Oh, Mister Wilson! Things You May Not Know About Dennis The Menace

Oh, Fiddlesticks! So you think you know everything there is to know about Dennis the Menace? Think again. In March 1951, the comic strip by Hank Ketcham debuted. Featuring the exploits of young Dennis, his friends, parents, and of course, his neighbor Mr. Wilson, Dennis the Menace was an instant hit and grew in popularity to be featured in newspapers across the country.

But it didn’t just win fans over in print. In 1959, based on the popularity of the comic, CBS aired the Dennis the Menace television series. The show might have been carefree but the creator, actors, and Jay North suffered greatly on set.

Jay North As Dennis the Menace

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Jay North was the face of Dennis the Menace and quickly became one of the biggest child stars. His career didn’t stop after Dennis the Menace. He did voice work for the animated series The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show, which featured him as the latter role alongside actress Sally Struthers.

North starred in other movie roles during this time and continued acting into his adulthood. The show made him a household name but also came with its own set of pressures.

How It All Began

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Dennis the Menace, the TV series, was adapted from a different medium altogether: a comic strip by the same name. The comic version of Dennis the Menace was created by Hank Ketcham. The idea for the character came about when his wife had told his real-life son, named Dennis also, to take a nap. Instead, she later found Dennis had made a huge mess. She told Hank, “your son is a menace!”

Ketcham was born in Seattle, Washington, and realized he wanted to draw at a very early age. He created Dennis the Menace in 1951 and continued the strip for several decades after.

The Show’s Creator Used His Son As Inspiration

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Hank Ketcham was the creator of Dennis the Menace and based it on his son. Born in 1946, Dennis had somewhat of a difficult life growing up. His mother and father separated when Dennis was 12. They were going through a divorce when she died of an accidental drug overdose.

Hank remarried just a few weeks later. After the marriage, he moved the family, including Dennis, to Switzerland, where he continued to draw the comic strip. In Europe, young Denniehad a hard time adjusting to life there.

The Network Worried The Name Would Create More Little ‘Menaces’

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The network had a few concerns about the antics and behavior of its lead character. They worried that children might try to copy the character’s misbehaving ways. Dennis himself is a good-intentioned kid but has the tendency to go overboard with his actions, much to the chagrin of his neighbor Mr. Wilson.

CBS aired the show but told its producers to tone it down a little bit when it came to what kind of trouble Dennis got into.

Joseph Kearns Was The True Mr. Wilson

Joseph Kearns was the man who played Mr. Wilson, the neighbor of Dennis who was often grumpy and complaining about the young lad’s exploits. Kearns himself was born in Salt Lake City, but moved to California and grew up there. He’s had many notable roles on television beyond Dennis the Menace, including appearances on Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, and many more. He was also the voice of the doorknob in the animated feature Alice in Wonderland.

Sadly, Mr. Wilson was the last role that Kearns played — he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962, passing away at the age of 55.

Gale Gordon Takes Over For Joseph Kearns

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After the death of Joseph Kearns, the program decided to air episodes, casting a new Mr. Wilson in his place. The decision was to go with actor Gale Gordon, who had appeared in a previous episode of Dennis the Menace as Mr. Wilson’s brother.

Gordon had successes in other programs, too, and is remembered by many adoring fans as the bank executive antagonist to Lucille Ball on The Lucy Show. Gordon continued to appear in many TV and film roles up to his retirement in 1991. He passed away in 1995.

Gale Gordon Didn’t Just Act

Gale Gordon lived a very ambitious life. Beyond radio and film, he also wrote comedic books. In the 1940s, he authored two of them: Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies, and Leaves from the Story Trees.

Gordon was also a rancher. He bought 150 acres of property in San Diego County, and it wasn’t just a relaxation spot for him. He spent much of his time restoring the property, making many repairs to fixtures and furniture in his "spare" time. Gordon has been inducted in two of entertainment’s hall of fames: the Radio Hall of Fame, and Hollywood Hall of Fame.

