Mask: The 1985 film inspired by the true story of Rocky Dennis

Mask: The 1985 film inspired by the true story of Rocky Dennis

Rocky Dennis surpassed doctors’ expectations by living to the age of 16, more than double the lifespan predicted for him. Despite medical prognoses, he managed to lead a rich and fulfilling life, defying all expectations.

Rocky Dennis defied medical expectations from birth due to an extremely rare bone dysplasia that causes rapid and abnormal facial bone growth. Rocky’s mother, Florence “Rusty” Dennis, was informed by doctors that he would most likely suffer from severe disabilities and die before the age of seven.

Against all predictions, Rocky—nicknamed for his resilience—lived a remarkably normal life until the age of 16, despite his condition. This extraordinary journey became the inspiration behind the 1985 film “Mask.”

Who was Rocky Dennis?

Roy L. Dennis, also known as “Rocky,” was born on December 4, 1961, in California as a strong and healthy baby. He had an older half-brother named Joshua from his mother Rusty Dennis’ previous marriage. Initially, Rocky showed no signs of illness. However, when he was about two years old, a routine medical exam revealed a skull anomaly. An astute X-ray technician discovered a subtle irregularity, prompting further investigation. Rocky was diagnosed with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, or lionitis, a rare and severe condition. This condition caused his skull to grow rapidly and abnormally, resulting in his head reaching twice its normal size and significantly distorting his facial features.

The unusual calcium deposits in Dennis’ skull exerted pressure, causing his eyes to bulge towards the sides of his head, and distorting his nose. Doctors informed his mother that Dennis, like six other cases they were aware of, would experience a gradual loss of vision and hearing,  as well as significant cognitive impairment, before the weight of his skull caused irreversible brain damage. They predicted that he would not live beyond the age of seven.

Rocky Dennis and his mother Rusty
Pictured: Rocky Dennis and his mother, Rusty (People Magazine)

Rusty Dennis, a tough and street-smart biker, defied all odds when she enrolled her six-year-old son in public school, despite doctors’ advice. She raised him like any other child, refusing to allow his condition to define him. Despite facing challenges, Rocky Dennis proved to be an exceptional student, consistently ranking at the top of the class. He was not only academically gifted, but he also had a natural charm that made him popular among his peers.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 1986, Rusty described Rocky as extremely funny, which connects him to everyone. Rocky stood out even at a summer camp for children with disabilities in Southern California, winning numerous titles and trophies for being the “best buddy,” “most good-natured,” and “friendliest camper.”

Rusty’s decision to treat Rocky like any other child, combined with his own resilience and charisma, enabled him to thrive despite his obstacles, leaving a lasting impression on those around him.

Rocky Dennis photo
Pictured: Rocky Dennis (People Magazine)

Rocky Dennis’s Teenage Journey

In the iconic 1985 film ‘Mask’, Eric Stoltz portrayed Rocky Dennis, a young man whose resilience defied the odds, largely thanks to the indomitable spirit instilled by his mother throughout his upbringing. Despite the difficulties of living with a disfiguring condition, Rocky not only survived but thrived throughout his adolescence.

His mother was instrumental in shaping his outlook on life. When Rocky faced taunts from others about his appearance, she imparted a powerful lesson: rather than succumb to hurtful words, he learned to embrace himself and find humor in his own uniqueness. Rocky developed a humorous and self-assured attitude under her guidance, frequently turning potential sources of embarrassment into opportunities for laughter.

Rocky’s mother told People that he loved Halloween because it gave him the opportunity to express his playful and mischievous side. Leading a spirited group of neighborhood kids on their trick-or-treating adventures, Rocky delighted in pulling off elaborate pranks. One of his favorite tricks was to wear multiple masks and fool unsuspecting neighbors. Rocky’s antics, like peeling away layers of a mask, never failed to entertain both children and adults, earning him admiration and, of course, plenty of candy.

Rocky’s mother saw his ability to find joy in the face of adversity as a testament to his resilience and inner beauty. Through her unwavering support and encouragement, he learned that true beauty lies not in physical appearance but in the strength of character and the ability to embrace one’s individuality.

