Jay North, TV's Dennis the Menace: The Untold Story
Jay North as Dennis the Menace. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
From 1959 to '63, Jay North was TV's Dennis the Menace on the sitcom of the same name, based on Hank Ketcham's daily one-panel newspaper comic. When the series began, North was just seven years old. Although the show was extremely popular, North's childhood suffered, and he had trouble escaping the shadow of Dennis the Menace for decades afterward.
North's character, Dennis Mitchell, was a precocious, blond-haired boy who was forever finding himself in the middle of some sort of conflict. His standard outfit was a striped t-shirt and overalls. Like the Dennis of the cartoon, North's character had a prominent cowlick.
American Viewers Loved Jay North As Dennis
Dennis, for all of his well-meaning intentions, just couldn’t help from getting into trouble. His favorite neighbor, Mr. Wilson (played by Joseph Kearns), usually ended up falling victim to Dennis’ mischief. Despite the fact that Mr. Wilson was grouchy and cantankerous, he had a secret soft spot for Dennis and just couldn’t stay mad at him. From the start, the show was a huge hit with viewers.
North Fell Into The Child Actor Trap
Child actors, quite often, seem to fall victim to many pitfalls of their success. Unfortunately, Jay North was no exception. Many have reported depression, drug and alcohol abuse as well as other self-destructive behavior. While North’s circumstances were not as extreme, he definitely recalls being unhappy during the filming of the popular show. There was tremendous pressure on him to perform as an actor and as a student. He often found himself on the road, away from home and not being able to enjoy much of his childhood.
North Suffered Abuse During His Run On The Show
In 1959, North began making $500.00 per episode for his role as Dennis Mitchell. As the series continued, he eventually began bringing in $3,500.00 per episode. North’s mother managed his early career and carefully invested his earnings, which she ultimately turned over to him. She continued to work her full-time job and did not rely on his income to support them as many parents of child actors have. In that respect, he was fortunate.
What was unfortunate though, was that since his mother was working during the filming of the show, his aunt and uncle accompanied him to the television set for filming and were his on-stage guardians. No one knew at the time, but North has said that his aunt put unhealthy pressure on him, often being physically and verbally abusive. He suffered corporal punishment for not performing up to his aunt’s expectations. He spent most of that time in fear.
North's Education And Social Skills Suffered
Being a busy child actor, North had very little free time. He didn’t get to play and socialize with other children, except on the set. He was on a non-stop rollercoaster. The pressure was relentless. In addition to his unhappy circumstances, North became distraught when Joseph Kearns passed away unexpectedly. Kearns portrayed Mr. Wilson until his death in 1962. This was a huge blow for North, changing the whole dynamic of the show for him. He became very withdrawn, ratings went down and the show was canceled.
In 1963, Jay North was enrolled in boarding school. Because of his demanding acting schedule while filming Dennis the Menace, his education had been sub-par. He wasn’t able to keep up academically and lacked social skills that the other kids had.
North Could Never Escape His Dennis Identity
By the end of the series in 1963, Jay North had grown out of that baby-faced character and was not able to pull off some of the stunts he had previously, simply because he was growing up. After the series ended, he pursued his acting career and found scattered acting roles but was never really embraced again in that community. He had been typecast as, “Dennis the Menace,” and was never truly able to shake that persona.
After he had resolved himself to the fact that his acting career wasn’t going anywhere, North enlisted in the Navy in 1977. Unfortunately, even in the military, he couldn’t escape the character of Dennis. He experienced harsh treatment by both his shipmates and superiors for being a former child actor. Ultimately, he received an honorable discharge and left the Navy behind after only 2 years.
Following his brief military career, North worked for several years in the health food industry before becoming a corrections officer in the State of Florida. And, yes, as you may have guessed, many of the prisoners he guarded over his 20 plus year correctional officer career, have recognized him as Dennis Mitchell. Some remember watching him as a child, others remember watching reruns but everyone knows who he is.
Jay North Doesn't Regret Being Dennis
Jay North reports still having close relationships with many of his former cast members. He has fond memories of working with them even though much of that time, unbeknownst to them, he was very unhappy. North, now in his 60s, has said that although he has spent most of his life, “fighting the ghost of Dennis the Menace,” he is proud to have been associated with the show.
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