Veteran actor and former child star Lee Aaker has sadly passed away. Famous for starring as the orphan Rusty alongside his German shepherd pal on The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin in the 1950s, Aaker reportedly had a stroke and died on April 1 near Mesa, Arizona. The actor was 77 years old.
Paul Petersen, a former Donna Reed Show star who now serves as an advocate for former child stars, told THR that Aaker had been battling drug and alcohol abuse. By the end, the actor was left with one "surviving relative that could not help him," with Aaker's death certificate listing him as an "indigent decedent." Petersen was helping to get him a proper burial.
"You are around just to please everyone," Petersen added of former child actors, "and when there's nothing left, they are done with you."
Aaker is perhaps best known for playing Rusty, a young boy raised by U.S. Cavalry soldiers at Fort Apache, in the classic TV series The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin. The series ran on ABC on Friday nights for five seasons between 1954 and 1959. The series also starred James E. Brown, Joe Sawyer, and Rand Brooks. Aaker picked up the role after failing an audition for the original Lassie series, though he was close friends with Tommy Rettig, the child actor who picked up the Lassie role.
Born on Sept. 25, 1943, Aaker took a very early interest in acting. Before The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Aaker appeared in the movies The Greatest Show on Earth and High Noon at the young age of 8. He'd then star as kidnapping victims in the movies O. Henry's Full House and The Atomic City that same year. In 1953, Aaker worked with John Wayne in the classic western movie HOndo as the son of Geraldine Page. His other movie credits include Jeopardy, Arena, Mister Scoutmaster, and Ricochet Romance.
According to Aaker, he was paid a lump sum of $10,000 for his Rin Tin Tin work at the age of 21 before spending "the rest of the '60s traveling around the world as sort of a flower child." He had little luck in finding new acting roles as an adult, leading to his retirement as an actor as he pursued producing and carpentry work. Still, in 2005, his work as a child star was commended when he won the Golden Boot Award as Kids of the West.
On his Facebook page, Paul Petersen posted a message saying goodbye to his friend. The post reads: "Saying Goodbye to Lee Aaker. You have to be a certain age to remember Rin Tin Tin. Lee Aaker passed away in Arizona on April 1st, alone and unclaimed...listed as an 'indigent decedent.' As an Air Force veteran Lee is entitled to burial benefits. I am working on that. God knows when a sparrow falls."
His work on the big and small screens has earned Aaker a place in Hollywood history, ensuring he will always be remembered long after his passing. May he rest in peace. This news comes to us from The Hollywood Reporter.