Sylvia Field as Martha Wilson

Sylvia Field played the gentle and caring wife of Mr. Wilson. As Martha Wilson, Field brought decades of acting experience to the role.

Born Harriet Louisa Johnson, Field got her first stage role at the age of 17. Her first role in a film was in 1928, in The Home Girl, and her first television role was in a locally-produced sitcom called The Truex Family, which was based on her life (her husband at the time had the last name "Truex"). Field also had roles on shows like General Electric Theatre, The Ann Sothern Show, and Perry Mason. She portrayed Martha Wilson up to Joseph Kearns’s death.

Mrs. Wilson, Written Out Of The Show

Martha Wilson was written out of the show after Joseph Kearns died, and Gale Gordon took over his role as Mr. Wilson. That didn’t stop Field from acting in other roles. She had guest appearances on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, Harry O, Petticoat Junction, and more. Her last on-screen role was in 1980, for the film The Cruz Brothers, and Mrs. Mallorey.

Field passed away at her home in Fallbrook, California, in 1998. She was 97 years old.

Dennis the Menace Gets Canceled

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Joseph Kearns’s death in 1962 required the show to find a replacement for Mr. Wilson in Gale Gordon. Although Gordon was a magnificent actor in his own regard, it just wasn’t the same for television audiences.

The show had been climbing in the ratings the year before Kearns died, but the fourth season, featuring Gordon as Mr. Wilson, saw a sharp decline — the program didn’t even crack the Top 30 in network shows. It’s largely assumed that, in spite of Gordon’s best efforts, the grumpiness of Kearns’s Mr. Wilson, and the loss of his portrayal, led audiences to go elsewhere. The show ended up getting canceled after that season.

Dorothy North, Jay’s Mother

Dorothy North was a single mother to Jay North, who played Dennis. She could have done what many Hollywood parents do and profit off her son, but in a 1993 interview, Jay North explained his mother never did that.

She continued to work for the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists after introducing her son to the world of entertainment. And she hired others to invest her son’s earnings for them. While she had good intentions, Jay North had some issues with her investing.

Jay North’ Never Saw His Earnings

Jay North’s mother, putting aside his earnings, was indeed a noble — and helpful — thing to do for her son. At the start of Dennis the Menace, North was earning $500 per episode. By the end of the series, he was earning seven times that amount! Accounting for inflation, that’s around $30,000 per episode (not bad for a child star in the 1960s).

Sadly, he didn’t see it for years and couldn’t be an independent actor. That was made even worse by the fact his legal guardian on set did terrible things to him.

An Abusive Aunt

Since Jay North was a minor, and his mother was working during the daytime, he needed on-set guardians to watch after him while he was filming. North’s Aunt Mary Hopper and her husband filled in for the role, but were brutish to North while he was filming.

Mary didn’t allow North to speak with or socialize with the other children actors except in school-like settings. She would also verbally and physically abuse North when he messed up a scene. This was all kept secretive for many years.

No One Knew

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North never let on, not even to his own mother, that he was being abused by his aunt, revealing it many years later in interviews about his time appearing on Dennis the Menace. He stayed silent because he worried that his aunt would hurt him more if he spoke out.

Jeannie Russel, who played Margaret Wade on Dennis the Menace, tried to explain why it might have happened in an interview she gave herself years later. “The show comes first.’ This was the ethic that we were raised in,” she said. “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.”

Gloria Henry as Alice Mitchell

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Gloria Henry portrayed Dennis’s mom Alice Mitchell on the show. Growing up in New Orleans, Henry had aspirations of becoming a star in the entertainment world, and studied at the Worcester Art Museum School. She later moved to LA, where she got some radio roles and starred in theater performances.

Her first film debut came in a horse-racing movie called Sport of Kings in the 1940s. She continued to have small roles in movies and television, before becoming Alice Mitchell in 1959.

