A Brutal Life For 'Dennis' Jay North's Aunt Tyrannized Him On Set Of '60s Tv Series

Posted: June 25, 1993

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 was Dennis Mitchell, the image was an

illusion. Jay North was a tortured kid. He says he was kept sheltered from any semblance of a normal childhood and abused on the show's set by a tyrannical aunt and uncle.

North said 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 standards.

Then he grew up, or tried to. It hasn't been pretty: a couple of divorces, years of self-imposed exile, 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."

So you'll have to excuse North if he isn't falling all over himself to see the new "Dennis the Menace" film that's in theaters today. He doesn't watch reruns of his old TV series, either.

Now 41, North has a paunch and a puffy face. His hair is graying. The eyes are accented by tired circles. Yet North, born in Studio City, Calif., is in good spirits while sitting in the office of his chiropractor, Dr. Jeannie Russell, who played Dennis' playmate Margaret on the show.

It's the last time North and Russell will have a chance to visit for a while. In March, North married for the third time, to a woman from Lake Butler, Fla., where the couple will live.

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

North won the role of Dennis from more than 200 others who auditioned. The show aired from 1959 to 1963, during which he aged from 7 to 11. It should have been a joyful time. It wasn't.

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

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

North recalled, "She was careful never to hit me in front of anyone else, and in places on my body where it wouldn't show - although I'm shocked the bruises weren't visible on my face."

He added that others in the cast and crew were powerless to stop his aunt's mistreatment, anyway.

"Gloria (Henry, who played Dennis' mother) and Herb (Anderson, who played his father) would try to talk to her," North said. "But nobody stepped in to stop it because the emphasis was on the work, and my work was fine. No one knew how much pain and fear I was hiding inside. I was great at covering it up."

Henry said that during the series North was kept separated from the cast and was "not permitted to have a real childhood."

"I would say to myself, I hope Jay makes all the money in the world,

because he's going to need it later on to pay for analysts," Henry said.

The sense of terror he carried around prevented North from telling his mom about the way her sister treated him until after the aunt died.

"My aunt threatened that if I ever told, she'd get me," North said. "I believed her."

After "Dennis the Menace," North starred in 1967's "Maya" and made guest appearances on "The Lucy Show," "Wagon Train" and "My Three Sons."

At 21, he was a washed-up child star starting to encounter a delayed reaction to his trauma.

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

Finally, in the 1980s, North plunged into an abyss of depression that found him virtually going into hibernation.

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

"I had been contemplating suicide, too. If I'd kept guns in the house, I probably wouldn't be here now," North said.

Instead, North decided he had a story to tell that could help current and future child actors deal with their unusual lives.

North has spent the past few years traveling the talk show circuit and doing counseling work with A Minor Consideration, which counsels young performers and former child stars.

North's mother socked away his "Dennis the Menace" salary in a trust account, later investing it in real estate. He is well off financially as a result.

At last, it seems North has forged a certain peace.

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

comments powered by Disqus