We’ve all seen it.
Movies, television shows, novels are rife with some form of the tale.
You know, the fantasy where someone is just minding their own business, maybe eating lunch in a diner, when a Hollywood talent scout appears from nowhere, tells them they are exactly what the talent scout has been looking for and viola! — a star is born.
The trope has been used enough that it’s almost a cliche. For Dennis Rush, it was real-life, with no less of a Hollywood luminary than James Cagney discovering Rush when he was a boy, eating lunch with his father.
Okay, there is a little bit more to the story, given that Dennis was eating lunch with his father on a Hollywood movie lot at Universal Studios — something that most people don’t get to do. His father was a film librarian, and while that meant he worked on the same studio lot as some of Tinseltown’s biggest stars, he did not really have any pull or ability to get his son an audition.
The two of them really were just eating lunch one day, when Dennis was 5 years old.
“If I was good, I’d get to go eat lunch with Dad,” he said recently. “One day, James Cagney was having lunch at the table next to us. He looked over at my dad and said ‘Your son looks like me.’”
That was important, Dennis said, because Cagney was in the midst of filming “Man of a Thousand Face,” the story of Lon Chaney. Cagney was starring in the title role and needed someone to play a young Lon Chaney.
That chance meeting at lunch launched a ten-year career for Dennis.
Of course, Mayberry fans will recognized him as Howie Pruitt, one of Opie’s friends who occasionally appears on the show. Dennis was on eight episodes, spread over three seasons, though he was actually Howie Williams in one episode.
As long-time fans of The Andy Griffith Show know, continuity from one season to the next wasn’t always the strong suit for writers at the show, particularly for the guest actors who made sporadic appearances in what was supposed to be the same role, and Dennis said his role was no different.
In the episode Barney Fife, Realtor, his character was introduced to Andy Taylor as Howie Pruitt.
“I guess I got new parents,” he said recently, laughing at the discrepancy. “Maybe I was adopted.”
“I knew there was a mistake, but my Mom — she was very protective of Mayberry — she told me not to say anything. “Just go and do your lines,” she told him.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, by the time Dennis was appearing on The Andy Griffith Show, he was already a television and movie veteran. He appeared in the movie My Living Doll, as well as two episodes of the serial Alfred Hitchcock presents, and handled dozens of appearances in other television shows popular at that time, with a resume filled with a Who’s Who of iconic television shows.
“I did a lot of westerns, I worked with Lucy (Ball) on the Lucy Show, My Favorite Martian, Gunsmoke, I did eight or nine episodes of Wagon Train, The Virginian, Laramie. I never got on Bonanza, though I tried out a couple of times.”
While other child stars of that era have said a key to getting roles was the twin abilities of being able to do what a director needed in terms of on-screen performance while simultaneously disappearing into the background and causing no problems while off-screen, Dennis says he had another thing working in his favor.
“They were always looking for certain types,” he said. “They always needed a tall kid, a fat kid, a freckle-faced kid. Well, I was the freckle-faced kid,” he says with another laugh.
It’s clear that Dennis, who works as director of operations at the La Jolla Beach & Tennis Club in San Diego, California, had a good time during his acting year.
”As a kid, 8 or 9 years old, playing with cowboys and Indians? Oh, you really couldn’t get much more fun than that.”
Despite a wide variety of work that spanned a decade, Dennis said his time on the set of The Andy Griffith Show stands out in his memory, and he’s glad to be making his first appearance at Mayberry Days.
“I’m not exactly sure what they’ll want me to do,” he said recently of the festival’s organizers. “I plan to walk around alot, meet as many fans as I can, be available to do whatever they need.”
A Relaxed Set
“I’m sure you’ve heard it a hundred times…it was work, there was hard work to be done, but son of a gun, everyone just enjoyed their time there, enjoyed working with one another.
“And for kids, I got to work with Hollywood royalty,” he said, referring to Ron Howard, playing Opie, and Keith Thibodeaux, who had spent several years playing Little Ricky on The Lucy Show prior to periodic appearances on The Andy Griffith Show as one of Opie’s friends.
At that time, those were perhaps the two biggest child actors in Hollywood. Not that you would necessarily know it from their demeanor, Dennis said.
