The Lee Aaker Story
I was Production Manager for a Celebrity Rodeo in Newhall, California. I had the cast from "Lonesome Dove", "High Chaparral", "Chips", "Shaft", and several other movies and series. Scott Glenn was in town filming "The Hunt for Red October" and wanted to come over and watch the real cowboys because his next role was to be in "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" There was one face in this group of celebrities that I kept watching because it was so familiar but I couldn't quite place him. It was puzzling !! I finally asked someone who he was and they said "Don't you remember "Corporal Rusty" from The adventures of Rin Tin Tin. That's Lee Aaker." I had met him before in my high school years.
He was still a celebrity then because everyone was
raised watching him as Corporal Rusty on Rin Tin Tin.
There was a local drive-in hangout called the "Wichstand" in Inglewood,
California in the late 50's and early 60's. Everybody met there after school
for a burger and Lee would take us in his Mercury, (like the one that Sylvester
Stallon drove many years later in "Cobra"). Those were the days
you didn't get out and go inside because mostly you were there to show
off your "hot" car. It was painted a metallic green the color
of pea soup. Back then it was fashionable to give your car a special name
and have it painted on the rear fenders. Lee was kind of a loner, but the
kids accepted him and we all had a lot of fun together.
Sign the guestbook if you want to know the car's "special name"
I was invited to go on a Celebrity Wagon Train. Ivan
Naranjo had just finished "The Trial of Standing Bear" in
which he played the title role, so he was free to go. Peter
Brown of the TV series Laredo, Laramie, Lawman, and The Texas Rangers
was filming his daily soap opera locally and didn't have any shoots that
week. We had most of the cast from "High Chaparral" Henry
Darrow who had played Manolito in that series had just signed a contract
to do the new "Zorro" series but they had not started to shoot
yet, plus Bobbie Hoy and
Don Collier appeared
so we had a nice group of western celebrities to go on this wagon train
for the Arthritis Foundation
The first morning we were to roll the wagons I was standing in the chuck wagon line for breakfast and Lee Aaker got in line behind me. It was a perfect time to renew an old acquaintance but he didn't remember me. A lot of water under the bridge since we were in high school so my feelings weren't hurt too bad. We got to talking about the good old days and some other people joined us. I started telling them about Lee's beautiful Mercury and he was smiling until I asked him to tell them what he had named that car.... he couldn't remember. I was stunned, a boy never forgets his first car. Especially such a unique car and name. The incident was soon forgotten with the excitement of the wagons rolling out.
Lee Aaker had been invited as a celebrity by his best friend Jim Allen. Jim was a stuntman and actor and owned & drove a 6-up of Pintos to a large wagon. Lee rode in Jim's beautiful wagon and at the various stops that we came to, the press would be there and the news channels. Lee was so gracious to talk to the reporters about what we were doing on this drive, and he was great with the little kids and their parents (who remembered him so well). He signed autographs on glossy photos of himself in his Corporal Rusty uniform that the studio had made when the series was so hot. He went on several other Celebrity Wagon Trains that we put on for the Arthritis Foundation and was such an asset. The public loved him.
During the wagon trains Lee Aaker would ride with me in my wagon and we would get a chance to talk. He said that he had to give up his acting career when he outgrew the "cute little boy" stage. We had kind of a running joke between us. He would turn to me and say "Wasn't I on Rin Tin Tin?" and I would say "Yes, you were" and he would say "Didn't I play Corporal Rusty?" and I'd answer "Corporal Rusty?!, I thought you played the dog" and we would all laugh and have a good time.
On one wagon train we were camped at William S. Hart Park in Newhall, California. and I had shuttled my truck and trailer ahead to the next nights camp. On my truck radio I listened to Pat Buttram being interviewed. Pat told stories about Gene Autry and then he mentioned Lee Aaker. Pat quoted "He had breakfast with Lee Aaker this morning and that Lee had "Rinty" stuffed and sitting in his den". When I got back to camp I was still laughing about it and asked Lee why he had stuffed the dog. Lee asked me where I got such a wild notion, I told him about the interview and that it must have been recorded previously. Lee said "Pat makes his living being a comedian and is liable to say anything, but we are best friends."
There is a Western Walk Of Fame in Newhall, California. It starts in front of William S. Hart's mansion ranch then runs the full length of the main street in town. Every year they have a big ceremony and lay a plaque in the sidewalk with a bronze saddle on it and the name of some movie cowboy or genre. Afterwards they have a big dinner ceremony with entertainment. It is usually held at Walt Disney's California Institute of the Arts college. They set up big round tables and each one is bought for an old TV series or cowboy or organization. We purchased one for the California Wagon Train Association. Each table had big place cards. The card for our table was missing. Lee Aaker came over and invited us to sit at the Rin Tin Tin table with him. Jim Brown "Lt. Rip Masters" and Rand Brooks "Cpl. Boone" arrived. Lee talked to them privately but then they left suddenly, Lee said they were not feeling good and decided to go home. Lee Horsley took the podium to start the ceremonies.
Soon after that evening, my family and I moved from California. I hadn't see my wagon train buddies for a while. One afternoon, about 4 years ago, I watched the Vicki Lawrence show. She had some of the old child stars on her program. Jay North from Dennis the Menace, and Paul Peterson from the Donna Reed Show. They talked about how horrible it had been to grow up for them being in a TV series. They had troubled lives. Paul's best friend Lee Aaker had a tragic story to tell. That had me in total shock when Vicki brought Lee out an introduced him. He was wearing a larger version of his Corporal Rusty costume but it was a face that I had never seen before!!!! Paul said that this was the "real Lee Aaker". He has spent almost all of his life in a mental institution. He said that the only thing that kept him hanging on was Paul Peterson. He did not consider himself cured but was willing to venture out so he could find the person who had stolen his life and stop him. Wow!!! Our wagon train group felt so betrayed.
A few days later the story hit all of the major newspapers. I was told that Jim Allen still carries a copy of the newspaper article in his wallet. The "Lee Aaker " that we knew has completely disappeared and left us with so many questions. That explains why he didn't remember the name of his first car, and why Jim Brown and Rand Brooks left so soon from the Western Walk of Fame party finding the impostor. Jim Brown died since the party. This has left unanswered questions.
The REAL Lee Aaker with Mary Spooner
Lee Aaker & Imposter photos contribution to Horse Fame
by Mary Spooner
Special Thanks to Mary
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