Jay North became a household name before he was even 10 years old, known for the role of the mischievous Dennis Mitchell on the CBS sitcom Dennis the Menace. Based on Hank Ketchum's comic strip, the popular series followed Dennis, his parents, and his neighbor Mr. Wilson (Joseph Kearns) as they handle Dennis regularly getting into trouble. Despite being a prominent child star, North really didn't have the most positive upbringing, constantly feeling the solitude of being a child actor in Hollywood who didn't get time with children his own age.
North was born in California, the only child of Jay and Dorothy North. After his parents divorced when he was 4 years old, he never saw his father again. He briefly lived with his mother in Alabama but returned to Los Angeles when she landed a job at the actors union, AFTRA. It was actually through her connections at work that Dorothy arranged for her son to be in an episode of his favorite children's program, Cartoon Express. After that one TV appearance, an agent reached out and wanted to turn North into a star...he was only 6 years old at the time.
The young actor appeared on numerous popular variety shows soon after including The George Gobel Show, The Eddie Fisher Show, and The Milton Berle Show, before landing the role of Dennis Mitchell. He actually beat out thousands of other children in a nationwide search to fill the role, ultimately sealing the deal after his screen test with Herbert Anderson, Gloria Henry, and Joseph Kearns. But while America was busy laughing at all of Dennis's crazy antics each week, it was quite a different experience for North on the set of his TV show.
Even while he was starring on the popular television series, he appeared on numerous other shows like The Donna Reed Show, General Hospital, and The Red Skelton Hour. He was constantly overworked and drained from all of the time spent on sets, primarily with adults. Because his mother was working and he was so young, he needed to have an adult caretaker on set at all times. His aunt and uncle stepped in for his mother and made the experience for North anything but enjoyable. Not to mention the fact that as the series lead, he needed to be in nearly every single scene.
"If it took me more than one or two takes, I would be threatened and then whacked," North told the Baltimore Sun, reflecting on his aunt's unrealistic goals for his performance to be constantly perfect on the set of Dennis the Menace.
In addition to the pressures he felt from his aunt and uncle, he was also forced to stay as young as possible by the studio. Even as a young child, his strawberry hair was bleached blonde for the role and he was instructed to look as young as possible in interviews. Following the death of Joseph Kearns as well as North turning 12 years old, the series was canceled after the fourth season. The show had been set up to focus on the young troublemaker and as a 12-year-old, he was starting to outgrow his bad behavior.
Following the series, North had trouble constantly getting typecast based on the role of Dennis Mitchell, but did go on to book roles as a teenager in various TV shows including Wagon Train, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, The Lucy Show, as well as films Zebra in the Kitchen and Maya. The following year, he reprised his role from the film in an NBC series of Maya which briefly turned the former child actor into a teen idol. After taking a break to graduate high school, North decided to switch over to voice-over work. He worked on the Arabian Knights segment of The Banana Splits Adventure Hour and voiced Bamm-Bamm Rubble in The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show.
Ultimately, North went on to do dinner theater for a bit in Chicago and appear in a few more things during the 70s like Lassie and The Teacher but decided to retire from acting. He married his third wife, Cindy Hackney, and moved to her hometown in Florida for a fresh start. He spent time working as a prison guard but when the 1993 film Dennis the Menace was released, he started getting attention from the press again, eager to know what happened to the original Dennis. It was only then that he started opening up about his childhood abuse, though making sure everyone understood his mother had nothing to do with it. In fact, unlike many parents of child actors, she set aside all of his acting money into a trust that was wisely invested for him.
North has opened up in interviews and talk shows over the past few decades about his early life in Hollywood, even appearing as himself in the 2003 film, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. While it's incredibly tragic that North had to go through everything he did on set, his willingness to share his story has actually helped significantly improve working conditions for child actors today. We're glad that he was able to find a happy and stable family life and finally start living his life as 'Jay North' instead of 'that guy who played Dennis the Menace.'
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