Although things have improved over the past couple of decades, Hollywood is filled with tales of young actors who have either been abused by the system, or, even worse, by the people who were supposed to be protecting them. Jay North, who achieved stardom at the age of seven as the star of the Classic TV series Dennis the Menace, is a prime example of this — and the scars run deep.
“I’m sick of Dennis the Menace,” Jay revealed some years ago on a television talk show appearance, which is featured on YouTube. “I hate Dennis the Menace, and I’m sorry I was ever associated with it.”
The show, which ran from 1959 to 1963, was based on the newspaper comic strip by Hank Ketchum. In it, Jay, who was born Aug. 3, 1951, in Hollywood, CA, played the title character of Dennis Mitchell, described as a good-natured kid who inadvertently finds himself in trouble pretty much all the time, particularly with next door neighbor George (“Good Old Mr. Wilson”) Wilson. Jay’s childhood was rough in the sense that his father was an alcoholic and his parents separated when he was four years old, which marked the last time he actually ever saw his father. His mother, Dorothy, was hired as a secretary to the West Coast branch of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, through which she actually got the then-six-year-old Jay a guest spot on a local LA children’s show, Cartoon Express. That appearance led to him being taken on by a talent agent and the start of his acting career.
Early on he worked as a child model, made TV guest appearances, and then, in June 1958, answered a nationwide talent search for Dennis to Menace, where he competed against a reported two hundred other hopefuls. Although his first audition didn’t go well, he nailed the second one. Following that, he screentested with Herbert Anderson, Gloria Henry, and Joseph Kearns, who played, respectively, Dennis’ parents Henry and Alice Mitchell, and George Wilson. He wouldn’t hear anything again until the spring of 1959, but then got word that he had been hired to star in the series, which debuted on Oct. 4, 1959. The show ran from 1959-63 and produced a total of 146 episodes. While it should have been a dream come true for Jay, it was more nightmarish than anything.
While Jay’s mother worked, his aunt and uncle — Marie and Hal Hopper — were his on-set guardians, and they were, according to Jay, cruel taskmasters. “If I didn’t live up to her unrealistic expectations,” he said, “she would hit me; physically abuse me. I remember I used to wake up every single morning thinking, ‘My God, do I have to spend another day with this woman?’ Because I would go in and do a scene, I would come off the set and everybody said, ‘Hey, you did a great job.’ And then I would get a slap across the face, and taken into the dressing room and get a spanking or verbal tongue lashing or whatever. She would grab my hair and just shake me and made life a living hell for the whole four years.”
Over the years Jay has sung the praises of his mother, who, he says, never took a dime from him — more unusual than you’d think back then. At the same time, he wasn’t able to say anything to her about what was going on, because his aunt and uncle threatened greater bodily harm. As a kid, and given what he had already gone through, there was no reason to doubt them.
The rest of the cast, he said, may not have been aware of the physical abuse, but they certainly were of the fact that he was not a happy kid. “I only came alive and became this outgoing, happy little boy when I was in front of the camera,” he said. “But when I was away from the camera and around the stage, I was a very quiet, introverted kid. I had a fascination with a science fiction film called Village of the Damned, about these children who have this power where they could look at people and take control of their minds and have them do horrible things to themselves. I wanted to do that. I wanted to hurt people and cause them the pain that they were causing me.”
When Dennis the Menace finished its network run, Jay found himself terribly typecast to the point where casting directors and producers could only see Dennis Mitchell when they looked at him. He did make a number of TV guest appearances and starred in the 1966 feature film Maya, which inspired a TV version he starred in for a single season a year later. This was followed by voice work on a number of animated series, including as Bamm-Bamm Rubble on The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show, about the now-teenaged children from The Flintstones. His last starring role was in the 1974 film The Teacher.
“Why am I not loved by the public anymore?” he would ask himself. “It was something that played with my head. All the pressure that I had was make people love you, make people enjoy you, and all of a sudden it wasn’t there anymore. Then when all that ends, it’s like you’re turned inside out. You go outside and no one’s fawning over you or paying attention to you, and it’s really something you have to come to terms with.”
With hopes that Hollywood would rediscover him diminishing, he joined the US Navy but had a difficult time from shipmates and superiors who constantly berated him for his past as a kid actor. He left the Navy in 1979 and while he acted here and there, he more or less retreated from public life and fell into some pretty dark times. There were, however, two saving graces. The first is that his mother had actually put all of his Dennis the Menace money into a trust fund, and, through investments, parlayed that into more than enough money to keep Jay going.
The second is that actor Paul Petersen, who had played Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show, and had started the organization A Minor Consideration to help former child actors going through what Jay had been, reached out to him along with former Dennis co-star Jeannie Russell (who played Margaret Wade). It seems that Rusty Hamer, the child star from The Danny Thomas Show, had committed suicide, and the duo feared that the same thing could happen to Jay.
Jay was put in touch with a therapist and began turning his life around. He moved to Florida with his third wife and took a job as a corrections officer. There he came to grips with his past, speaking out about the abuse he underwent while simultaneously expressing gratitude for the joy that people had gotten watching him on Dennis the Menace.
“I can go on with my life now, but I can’t forget the pain of those years,” he said in that TV interview. “But I think I can find a happy life because I’m not a slave to Hollywood anymore. And I’m not a slave to the public. I don’t owe anybody a damn thing. I just have to concentrate on making myself happy. I gave those people years of happiness, I gave my childhood to make them happy, and now I want to concentrate on making myself happy.”