Lee Aaker, ‘The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin’ Child Actor, Dies at Age 77

by Jennifer Shea

Lee Aaker, who played the orphan Rusty on ABC’s “The Adventures of Rin Tin” and starred in movies like 1953’s “Hondo” with John Wayne and 1952’s “The Atomic City,” has died of a stroke at age 77.

The former child star died on April 1 near Mesa, Arizona, according to The Hollywood Reporter. He was alone with one relative who could not help him, said Paul Petersen. Petersen starred in “The Donna Reed Show” and now acts as an advocate for former child actors.

Aaker’s death certificate describes him as an “indigent decedent.” He had reportedly wrestled with drug and alcohol abuse throughout his later life.

Lee Aaker Was a Hardworking Child Actor

The child actor was born in Inglewood, California. His mother owned a dancing school. He began his acting career at age 9, per TCM, when director Fred Zinnemann discovered him on a live KTLA program and cast him as the lead in “Benjy.”  

Aaker revealed in a 2011 interview that he’d received $250 an episode when he started on “Rin Tin Tin,” and $500 an episode by the final season.

During the early 1950s, he was one hardworking child actor. He appeared in nine movies in 1952, “Hondo,” “Arena,” “Jeopardy,” “Take Me to Town” and “Mister Scoutmaster” in 1953, “Ricochet Romance” and “Destry” in 1954, and around the same time, on the TV shows “The Lone Ranger” and “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.”

A Slow Decline Followed By a Sad Ending

Following his starring role on “Rin Tin Tin,” Aaker appeared on “The Donna Reed Show,” “Route 66” and “The Magical World of Disney.” But by the time he was 20, his acting roles had dried up and he left Hollywood to become a carpenter.

Aaker later became a ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain in California. While there, he basically lived off his $1,500-a-month Screen Actors Guild pension and taught skiing to underprivileged children and people with disabilities.

Petersen said Aaker’s sad end was yet another tragic story of a Hollywood child actor.

“You are around just to please everyone,” he told THR, “and when there’s nothing left, they are done with you.”