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Jay North was supposed to stay 7 years old forever. As television's Dennis the Menace, he would remain frozen in time: a happy-go-lucky extrovert in striped overalls, his wispy blond locks flopping around as he made a mess of every situation.

But while the TV series "Dennis the Menace" has aged into an antiquated and innocent piece of Americana - canceled 30 years ago by CBS - its star has evolved into someone quite different than we remember.Even during the four years he reigned as the adorable Dennis Mitchell, the image was an illusion. Jay North was a tortured kid, he admits now. He was kept sheltered from any semblance of a normal childhood and - as he says today - abused on the show's set by a tyrannical aunt and uncle.

North said in an interview last week that his aunt was an unyielding taskmaster who would slap him across the face and otherwise abuse him physically and emotionally if he performed a scene below her perfectionist standards.

"If it took me more than one or two takes, I would be threatened and then whacked," he said.

"Even if a delay wasn't my fault, she would find a way to blame me and punish me. She was also very possessive and isolated me from the rest of the cast. I couldn't even eat lunch with everybody else. She made me eat it in the dressing room by myself."

Indeed, our memories of "Dennis the Menace" hardly match the reality. What was merry for the sunny Dennis was a nightmare behind the scenes for North. Even the blond hair was deceptive, bleached every two weeks to keep the locks golden.

Then North grew up, or tried to. It hasn't been pretty: a couple of divorces, years of self-imposed exile, a psychological turmoil that wouldn't abate, an acting career that screeched to a halt and longtime status as what he calls "a professional has-been."

As an adult, North clearly headed south. Dennis the Menace became Wrong-Way Jay.

So you'll have to excuse North if he isn't falling all over himself to see the new "Dennis the Menace" feature film that's being released Friday in theaters everywhere.

North doesn't watch the reruns of his old TV series, either. He said he hasn't ever seen a single episode all the way through, in fact. Ever. Too many bad memories.

"I'm afraid that seeing the film might be too hard," he said. "Maybe when it comes to video . . ."

The Jay North who has shown up for the interview is 41. He sports a significant paunch and a puffy face. His hair is graying. The eyes are accented by tired circles that give testament to a life of emotional struggle. He also complains of bursitis in his left arm.

Yet North, born in Studio City and a resident of North Hollywood throughout his adulthood, is in good spirits while sitting in the North Hollywood chiropractic offices of Dr. Jeannie Russell.

This is the same Jeannie Russell who played the role of Dennis' playmate Margaret on the show. Today, she's treating North's bursitis with ultrasound therapy. And reminiscing with her lifelong friend.

It's the last time that North and Russell will have a chance to visit for a while. In March, North married a woman who lives in Lake Butler, Fla., near Jacksonville, and on Tuesday he packs up the car to move there - into a three-bedroom lakefront home they recently purchased. It is his third marriage.

For a man who has lived an identity crisis, the move out of the San Fernando Valley represents a chance to begin again.

North understands that it won't be easy. His new wife, Cindy, has three children from a previous marriage. Two of them are grown, but with the third, North will get his first crack at day-to-day fatherhood. His own father left home when he was 4.

"I was always told to watch out for women, because they'll just use me to get them pregnant and then take my money," North recalled. "I also assumed I'd just be a lousy father. But I think I'm ready to handle it now."

The break from Los Angeles and his past is more than merely symbolic. North understood that in order to "put this `Dennis the Menace' thing behind me at last," he had to leave the area that kept his heart and soul under lock and key.

They have resided there since North's time on "Dennis the Menace" between 1959 and '63, during which he aged from 7 to 11. It should have been a joyful time for a talented kid who had won the role from more than 200 other boys who auditioned.

Instead, it was a nightmare.

Since his mother, Dorothy, had a full-time job and was unavailable during the day, North's now deceased aunt and uncle were assigned as his adult caretakers on the set. (North declined to give their names out of deference to his surviving mom.)

The performance pressure his aunt constantly applied played cruelly on North's head, he recalled.

"She was always scowling at me disapprovingly. If I blew a line, I'd take two minutes to apologize and plead forgiveness . . ."

Russell said that it was clear on the set that North was a hypersensitive kid and his aunt was uncommonly stern and businesslike - a bad combination. But she never personally saw her hit him.

"If Jay says she abused him in private, then I'm inclined to believe it," Russell said. "The sheer demands of being in every scene all by itself had to be extremely stressful. Any extra pressure from (his aunt) would have made it unbearable."

North recalled, "She was careful never to hit me in front of anyone else, and in places on my body where it wouldn't show -although I'm shocked the bruises weren't visible on my face."

He added that his fellow "Dennis the Menace" cast and crew members were powerless to stop his aunt's mistreatment, anyway.

Henry, who is still in contact with North and lives in Los Angeles, said that during the series he was kept separated from everyone else and was "not permitted to have a real childhood."