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As Rusty, the boy whose parents were killed by Indians and who was subsequently adopted by a cavalry unit at Fort Apache on the popular adventure The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954), tyke actor Lee Aaker left a lasting mark in the early days of television, but he had in fact appeared in several major films prior to this series.
He was born on September 25, 1943, in Los Angeles, where his mother owned a dance studio. On TV almost from infancy, he started appearing in unbilled film bits at the age of eight in such classics as The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and High Noon (1952). He quickly moved to featured status before year's end. He showed promise 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 Atomic City (1952). From there he co-starred in the John Wayne western classic Hondo (1953) as the inquisitive blond son of homesteader Geraldine Page, and appeared to good advantage in other movies such as the film noir thriller Jeopardy (1953) with Barbara Stanwyck, the hoss opera drama Arena (1953) with Gig Young and the comedies Mister Scoutmaster (1953) with Clifton Webb and Ricochet Romance (1954) with Marjorie Main.
Was tested for the top boy role in the classic movie Shane (1953) and promised the part, but lost it a few days later to the late Brandon De Wilde.
Stardom, however, was assured after nabbing the role of the famous dog's young master on the Rin Tin Tin (1954) series. After the show's demise, however, Aaker did not survive the transition into adult roles. The then-teenage Aaker got a handful of cameo roles on TV series like The Donna Reed Show, where he met Paul Petersen, who was a cast member, as well as The Lone Ranger (1955), & The Lucy Show, (1963). But by the time he came of age, the offers had dried up. His final acting credit was an uncredited role in the 1963 film adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie. (1963).
"Suddenly after the [The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954)] series was canceled and I began doing guest shots, I realized that something had changed--I wasn't the center of attention anymore. My folks had always told me that my career might not last, but when it happened, it was still a hard thing for me to adjust to." - Lee
He instead moved into the production end of the business, serving as an assistant to producer Herbert B. Leonard on the Route 66 (1960) series, then later dropped out altogether to become a carpenter. He still attends nostalgia conventions and was recently a "Kids of the West" honoree at the 2005 Golden Boot Awards.
Lee died on April 1st, 2021 near Mesa, Arizona of a stroke, according to a Facebook post from fellow former child actor Paul Petersen. He was 77. Petersen said Aaker died “alone and unclaimed…listed as an ‘indigent decedent.'” He said that he is working on claiming military burial benefits entitled to Aaker as a veteran. “God knows when a sparrow falls,” he wrote.