Lee William Aaker (September 25, 1943 – April 1, 2021) was an American child actor, producer, carpenter, and ski instructor known for his appearance as Rusty of “B-Company” in the 1950s television program The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. He was the final surviving cast member of the series. In 1952, Lee Aker appeared in “Desperate Search” with Howard Keel and Keenan Wynn.
Aaker’s mother, Mrs. Myles Wilbour, was the owner of a dancing school in Los Angeles. (Another source says that she “ran a children’s theatre academy” and that when Aaker was 4, she had him “singing and dancing at local clubs.”)
On television as a young child, he started appearing uncredited at the age of 8 in films such as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and High Noon (1952). He quickly moved to featured status by the end of that year.
He showed talent as the kidnapped Indian “Red Chief” in a segment of the film O. Henry’s Full House (1952) and another kidnap victim as the son of scientist Gene Barry in The Atomic City (1952).
In 1953, he co-starred in the John Wayne western classic Hondo (1953) as the curious blond son of homesteader Geraldine Page.
He also appeared in other film styles such as the film noir thriller Jeopardy (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck, the horse opera drama Arena (1953) with Gig Young, and the comedies Mister Scoutmaster (1953) with Clifton Webb and Ricochet Romance (1954) with Marjorie Main.
In 1953-54, Aaker was among the many child actors who auditioned for the role of “Jeff Miller” on the original 1954 Lassie series, which later aired as Jeff’s Collie. That role went to Tommy Rettig. Two weeks later, Aaker won the role of “Rusty” on The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin, co-starring James Brown (1920–1992) as Lieutenant Ripley “Rip” Masters. Aaker and Rettig were friends, and both shows were popular with audiences. The two actors and the two star dogs appeared together in a photograph used on the cover of the July 2, 1955 issue of TV Guide.:236
Aaker told a newspaper reporter that when he reached the age of 21, he was paid a $10,000 lump sum (equivalent to $83,400 in 2020) by the studio that produced Rin Tin Tin “and he spent the rest of the ’60s traveling around the world ‘as sort of a flower child.'” Unable to find work as an adult actor, Aaker got involved as a producer and later worked as a carpenter.
In the late 1960s, Aaker was married to Sharon Ann Hamilton for two years. He resided in Mammoth Lakes, California, for many years and was the first adaptive sports instructor for Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra at Mammoth Mountain. According to Paul Petersen, an advocate for former child actors, Aaker experienced poverty towards the end of his life, and also struggled with substance abuse. Petersen said Aaker died near Mesa, Arizona, on April 1, 2021, and was listed as an “indigent decedent”. Petersen was arranging Aaker’s burial.
In 2005, Aaker won the Golden Boot Award as Kids of the West.
|1952||The Greatest Show on Earth||Boy||Uncredited|
|1952||Something to Live For||Alternate Boy||Uncredited|
|1952||My Son John||Boy||Scenes deleted|
|1952||No Room for the Groom||Donovan|
|1952||The Atomic City||Tommy Addison|
|1952||O. Henry’s Full House||J. B. Dorset aka Red Chief (The Ransom of Red Chief)|
|1952||Desperate Search||Don Heldon|
|1952||Hans Christian Andersen||Little Boy||Uncredited|
|1953||Take Me to Town||Corney Hall|
|1953||A Lion Is in the Streets||Johnny Briscoe||Uncredited|
|1954||Ride Clear of Diablo||Boy||Uncredited|
|1954||The Raid||Larry’s Friend||Uncredited|
|1954||Her Twelve Men||Michael Elliott||Uncredited|
|1954||Ricochet Romance||Timmy Williams|
|1954||Black Tuesday||Little Boy||Uncredited|
|1957||The Challenge of Rin Tin Tin||Rusty|
|1963||Bye Bye Birdie||Student leader|
|1952||Your Jeweler’s Showcase||Episode: “Teacher of the Year”|
|1953||Fireside Theatre||Sandy||Episode: “The Boy Down the Road”|
|1953–1954||The Ford Television Theatre||Tony Evans / Joey||3 episodes|
|1953–1955||Letter to Loretta||Jimmy Preston / Myron||2 episodes|
|1954||Schlitz Playhouse of Stars||Episode: “Pearl-Handled Guns”|
|1954||General Electric Theater||Tim Kelly||Episode: “Wild Luke’s Boy”|
|1954–1959||The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin||Rusty||164 episodes|
|1955||The Adventures of Spin and Marty on Walt Disney Presents||Russell|
|1955||The Lone Ranger||Tommy Righter||Episode: “The School Story”|
|1955||Screen Directors Playhouse||Cowhide||Episode: “The Brush Roper”|
|1956–1957||The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford||(two Christmas episodes, with Rin Tin Tin)|
|1957||Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers||Govinda||Episode: “The Glass Necklace”|
|1959||The Millionaire||Tommy Spencer||Episode: “Millionaire Henry Banning”|
|1959||Rescue 8||Billy||Episode: “Runaway”|
|1959–1961||The Donna Reed Show||Walter the Wizard / Kenny||2 episodes|
|1959–1962||Disneyland||Willy / Chuck Taylor||4 episodes|
|1960||Make Room For Daddy||Charles Crane||Episode: “Rusty Meets Little Lord Fauntleroy”|
|1963||The Lucy Show||Cadet Blake||Episode: “Lucy and the Military Academy”|