Rocky Dennis: The True Story Of The Boy Who Inspired &039Mask&039
when rocky dennis died at age 16, he had already lived more than twice as long as doctors expected, and had lived a fuller life than anyone thought possible.
Rocky Dennis was born with an extremely rare bone dysplasia that caused his facial bone features to shrink and grow at an abnormally rapid rate. doctors told his mother, florence “rusty” dennis, that the boy would suffer multiple disabilities from her illness and would most likely die before his seventh birthday.
miraculously, roy l. “rocky” dennis overcame adversity and lived an almost normal life until he was 16 years old. This is the incredible story of the boy who inspired the mask in the 1985 movie.
rocky dennis early life
roy l. Dennis, later nicknamed “Rocky,” was born a healthy male on December 1. 4, 1961, in California. He had an older half-brother named Joshua, the son of Rusty Dennis from a previous marriage, and by all accounts, Rocky Dennis was in perfect health. It wasn’t until Rocky was just over two years old that the first signs of an abnormality appeared in his medical tests.
A sharp-eyed x-ray technician detected a mild cranial anomaly in her skull. Soon, his skull began to grow at an amazing rate. Tests at UCLA Medical Center discovered that Rocky Dennis had an extremely rare condition called Craniodiaphyseal Dysplasia, also known as Lionitis. the disease severely distorted his facial features due to abnormal growth of his skull, causing his head to be twice its normal size.
pressure caused by abnormal calcium deposits in dennis skull pushed his eyes to the edges of his head and his nose also stretched in an abnormal way. Doctors told his mother that Rocky Dennis would progressively become deaf, blind and severely mentally handicapped before the weight of his skull destroyed his brain. Based on six other known cases of the disease, they predicted that the child would not live more than seven years.
rusty dennis, a no-nonsense, street-savvy biker, wasn’t about to take any of that. she enrolled him in public school at the age of six, against doctors’ advice, and raised him as if he were any other child. Despite his condition, Rocky Dennis turned out to be a star student who regularly ranked at the top of his class. he was also popular with the other kids.
“everyone liked him because he was so much fun,” his mother said of her son in an interview with the chicago tribune in 1986.
at the southern california summer camp for disabled children he attended, dennis took home many titles and trophies after being voted “best friend”, “kindest” and “friendliest camper”.
Dennis’ growing pains as a teenager
Through all odds, Rocky Dennis survived well into his teens, a feat that can be largely attributed to the courage and spirit his mother instilled in him growing up. when he was a teenager, he also developed a strong sense of humor about his own condition, often joking about his appearance whenever children or even adults pointed it out to him.
“once he came from the playground crying because ‘the kids are calling me ugly’… I told him that when they laugh at you, you laugh at yourself. if you act beautiful, you will be beautiful and they will see it and they will love you… i think the universe will support whatever you want to believe. I taught that to my two children.”
according to his mother, halloween was a special time for dennis, who was leading a group of neighborhood kids trick-or-treating. at her candy run, she pranked unsuspecting neighbors by pretending to wear more than one mask. after removing the fake mask she was wearing, the candy givers would get the joke when she feigned surprise when she failed to remove her second “mask” after pulling her own face. “Rocky always got a lot of candy,” Rusty warmed to her son’s dark sense of humor.
dennis had a strong sense of self as a teenager, even with his severe physical deformity. when a plastic surgeon offered to operate on him to make him look more “normal,” the teenager refused.
Still, children made fun of his appearance and doctors and teachers always tried to stop him. In high school, his teachers tried to transfer him to a special needs school, but his mother would not allow it.
“They tried to say that his intelligence was diminished, but it wasn’t true,” recalled rusty dennis. “I think they wanted to keep him out of the classroom because [they thought] he would upset the other kids’ parents.” But Rocky Dennis continued to excel and even graduated from high school with honors.
despite leading a fairly normal life, rocky dennis made countless visits to the doctor. By the time he was seven years old, the boy had made 42 solo trips to the ophthalmologist and had undergone countless exams so doctors could monitor his progress.
when rocky dennis read a book aloud in front of his ophthalmologist, who said the boy wouldn’t be able to read or write because he would be blind: dennis’s 20/200 and 20/300 vision legally qualified him as such, according to him His mother, Dennis, told the doctor, “I don’t believe in being blind.”
His mother gave him natural remedies such as vitamins and alfalfa sprouts and raised him with the philosophy of self-healing through the power of faith. whenever his severe headaches occurred, she would send dennis to his room to rest, advising him to “feel better”.
However, there was no denying his deteriorating health. her headaches worsened and her physical condition weakened. so apparent was the change in her usually optimistic demeanor that her mother could sense that her son was nearing her end. on Oct. 4, 1978, rocky dennis died at the age of 16.
how rocky dennis true story compares to mask
Rocky Dennis’ spectacular story of perseverance and the special bond he shared with his mother caught the attention of Anna Hamilton Phelan, a young screenwriter who saw Dennis while visiting UCLA’s Genetic Research Center.
the result of that meeting was the biographical mask that was released seven years after the death of rocky dennis. The film, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, starred teen actor Eric Stoltz as the sick teenager and pop icon Cher as his mother, Rusty. the film won praise from both critics and the general public.
Because of the complicated prosthetics he donned to play the part, Stoltz often dressed as Rocky Dennis even during breaks in filming. According to Stoltz, seeing people’s response as he walked through the boy’s old neighborhood, where the movie was filmed, gave the actor a glimpse into the late teenager’s life.
“People wouldn’t be all that nice,” Stoltz said. “It was a very curious lesson to walk a mile in that boy’s shoes. humanity turned out to be a bit ugly, sometimes.”
while hollywood no doubt took liberties in dramatizing dennis’s life story, some events portrayed in the film did happen. In fact, the real Rocky Dennis was surrounded by his mom’s sober biker friends growing up. the night rocky dennis died, his mom and his biker friends threw him a party. The heartfelt poem that Dennis’s character reads to his mother in the movie was also real.
of course, like any other movie, the mask adjusted some realities for cinematic purposes. For one thing, the film didn’t include Dennis’s half-brother, Joshua Mason, who later died of AIDS.
In the film, Dennis’s mother finds his lifeless body in bed the next morning, but in reality, Rusty had been in his attorney’s office to prepare for his defense against a drug possession charge at that he was facing. She was informed of the death of her son by her then-lover and later husband, Bernie —played by Sam Elliott in the film as Garr—, who called her with the tragic news.
In the movie, Rocky Dennis is buried with baseball cards stuffed into the flowers on his grave, but his body was actually donated to UCLA for medical research and then cremated.
rocky dennis didn’t live a long life, but he lived it to the fullest. Through his humor and gentle tenacity, the teenager showed others that anything is possible as long as you believe in yourself.
“It has been scientifically proven that energy cannot be destroyed, it simply takes another form,” his mother said after his death.
Now that you’ve read the fascinating life of rocky dennis, the deformed teenager who inspired the movie’s mask, meet joseph merrick, the tragic “elephant man” who just wanted to be like everyone else. Next, he learns the truth about Fabry disease, the condition that caused a 25-year-old to seemingly age backwards.