.

The performance pressure his aunt constantly applied played cruelly on Mr. North's head, he recalled.

"She was always scowling at me disapprovingly. . . . It was pathetic. I couldn't be human. I had to be superhuman."

Ms. Russell said that it was clear on the set that Mr. North's was a hypersensitive kid and his aunt was uncommonly stern and businesslike. But she never personally saw her hit him.

"If Jay says she abused him in private, then I'm inclined to believe it," Ms. Russell said. "The sheer demands of being in every scene all by itself had to be extremely stressful. "

The sense of sheer terror he carried around prevented Mr. North from telling his mother about her sister's treatment of him until years afterward, following his aunt's death.

So great was the animosity Mr. North built up for his aunt and uncle that he believed it was "karma" that caused both to die what he termed "slow, painful deaths" -- the uncle from emphysema, the aunt from a debilitating stroke.

After "Dennis the Menace," Mr. North would star during the next couple of years in a second, shorter-lived series, 1967's "Maya," and make guest appearances on such series as "Wagon Train," "The Lucy Show" and "My Three Sons."

His heart wasn't in it. But as Mr. North says now, "I was unprepared to do anything else."

A washed-up child star

At least Mr. North had his money. His mother had socked away his "Dennis the Menace" salary in a trust account, later investing it wisely in real estate. Mr. North is well-off financially to this day as a result.

Yet financial security can't make the past go away. By the time he was 21, Mr. North was a washed-up child star who was just starting to encounter a severe delayed reaction to his on-set trauma.

"All of the ghosts started to haunt me and just stuck around," he said.

He got married, then quickly divorced. He served an enlistment hitch in the Navy. He worked in a health food store. He even dabbled in a little dinner theater, and, briefly, served as a prison guard.

"I was still a child who had never grown up in my 20s," Mr. North said. "I'd never been allowed to mature, so I didn't have a clue about how to relate to real life. I'd never been permitted to date as a teen-ager, so I couldn't relate to women."

Finally, in the 1980s, Mr. North dropped out of society completely. He plunged into an abyss of despair that found him virtually going into hibernation, shutting himself off from family, friends and women and watching old films all day.

It was the 1990 suicide death of friend Rusty Hamer, a child star on "The Danny Thomas Show" in the 1950s and '60s, that broke Mr. North out of his shell and inspired him to get into therapy and confront his demons.

Mr. North decided he had a story to tell that could help current and future child actors deal with their unusual lives. So Mr. North has spent the past few years opening up, traveling the talk-show circuit. He's back among the living, doing some counseling work with a group that counsels young performers -- and ex-child stars -- in dealing with the Hollywood system of use and rejection.

Mr. North likes to think he's finally gotten his act together. He's excited about trading Los Angeles for a quieter suburban life in the Southeast.

"But I'm finally starting a new life and burying Dennis Mitchell. I need very badly to again be Jay North -- whoever that is."

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