Joseph Kearns, who portrays Mr. Wilson in Dennis
the Menace, is himself a former child performer who becan his career
at about the present age of Jay North, the eight-year-old moppet who plays
Roughly 45 years ago, in Salt Lake City, Utah, nine-year-old Joseph Sherrard Kearns went on the road with a vaudeville troupe of 11 children touring for 14 months in an act called "The Rising Generation".
Next he fell into the clutches of a child psychiatrist who also happened to be his Uncle Frank. Uncle Frank talked Joe's father, a Salt Lake City wool buyer, into sparing our lad the privations of vaudeville life (such as wearing his costume around the hotel and smoking cigarettes on fire escapes) and enrolling him in a school for precocious children in San Diego where Frank had his practice.
In the only other notable lapse from show business of which he is guilty, Kearns, at 20 or so, agreed to try wool buying for a year to please his father. He traveled the West as a representative of Howell, Jones and Donnell of Boston until one day outside Antimony, Utah, his eye fell on several acres of the most beautiful sheep he had ever seen. A breed called Karakul, they were black but they were beautiful.
For $8000 Kearns bought all their wool. It filled five boxcars for none of which Howell, Jones and Donnell had the slightest use. (In those days, nobody knew quite what to do with black wool which could not be dyed.) His father came to the logical conclusioon that Joe was the black sheep buyer of the family and willingly surrendered him to the Hart Players, a Long Beach Cal. stock company.
Ever since, Kearns has kept his button nose close to the theatrical grindstone. Joe toured the West Coast in a revival of :What Price Glory?" along with a moderately successful young actor named Clark Gable. For several years back home in Salt Lake City he was a radio disk jockey, announcer, emcee, script-writer and man-in-the-street interviewer.
In Hollywood, where he settled permanently in 1935, Kearns became a fixture on the "Burns and Allen", "Judy Canova," "Jack Benny," "Scattergood Baines" and "Fibber McGee and Molly" radio shows. On "Suspense," he was the creepy gent who announced "a tale well calculated to keep you in etc." He was Ed the vaultkeeper on Benny's TV show and the hotel manager on How to Marry a Millionaire.
The part of Mr. Wilson came along two seasons ago. Since then, Kearns has lived in mortal fear that 24 inmates of a nursery school will find out that Mr. Wilson lives right across the street. To date, they haven't.
Musically trained by his mother, a concert pianist named Cordelia Peterson, Kearns once played pipe organ in a Los Angeles silent movie house. He lives in a soundproof 2-1/2 story home he built around his expensive hobby, a 26 rank Wurlitzer organ designed for Warner Brothers in 1929.
Originally, Mr. Wilson was just another Kearns bit. He was signed to a five-year contract and guaranteed work in seven out of every thirteen episodes. After leaving Wilson out of three episodess last season, however, Screen Gems discovered there was nobody else in the cast for Dennis to menace. As a result, Mr. Wilson has been in every episode filmed since. "Mr. Wilson or Kearns" says producer Jim Fonda, "is to Dennis what Amos was to Andy."
"Yes", Kearns agrees, "and if I'd known it, I could have got more money. Every time I think about that contract, I feel as if I'd bought five more carloads of black wool."
(From the July 15-21, 1961 issue of TV-Guide)