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'Make Room for Daddy' Child Star Rusty Hamer

January 20, 1990|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rusty Hamer, the precocious young star of television's legendary "Make Room for Daddy" series and a talent Danny Thomas called "the best boy actor I ever saw in my life," has killed himself.

He was 42 when he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in DeRidder, La.

"He hasn't really been happy since his early 20s," said Hamer's brother, John, in announcing the death Friday. "But he didn't show any signs of this happening. It was just all of a sudden.

"I've heard of a lot of child actors who have become unhappy with their lives after they've left the industry," he added. Hamer also said his brother had been complaining of extreme back pain but refused to see a doctor.

Hamer found his brother's body Thursday night in the trailer where he lived near DeRidder, about 40 miles north of Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana.

Chief Detective Robert McCullough of the Beauregard Parish Sheriff's Office said death was caused by a shot to the head from a .357-caliber revolver.

Hamer had appeared in several Abbott and Costello films before joining Danny Thomas' "Make Room for Daddy" in 1953, the year the situation comedy went on the air. He was only 6.

"He was the best boy actor I ever saw in my life," Thomas recalled Friday shortly after learning of his TV son's death.

The boy's own father had recently died, and Thomas said he came to feel that Hamer was his son, both on and off the set.

"He had a great memory . . . great timing, and you could change a line on him at the last minute and he came right back with it. . . ."

Thomas said that if Hamer had a single problem as a youth, it was when the show went off the air in 1964 after 11 years, and a then 17-year-old Hamer had to go from a film lot school to a public one.

"He had been one of only two or three students in a studio classroom, and it seemed to bother him when he went to public school. He was still a happy kid but seemed like a fish out of water."

On the series, Hamer played the bratty but lovable boy whose father was a nightclub singer and comedian.

The show was a reflection of Thomas' own life, and it dwelt on the problems generated by the many times entertainers are forced to be away from their families.

Initially Jean Hagen played Thomas' loving wife but after she left the show, Thomas had her written out of the scripts as having died.

Marjorie Lord played Thomas' second wife, Kathy, and Sherry Jackson, Penney Parker and Angela Cartwright successively played her daughter, Linda, from a previous marriage.

Highlighted by the periodic visits of Hans Conried as Uncle Tonoose, it became one of television's most durable and popular situation comedies. After three seasons it became "The Danny Thomas Show." Most of the cast, including Hamer, returned in 1970-71 with a sequel "Make Room for Granddaddy," in which Rusty was a married medical student. It lasted one season.

Hamer's career declined sharply after that. By the time he was 20, he was working for a Los Angeles messenger service and was bitter and depressed, his brother said. After moving to southwestern Louisiana, his jobs included delivering a newspaper, working offshore for Exxon and occasional work at his brother's restaurant.

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