Actor Lee Aaker

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.

Early years

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.”)

Film

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.

Television

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

Later years

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.

Personal life

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.

Recognition

In 2005, Aaker won the Golden Boot Award as Kids of the West.

Filmography

Film

YearTitleRoleNotes
1951BenjyBenjy 
1952The Greatest Show on EarthBoyUncredited
1952Something to Live ForAlternate BoyUncredited
1952My Son JohnBoyScenes deleted
1952No Room for the GroomDonovan 
1952High NoonBoyUncredited
1952The Atomic CityTommy Addison 
1952O. Henry’s Full HouseJ. B. Dorset aka Red Chief (The Ransom of Red Chief) 
1952Desperate SearchDon Heldon 
1952Hans Christian AndersenLittle BoyUncredited
1953JeopardyBobby Stilwin 
1953Take Me to TownCorney Hall 
1953ArenaTeddy Hutchins 
1953Mister ScoutmasterArthur 
1953A Lion Is in the StreetsJohnny BriscoeUncredited
1953HondoJohnny Lowe 
1954Ride Clear of DiabloBoyUncredited
1954The RaidLarry’s FriendUncredited
1954Her Twelve MenMichael ElliottUncredited
1954Ricochet RomanceTimmy Williams 
1954DestryEli Skinner 
1954Black TuesdayLittle BoyUncredited
1957The Challenge of Rin Tin TinRusty 
1963Bye Bye BirdieStudent leader 

Television

YearTitleRoleNotes
1952Your Jeweler’s Showcase Episode: “Teacher of the Year”
1953Fireside TheatreSandyEpisode: “The Boy Down the Road”
1953–1954The Ford Television TheatreTony Evans / Joey3 episodes
1953–1955Letter to LorettaJimmy Preston / Myron2 episodes
1954Schlitz Playhouse of Stars Episode: “Pearl-Handled Guns”
1954General Electric TheaterTim KellyEpisode: “Wild Luke’s Boy”
1954–1959The Adventures of Rin Tin TinRusty164 episodes
1955The Adventures of Spin and Marty on Walt Disney PresentsRussell 
1955The Lone RangerTommy RighterEpisode: “The School Story”
1955Screen Directors PlayhouseCowhideEpisode: “The Brush Roper”
1956–1957The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford(two Christmas episodes, with Rin Tin Tin) 
1957Tales of the 77th Bengal LancersGovindaEpisode: “The Glass Necklace”
1959The MillionaireTommy SpencerEpisode: “Millionaire Henry Banning”
1959Rescue 8BillyEpisode: “Runaway”
1959–1961The Donna Reed ShowWalter the Wizard / Kenny2 episodes
1959–1962DisneylandWilly / Chuck Taylor4 episodes
1960Make Room For DaddyCharles CraneEpisode: “Rusty Meets Little Lord Fauntleroy”
1963The Lucy ShowCadet BlakeEpisode: “Lucy and the Military Academy”

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