Jay North, TV’s DENNIS THE MENACE
Beginning a prolific career as a child actor at the age of six, Jay North became a household name during the early 1960s for his role as the well-meaning, but mischievous, Dennis Mitchell on the CBS situation comedy Dennis the Menace, based on the comic strip created by Hank Ketcham.
North’s first professional acting job was a live appearance on the gameshow Queen for a Day, hosted by Jack Bailey.He continued to land work as a child model and actor in television commercials, as well as landing small parts on a number of popular NBC variety shows of the 1950s, such as The George Gobel Show, The Eddie Fisher Show and The Milton Berle Show, before auditioning for the role that would eventually make him a star.
In June 1958, Columbia Pictures’ television division, Screen Gems, was holding a nationwide search for a boy to play the title character in their television adaptation of the popular Dennis the Menace comic strip, and six-year-old North was brought in to audition.After receiving news that his first audition hadn’t gone well, agent Hazel MacMillan pressed the studio to see him again. The studio agreed, and was impressed with his second audition.After seeing hundreds of boys for the role, North was asked back to screen test with Herbert Anderson, Gloria Henry, and Joseph Kearns, and a pilot was filmed later that summer. Anthony Tollin Will Murray pulp reprints
The summer passed and North heard nothing more from Screen Gems, but continued to work, appearing on an episode of the show Wanted: Dead or Alive, where he played a young boy who pays a bounty hunter (played by Steve McQueen) eight cents to find Santa Claus.Over the next several months, North continued to make television appearances on such shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Rescue 8, Cheyenne, Bronco, Colt .45, and Sugarfoot, as well as breaking into feature films with roles in The Miracle of the Hills and The Big Operatoruntil, in the spring of 1959, almost a year after he’d first auditioned, MacMillan contacted North’s mother to tell her young North had been chosen to play the title role.
Dennis the Menace premiered on CBS on Sunday October 4, 1959 and quickly became a hit with audiences. North was paid $500 per episode,his strawberry red hair was bleached platinum blonde for the role,and the 8-year-old was instructed to “shave” a year off his age when speaking with the press.North’s mother continued to work at AFTRA full-time to support the two of them, and hired business managers to invest North’s earnings for him.In a 1993 interview with Filmfax magazine, North spoke highly of his mother, saying, “I want to make it very clear about one thing. I never supported my mother during (Dennis the Menace). She earned her own money from AFTRA. She never lived off my earnings. I know that sometimes happens with child actors, but it was not true in my situation.”
In addition to filming the series, North appeared as Dennis in commercials for the show’s sponsors, Kellogg’s cereals, Best Foods mayonnaise, Skippy peanut butter, and Bosco chocolate milk and regularly traveled around the country with his aunt and uncle on the weekends to promote the show.
In the fall of 1960, the second season of the series was ranked among TV’s top 20 shows, and North’s portrayal of Dennis had become a beloved pop culture icon. North made crossover guest appearances as Dennis on such television shows as The Donna Reed Show and The Red Skelton Hour as well as appearing as Dennis in the feature film Pépé.That same year, North recorded “The Misadventures of Dennis the Menace” soundtrack stories on LP as well as releasing an LP album of songs titled “Jay North – Look Who’s Singing!”
By the fall of 1961, the series was in its third season and North was making $2,500 an episode.The show remained in the top 20, but North had grown tired and frustrated with the pressures of carrying a hit show and the long work hours.Complicating matters was his relationship with his Aunt Marie.Many years later, North would reveal that his aunt would physically and verbally abuse him when he made mistakes on the set or when he didn’t perform to her standards.North’s mother, Dorothy and the rest of the Dennis The Menace cast were unaware of the abuse, and young North was always careful to conceal his unhappiness with a smile for fear of retribution from his aunt.In July 2007, North’s childhood co-star, Jeannie Russell, who played Margaret Wade on the series, told radio host, Stu Shostak in a radio interview, “‘The show comes first.’ This was the ethic that we were raised in. Had I seen any abuse or any horrible upset on Jay’s part, I would have noticed. It would have impacted me. It would have upset me terribly.”