Henry After Dennis

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Gloria Henry’s roles in television and the movies slowed down drastically after Dennis the Menace ended in 1963. That doesn’t mean they ended completely — she continued landing smaller roles for shows such as Silver Spoons, Sisters, Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess, and Doogie Howser, M.D., in her later years. She also landed a part in Dallas, and guest-starred in 2012 on the NBC series Parks and Recreation. In addition to her film and TV roles, she also had a family, and has three children.

Herbert Anderson as Henry Mitchell

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Herbert Anderson played the father-figure role of Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace. Growing up in Oakland, California, Anderson’s father served as the city’s treasurer in the 1920s. Anderson eventually went to college at the University of California at Berkeley. He pursued acting in Hollywood, where his breakout role was in the movie Navy Blues in 1941.

While the role as the father of Dennis Mitchell has been his most memorable, Anderson did not stop acting and continued to have a successful career beyond Dennis the Menace’s end…

Anderson After Dennis the Menace

Herbert Anderson continued acting beyond Dennis the Menace in a variety of television roles, appearing in guest capacities for programs such as I Dream of Jeannie, Batman, Bewitched, The Brady Bunch, Sea Hunt, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Bing Crosby Show, among others. His last role was in 1975, appearing on the popular show The Waltons.

In 1982, he had heart surgery, which helped him to decide to officially retire from his professional career. Herbert Anderson died in 1994, due to complications from a stroke. He was 77-years-old.

Sara Seegar as the "New" Mrs. Wilson

After Joseph Kearns passed away, Gale Gordon, who played Mr. Wilson’s brother, became the new Mr. Wilson. But he didn’t take over that character’s persona — he remained John Wilson, the brother. Sara Seegar took over the role as Mrs. Wilson, but as Eloise, John’s wife.

Born in Indiana, Seegar moved overseas and was educated in London and Paris as a youngster. She moved back to the U.S. and attended high school in Hollywood. She’s had many roles, including appearances in Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, and others.

Billy Booth Became A Lawyer

Billy Booth portrayed Tommy Anderson, who was Dennis Mitchell’s best friend on the show. Born in 1949, it’s the role Booth was best known for in his entire acting career, although he did go on to have small parts on The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, and other programs.

But acting wasn’t for him. In the 1960s, Booth “retired” from acting and pursued a legal degree instead. He even taught business law at Cuesta College and Cal Poly. Sadly, Booth died in 2006, from liver complications, at the age of 57.

Billy Became An Actor…While Playing Baseball

Following his death in 2006, Billy Booth’s sister Bonnie explained that her brother wasn’t born with the "acting bug." It was just something he fell into — while being a kid playing baseball, of all things. "Billy got involved in television purely by accident," Bonnie explained. "During a Little League game, someone approached my Mom and asked if she would mind if an agent contacted her. This person thought Billy would be just right for commercials."

Billy Booth ended up getting calls for commercial work, which eventually led to other roles, including on Dennis the Menace. But it wasn’t his true calling. "Billy never was seeking out the entertainment business," Bonnie added.

Other Roles After Dennis

Sara Seegar played Mrs. Wilson for the final season of Dennis the Menace. After the series ended, she continued to find roles to play on a number of popular television programs, like The Brady Bunch, Bewitched, and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. She also had roles in films like Mr. Reeder in Room 13, and The Music Man.

Seegar had two children with her husband, Ezra Stone, whom she married in 1942. They remained married until she died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 76, in 1990.

Slight Name Change in the U.K.

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Dennis the Menace, the TV series, was a monumental success in the United States. It was so popular that it also aired in the United Kingdom, but had to have a different title. That’s because in the UK they already had a ‘Dennis the Menace’ comic strip!

To avoid confusion, the producers of the television series simply called the show Dennis. Another difference in the U.K. version is that Dennis has spiky black hair and a different outfit.

Jeannie Russell — Margaret Wade

Jeannie Russell starred in 31 episodes of Dennis the Menace as Margaret Wade, the girl who has a crush on Dennis. She also has the distinction of making a cameo appearance in the 1993 film version of the show.