“Some kids in Hollywood got a big head at time, but not there, it was just a genuinely fun situation,” he said. “Ron was just such a treat to work with. I worked with a lot of kid actors, but when you work with Ron Howard and Keith Thibodeaux, these were the two giants of kid acting, and two of the nicest guys you could ever imagine.
“The whole set was. There was a basketball hoop for the kids to play. We’d shoot a scene, then we’d run, play for a little bit, then get right back after our break. Sometimes Andy and the guys would break into, well, we called it Hootin’ Annie at the time, but they’d sing and play guitars. Then someone would say it’s time to get back to work and everyone would get back to work.”
Dennis said that relaxed atmosphere actually made the work flow quicker, with filming for The Andy Griffith Show often taking less time than other shows he appeared in.
“Most shows would take a full week for filming. The Andy Griffith Show would take three days,” he said. Friday, there would be a read-through of the next script, then everyone would take off for the weekend, come back, film Monday through Wednesday, then take Thursday off.
“It was just so smooth, everyone knew what to do, the crew was great.”
By contrast, he said there were some sets he worked on that, while effective and professional at what they were doing, were a little less fun.
He recalls working on the Alfred Hitchcock presents series and what it was like when Hitchcock would walk onto the set.
“What a presence,” he says, a little reverence still in his voice. “Boy, when that man walked onto the set, it just became quiet. There’s the banging and the clanging and moving lights around that every est has, but when he came on, there was like, whoa…he’s here. There was a different feeling.”
The only other person like that, he said, was Lucille Ball.
“She was by far one of the best people you could imagine working with. But when she came on, everything was Lucy, everything was business.”
To this day he still marvels at her understanding of comedy, and the audience they played to. Because the show was often done live, considerable rehearsing went into each episode before the performance — and that’s when he got to see her uncanny knack for knowing exactly how the live television audience would react.
“She knew this laugh was going to last three seconds, this laugh was going to last seven seconds,” so those laugh pauses were worked into rehearsals. “She worked with you, encouraged you.”
Though it was that chance lunch-time meeting with James Cagney which led to Dennis’ entertainment career, it was actually a move years earlier that set him up for a life in California. He was actually born in Philadelphia, but said he has no memory of the city.
That is because his dad decided to pack up the family and move west, to California, because he was tired of living in the East and he wanted a new career.
“He was a film editor,” Dennis says of his dad. “Then he became a film librarian. He loved bits and pieces of movies. If someone needed a small shot, a plane landing, a rain shot outside, a train, he knew where to get it…he liked the behind-the-scenes work.”
Dennis, who has three brothers and four sisters, said at one point or another nearly all of his siblings were appearing in commercials or other projects.
“At that time, it wasn’t nearly as high tech as today,” he said of how commercial and television producers found child actors. “They’d say ‘hey, do you have an older brother, you have a younger sister?’”
On one particular shoot in the early 1960s, he said Jiff Peanut Butter was shooting a series of commercials with kids doing different sports. “They wanted kids who really knew how to play sports. I got to invite every brother, every friend, every member of the Little League team, there must have been 30 of us,” he says with a laugh. “We shot Jiff Peanut Butter commercials, and we all got a color TV. That was our payment. A color TV in those days was golden.
“And to this day I still eat Jiff peanut butter.”
Career Winds Down
Like all good things, Dennis said his run as an actor came to an end during his high school years.
“It was a great ten-year run,” he says today, with no hint of regret he didn’t go on to a career as an actor.
“When you’re in your high school years, directors and producers don’t want to use you,” he said. “They’d rather just use a 20- or 21-year-old,” even if it’s for a teen role. He explained that the requirements that a studio provide three hours of on-site tutoring every day for children is the same for a 17-year-old as it is for a 7-year-old, as well as child labor laws that limit how much work time someone younger than 18 can do.
“Why bother?” he said. “You don’t have to deal with any of that if you use someone who’s 18 or older. Ron (Howard) was able to break through that. Jody Foster was another one. There are a few who are able to make that break from a child actor to adult actor.
“But, there is a time you just say bye to the industry. I found myself not getting parts in that range. I graduated from high school, I was in the marines three months later, that chapter of my life just ended so clean and so directly, it was like ‘that’s over.’
“I would have no interest or desire to do that ever again. It couldn’t be any better than it was then, so why do it again?”