Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rant #550: Finally, We Can Pay Penance To Dennis

On the day that the space shuttle program is over, we harken back to a different time, when the U.S. space program was in its earliest beginnings.

That was back in 1959, when the space race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was at its hottest.

However, there was a boy on TV who actually harkened back to an even earlier time--he was sort of a then-modern version of Huckleberry Finn.

I am talking about Dennis Mitchell, better known as "Dennis the Menace," and this TV series--like "Car 54, Where Are You"--is finally out on DVD.

This was a very different time than today, when kids actually went outside and had adventures that did not include computers, video games and Facebook.

Little Dennis was a whirlwind, getting into crazy adventure after adventure with his sidekick Tommy (early on, a young actor played the ever-silent Joey from the comics, but his character wasn't strong enough for the TV show) and his nemesis, Margaret. Later, Seymour joined the fray, but early on, a string of young actors also played Dennis' buddies, including a very young Ronny Howard, just before he left for Mayberry.

The show is perfectly cast, with actors who looked just like their comic counterparts. Herbert Anderson is Dennis' father, Gloria Henry his mom, and an incredible character actor of the time, Joseph Kearns, plays Mr. Wilson, later replaced by another incredible character actor, Gale Gordon, when Kearns died.

And the writing is top notch. Again, today's sitcom writers should take a page of notes from this type of writing, which builds to a laugh rather than have punchline after punchline like they do today.

As an adult, I see how complex Dennis's character really is, and the nuances the writers gave the character to make him more believeable than the single-panel pain in the butt he is in the comics.

And that leads me to the young actor who played Dennis, Jay North. I left him to last because his story is not a good one. Evidently, while we were laughing at his on-screen antics, behind the screen, he was experiencing a living hell. He was abused by his relatives, who he was left in the care of when he was on the series.

We don't know the full extent of this abuse, but Jay North came out about this about 20 years ago. It even shook him as an adult. He survived, but pretty much completely shuns the spotlight today, although in recent years, he has been appearing at a few nostalgia shows here and there.

We have no reason to think that this is a charade or sour grapes. North appears to have been treated almost as a slave by his handlers, and he opened up about it when child abuse first started to be talked about openly in the 1980s.

And the cast has said that while they thought North was somewhat troubled, they never knew the extent of it. And you have to believe them too.

Anyway, if you can get around that, the show is the perfect antitode for the summer blahs. Season One is out now, with Season Two to follow.

Create your own hurricane and get this series into your DVD collection.

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