May 2, 2016

Jay North's Gay Connection

Dennis the Menace (1959-63), the sitcom adaptation of  Hank Ketcham's comic strip, was before my time and rarely rerun, so I have never seen it.  But I knew Jay North's Dennis, a gangly blond wearing a striped shirt and white overalls with a famously breathless "golly gee" tone (acquired when his director told the eight-year old to "act younger").  For the first generation of Baby Boomers, he became the iconic Dennis the Menace, even though he was no menace -- his character was kind, helpful, sweet-tempered, even "square," an object of ridicule when the Boomers grew into cynical teenagers.

Jay did not enjoy his years on Dennis.  His work schedule was brutal -- not only the show, but guest shots, talk shows, and even an album; he was not allowed to play with the other children on the set, or to get a decent education; his guardians were physically and emotionally abusive. And even after he left the series, he couldn't escape Dennis.  He had trouble making friends among his cynical teenage peers; he couldn't keep up in school; casting directors wouldn't consider him.








The highlight of Jay's acting career was the intensely homoromantic movie Maya (1966) and spin-off tv series (1967-68).  He loved the location shoots in India; he and his costar, Sajid Khan, became lifelong friends. And he was proud of his performance.  But teen idol fame eluded him.

So he tried to distance himself from Dennis by playing mature, adult roles.





The Gay Connection:

In 1969, gay superstar Sal Mineo was directing Fortune and Men's Eyes at the Coronet Theater in Los Angeles, and playing Rocky, who rapes and abuses the naive Smitty (Don Johnson).  When Don Johnson was hired to do The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), Jay North auditioned to replace him (and, according to Mineo, worked very hard to demonstrate that he was up for the role).  He rehearsed for several weeks, but the play closed before he could perform.

In 1972, Jay played the lead in a touring company of Norman, Is That You?, about Jewish parents (Hans Conreid, Fritzi Burr) who discover that their son is gay.







Back in Hollywood, Jay did some voiceover work and starred in The Teacher (1974), a sleazy entry in the "teen has sex with older woman" genre.  And his acting career was over.

In the 1990s, he became involved with Paul Petersen's A Minor Consideration, dedicated to ameliorating working conditions for child stars.  Today Jay works as a prison guard in Florida, but he often attends conventions, where he is always happy to talk to the many older gay men who had a crush on him in 1966.