Dowell: Whatever happened to Dennis the Menace?

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Remember the Dennis the Menace television show starring Jay North, as the irreverent Dennis Mitchell, and of course, Joseph Kearns, as Mr. Wilson? Well. He discovered what most of us learn in life and that is, nothing remains the same – time and age bring about a change.

The show which aired in the late 1950’s was a favorite among Americans who anxiously awaited each Sunday to discover the antics Dennis would use in annoying their neighbor, Mr. Wilson.   The show preceded the just as popular Ed Sullivan Show for several seasons. Sponsored by Kellogg, the show, during its peak, was highly acclaimed and made CBS a ton of money. Jay North, earlier during the life of the show only made $200 per episode, but later, because of his being a hit with advertisers and the public, his salary was quickly raised to $3,500 per episode.

As popular as the show was, however, CBS was forced to cancel Dennis the Menace in 1963 because of falling ratings. North had turned 11, and had outgrown the role associated with his character.

After the cancellation of the show North went on to secure other acting roles, but none brought the respect and prominence he had achieved with Dennis the Menace. He was unable to secure the parts he really wanted because he felt he had been typecast by his role in the comedy show.

Although it appeared that North enjoyed attention lavished on him as an actor, he was also an unhappy child. He did not the rigorous schedules which left him very little time to really enjoy growing up as a child and playing with friends his age. His aunt, who was also his mother’s sister, totally controlled his life during the Dennis the Menace years.

Frustrated with finally realizing that he would probably never become popular as an actor again, his life began to spiral downward, culminating with near tragic consequences.

Jay North’s spiral was almost similar to that of child actors in another popular NBC program of the late 1970s and early 1980s, called Diff’rent Strokes. The show was about the funny trials and occasional tribulations of a white man having adopted two black young boys after their mother dies. Both of the young actors, including their female co-star, suffered immeasurable tragedies after transitioning into adult life. Most of it associated with defining a life after the popular television series.

Gary Coleman, the star of the program made more than $18 million dollars during the run of the program but became embittered that he was not able to find satisfactory work as an adult. The person who played his brother in Diff’rent Strokes battled cocaine abuse and was charged, but later acquitted, of murder. Their co-star became involved in the pornography industry and also battled drug addiction, which probably contributed to her taking her own life in 1999.

After two failed marriages, an inability in securing satisfactory work as an adult, Jay North becomes fascinated and enamored of serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy. It is alleged that he even talked with close friends about his desire in actually becoming a serial killer. In fact, in 1986, North read for the role depicting Ted Bundy, called the Deliberate Stranger, but lost the role to popular actor Mark Harmon.

It was his third wife who seemed to assist North in achieving stability in his life. He moved to Florida with her to live and ultimately came to grips with the abuse he had suffered from his aunt and uncle that conceivably caused his myriad of problems as an adult.

In one interview he was quoted as saying  “I’m finally starting a new life and burying Dennis Mitchell. I need very badly to again be Jay North – whoever that is.”


Dr. Glenn Dowell is an author and columnist who currently lives in Jonesboro. He has been a guest speaker on major college campuses , including having appeared on TV programs such as the Oprah Winfrey Show. He may be reached at