She’s appeared in many other television roles around the same time as Dennis the Menace. She also appeared in movies like Babes in Toyland, as well as having a small role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Since 1978, she’s worked as a chiropractor, but she’s not afraid to take on the occasional role on film now and again, either. In 2015, she appeared in the TV movie Life Interrupted.

Another Neighbor, Mrs. Lucky Elakins, played by Irene Tedrow

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson weren’t the only neighbors Dennis knew. Irene Tedrow played another of the neighbors to the Mitchells, a character named Mrs. Lucy Elkins. She made 26 appearances in total on Dennis the Menace.

Born and raised in Denver, Tedrow traveled across the country to attend college at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had many roles before appearing on the TV series, including playing Janet Archer on the radio broadcast, Meet Corliss Archer.

Irene Tedrow After Dennis The Menace

Tedrow would go on to have a long career after Dennis the Menace, appearing in roles that earned her Emmy nominations, including in Eleanor and Franklin, and James at 15. She also appeared in programs like Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, and The Andy Griffith Show.

Tedrow suffered a stroke on March 10, 1995, and passed away. She was 87 years old at the time of her death. She preceded her husband in death, and the two had two children together.

George Cisar as Sergent Mooney

George Cisar had a recurring role on Dennis the Menace as Harold Mooney, the police sergeant on the program. Then again, Cisar had a recurring role on many programs of that era of television.

Cisar performed more than 100 different roles in his career, which only lasted about 20 years. He appeared on both The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D., as well as on The Beverly Hillbillies, The Untouchables, Leave It To Beaver, and many more. Cisar died on June 13, 1979. He was 66 years old.

The Grocer: Willard Waterman

Willard Waterman played Otis Quigley, the grocer on Dennis the Menace. Born in Madison, Wisconsin, Waterman got his start in entertainment as a student at the University of Wisconsin. He joined the student radio station, call signature WHA, and was hooked on being an entertainer from that point on.

Waterman was one of the founding members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He also starred in some film roles, including in It Happens Every Thursday. Waterman died in 1995 of a bone marrow disease at the age of 80.

Ron Howard

Ron Howard didn’t make too many appearances on Dennis the Menace, but he is noticeable in the series’ first season. Howard had his first role in 1959’s The Journey, then joined to work on Dennis the Menace’s first season. Soon, he’d star as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show, which began airing a year after Dennis the Menace.

Howard went on to portray Richie Cunningham in Happy Days and became a notable Oscar-winning actor in his later years. He’s known for directing such works as A Beautiful Mind, Apollo 13, and The Da Vinci Code.

Who’s That Drugstore Owner?

The drugstore owner on Dennis the Menace was named Lawrence Finch. If the actor who portrayed him looks familiar, there’s a good reason for it: Finch was played by actor Charles Lane, who appeared in over 250 films during his 64-year career.

Lane appeared in films like It’s A Wonderful Life, and television series such as I Love Lucy. But he had hundreds of other roles from the 1930s onward. His last appearance was in 1995, in a TV movie called The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Lane was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, and died in 2007 at the age of 102.

Edward Everett Horton

Edward Everett Horton played a funny uncle to John Wilson on Dennis the Menace. His character’s name was Ned Matthews.

Horton, who was born in 1886, had a long career in acting which started in vaudeville performances on Broadway. He had roles before Dennis the Menace, and continued acting beyond it, as funny characters within films like The Front Page, Alice in Wonderland, and Trouble in Paradise. Children the world over probably recognize his voice too: he was the narrator for the segment "Fractured Fairy Tales" on The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show.

Celebrity Homes

The homes that the two main families of the program lived in belong to TV’s Hall of Fame in their own right. They have been featured in many different television shows and movies over the years.

The home that Dennis Mitchell and the rest of his character’s family lived within has been featured on The Donna Reed Show as well, where the Stone family resided. Mr. Wilson’s home, meanwhile, has appeared in a number of different classic television shows, too, including Father Knows Best, I Dream of Jeannie, The Partridge Family, and Bewitched.