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Eric Stoltz and L. Craig King in Mask (1985)

Rocky’s unwavering spirit and irrepressible sense of humor attracted him to everyone he met, showing that with courage and a positive attitude, even the most difficult challenges can be solved.

Rocky Dennis persevered despite being mocked by other students for his appearance and facing resistance from medical professionals and educators. In junior high school, there was an attempt to transfer him to a special needs school, but his mother adamantly opposed it, recognizing his true intelligence. Despite the challenges, Rocky excelled academically and graduated with honors.

Rocky had numerous medical appointments throughout his life, most of which concerned his eyesight. By the age of seven, he had already seen 42 eye doctors and had numerous examinations to monitor his condition. Rocky Dennis, who had 20/200 and 20/300 vision and was legally classified as blind, read a book aloud in front of his eye doctor, who said he wouldn’t be able to read or write due to his impending blindness. Rocky, strong in his belief, told the doctor, “I don’t believe in being blind” according to his mother.

Despite his mother’s efforts to treat him with natural remedies such as vitamins and alfalfa sprouts, as well as instill in him the belief in self-healing, Dennis’ health worsened further. When he had severe headaches, his mother would send him to his room, telling him to “will himself to feel better.”  Despite her best intentions, Dennis’s condition worsened over time, and his once vibrant demeanor vanished. Knowing her son was nearing the end of his life, his mother couldn’t ignore the undeniable decline in his physical condition. Rocky Dennis was 16 years old when he died on October 4, 1978.

How was the movie ‘Mask’ created based on Rocky Dennis’s life story?

Cher’s portrayal of Rocky Dennis’ mother, Rusty, in the film “Mask,” showed her unwavering determination to provide her son with a normal life despite his challenges. Anna Hamilton Phelan, a budding screenwriter who met Rocky at UCLA’s Center for Genetic Research, was captivated by his remarkable story of resilience and the special bond he shared with his mother.

Inspired by this encounter, Phelan wrote the screenplay for “Mask,” a biographical film released seven years after Rocky’s death. Peter Bogdanovich directed the film, which starred Eric Stoltz as the ailing teenager and Cher, an iconic pop figure, as Rusty. The film received widespread acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its moving depiction of the mother-son relationship and the theme of overcoming obstacles.

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Cher, Sam Elliott, and Eric Stoltz in Mask (1985)

Stoltz often remained in character as Rocky Dennis during filming breaks due to the complex makeup required for his portrayal. Stoltz, as reported in Yahoo Entertainment, explained how wearing the costume enabled him to directly observe the reactions of people in the boy’s former neighborhood where the film was being shot, offering him valuable insights into the life of the teenager who inspired the movie.

The film “Mask” took some creative liberties in portraying Rocky Dennis’ life, but it also stayed true to certain events. Rocky Dennis was surrounded by his mother’s circle of sober biker friends throughout his childhood. On the night of his death, his mother and her biker friends held a party for him, mirroring a scene in the film. The touching poem delivered by Dennis’ character to his mother in the film was also real.

In the film “Mask,” certain elements were altered for dramatic effect, diverging from the true story. Notably, the character of Joshua Mason, Dennis’ half-brother who died from AIDS, was left out of the film.

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Eric Stoltz and Kelly Jo Minter in Mask (1985)

While the film shows Dennis’ mother discovering his lifeless body in bed the next morning, reality turned out differently. During the actual events, Rusty was at her lawyer’s office, working on her defense to a drug possession charge. Her then-partner and eventual husband, Bernie, broke the heartbreaking news of her son’s death to her rather than finding him herself.

So, while “Mask” captures the essence of Dennis’ life and challenges, certain details were changed to fit the film’s narrative.

In the film, Rocky Dennis is laid to rest with baseball cards nestled among the flowers on his grave. However, in reality, his body was donated to UCLA for medical research and subsequently cremated. Rocky Dennis may not have had a long life, but he made the most of each moment. His resilience and sense of humor highlighted the limitless possibilities that can be achieved through self-belief.

Following his death, his mother stated, “It’s been scientifically proven that energy can’t be destroyed—it just takes another form.”