By the fourth season, North was earning $3,500 an episode,however, by 1962, 11-year-old North had begun to outgrow the childish antics that the character was known for.This, combined with the unexpected loss of Joseph Kearns at the end of season three, had changed the dynamic of the show. During his interview with Filmfax, North recalled, “Between the pressures of the business and Joe’s dying, I became very serious, very morbid and very withdrawn from the world. I was the antithesis of the little kid that I played on the television show.”By the end of the fourth season, ratings were down, and in the spring of 1963, much to the relief of its young lead star, Dennis The Menace was cancelled. Clint Walker
In 1965, North landed the lead role in the MGM family comedy film Zebra in the Kitchen as Chris Carlyle, a boy who, unhappy with the living conditions he finds at his local zoo, decides to set the animals free, causing chaos throughout the town.Over the next year, he continued to appear in small television roles, guest-starring on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and reuniting with his former Dennis the Menace co-star, Gale Gordon on The Lucy Show.In 1966, North landed the starring role in another MGM family adventure film, Maya.Filmed on location in India, North played Terry Bowen, a boy who navigates the Indian jungle with a Hindu boy, a sacred white elephant and her baby calf.He continued to appear in small guest starring roles on television shows such as My Three Sons and Jericho, and in 1967, NBC decided to make a television series adaptation of Maya.North agreed to reprise his role, and was soon back filming on location in India.
The feature film, Maya and subsequent television series made North a popular teen idol of the era, featured in numerous teen magazines such as Tiger Beat, 16 Magazine, Teen Datebook and Flip.While Maya proved popular with teen audiences, the NBC series struggled in its time-slot against popular shows of the time, CBS’s The Jackie Gleason Show and ABC’s The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game, and was cancelled after one season.Years later, North spoke fondly of his experience on the series, saying, “I can say that I’m really proud of my work on Maya, from a professional standpoint. I got to play an adult role and it was a challenge.”North had missed a full year of school while filming Maya in India and after returning home to Hollywood, began a normal life in high school, graduating from Rexford Senior High School in Beverly Hills in 1969.
After completing filming on the Maya television series, North found work as a voice actor for animated television series, providing the voices of Prince Turhan in Arabian Knights, Terry Dexter in Here Comes the Grump, and a teenage Bamm-Bamm Rubble on The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show.In 1971, North decided to leave Hollywood and made the move to Chicago to work in the theatre, appearing in several stage productions, including principal roles in Norman, Is That You? and Butterflies Are Free.
In 1980, North appeared in a small role in the television movie Scout’s Honor which featured appearances of other former child stars Angela Cartwright from The Danny Thomas Show, Lauren Chapin from Father Knows Best, and Paul Petersen from The Donna Reed Show. In 1982, he landed a week-long stint on the daytime soap, General Hospital, but steady work in show business continued to elude him. Financially secure from real estate investments his mother had made with his earnings from Dennis The Menace, and frustrated by the direction his career had taken, North retreated from public life for the next several years and found work in the health food industry. In 1984, he optioned the book Burn Judy, Burn for $5,000, hoping to play the lead role of executed killer Steven Judy. In his 1999 interview with E!, North spoke of his desire to play darker roles, “I was ready to play very dramatic, scary type characters. I thought maybe if I played some villains and scared the pants off of people, maybe Hollywood might take me seriously.” However, the Steven Judy story never made it to the screen.
Dennis the Menace used to air on Nick-At-Nite and later Nickelodeon’s TV Land, but has since been removed from those stations and remain in syndication on various local stations across the country. In the past year and a half, Shout! Factory has been commercially releasing all four seasons of the television series, Dennis the Menace.
Jay North was among the guests at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in 2012 and signed autographs and posed for photos for fans. Jeanne Russell was also at the event on the same weekend.
Person to Person on CBS, Person of Interest
A SELECTION OF JAY NORTH’S TELEVISION CREDITS
Wanted: Dead or Alive, “Eight Cent Reward” (December 20, 1958)
77 Sunset Strip, “Eyewitness” (February 13, 1959)
Rescue 8, “Disaster Town” (February 17, 1959)
Sugarfoot, “The Giant Killer” (March 3, 1959)
The Detectives, “The Hiding Place” (October 30, 1959)
The Donna Reed Show, “Donna Redecorates” (September 29, 1960)
The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, “Ghosts, Goblins and Kids” (October 30, 1960)
The Red Skelton Hour, “Jay North Adopts Freddie the Freeloader” (October 10, 1961)
General Hospital, series regular, circa 1963
Wagon Train, “Those Who Stay Behind” (November 8, 1964)
The Man From U.N.C.L.E., “The Deadly Toys Affair” (November 12, 1965)
The Lucy Show, “Lucy the Robot” (February 28, 1966)
My Three Sons, “Good Guys Finish Last” (October 6, 1966)
My Three Sons, “Whatever Happened to Baby Chip?” (February 10, 1966)
Jericho “Eric the Redhead” (November 3, 1966)
Maya, series regular, 1967-68
The Banana Splits Adventure Hour, voice of Prince Turhan, 1969
Here Comes the Grump, voice of Terry Dexter, 1969-1971
The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show, voice of Bamm-Bamm Rubble, 1971
Lassie, “A Joyous Sound, Part 3″ (March 11, 1973)
Stuart Shostak Radio, Museum of Broadcasting Communications
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