Special Guest Stars

Several actors and other celebrities appeared on Dennis the Menace throughout its run. These included actors, actresses, sports figures, and even famous voice actors.

Mel Blanc, whose iconic voice was used for characters such as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and many more Looney Tunes (and other characters beyond that series, too), lent his voice to the program. Mickey Mouse Clubhouse member Cheryl Holdridge made an appearance alongside Dennis, as did Major League Baseball player Sandy Koufax. Oscar-nominated actress Spring Byington even appeared on the show.

“Dennis and the Dodger”

While other guest stars played characters on the show, Sandy Koufax’s guest appearance allowed him to play himself. Appearing in an episode titled “Dennis the Dodger” in season three, the plot actually centers around Mr. Quigley, who is the peewee baseball coach for the kids in the city.

He attempts to get the mayor to pay for uniforms for the team, who only agrees to do so if Sandy Koufax comes to town to play. Miraculously, Koufax shows up — but Quigley becomes jealous of the attention the star player receives instead of himself.

Bob Hastings Was One Of The Most Frequent Guest Stars

He was practically a cast member — the most frequent guest star on the program was probably Bob Hastings, who appeared on Dennis the Menace five times. Notably, Hastings’ acting prowess allowed him to appear each time as a different character, never appearing in the same role twice.

Hastings had a storied career in television during the 1960s and 1970s. He appeared in many programs during this time including Hogan’s Heroes, Green Acres, and Car 54, Where Are You? He also provided part-time voice work on The Munsters as The Raven, when voice actor Mel Blanc was too busy to play the role.

Dennis the Menace Cameo Appearances

Dennis the Menace became a very popular show in just a few seasons of being aired. This made the character a hot commodity — so much so that other shows wanted him on. Jay North, staying in character as Dennis, made appearances on The Red Skelton Hour as well as The Donna Reed Show.

He was also featured in the film Pépé. That film also had other cameo appearances from other Hollywood actors, such as Zsa Zsa Gabor, Bing Crosby, Debbie Reynolds, Cesar Romera, and Frank Sinatra. To be included in that group demonstrated that Dennis sure was popular!

Dennis The Promoter

Jay North, portraying Dennis the Menace, was in high demand back in the heyday of the show. He was asked to appear as Dennis on many television programs outside of his own, but also lent his likeness to star in commercial work as well.

Dennis appeared in ads selling Skippy peanut butter, Kellogg’s brand cereals, and Bosco chocolate. Yes, he was a mischevious little boy that the network felt might be impressionable on other children — but even troublesome kids love chocolate!

Two LPs

The show’s popularity meant other opportunities for Jay North to let his acting star shine through. He did so in a different medium than television or film in general — music.

North recorded two albums. The first, called The Misadventures of Dennis the Menace, featured stories about Dennis’s exploits in his neighborhood. The second recorded album was called Jay North — Look Who’s Singing! The record was a series of songs featuring North singing boyish songs about girls, his mother, and what it’d be like to grow up.

A Popular Brat

Dennis the Menace‘s popularity was immense, even though the show only lasted four seasons. Still, it was a show that stayed in the hearts of many TV fans for decades to come…for good and bad reasons.

Because of Dennis’s exploits as a “naughty” boy on the program who was always getting into trouble, TV Guide once ranked the character at number eight on its list of “TVs 10 Biggest Brats.” It’s important to remember that this list was of characters and not the actual actors!

The Real Dennis Was Estranged From His Father

Dennis Ketcham wouldn’t patch up his relationship with his father. After serving in Vietnam, the inspiration for Dennis the Menace suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Dennis and Hank remained estranged from each other for decades after.

In a New York Times interview with the cartoon artist, who retired in 1994, Hank Ketcham tried to explain his relationship with his son, but did so in less than glowing terms. "He’s living in the East somewhere doing his own thing," Hank Ketcham said. On his relationship with his son, he added, "That’s just a chapter that was a short one that closed, which unfortunately happens in some families." Ouch. Hank Ketchum passed away in 2001.