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Obituaries

Florence Tullis, 70; mother of son with rare disease was played by Cher in `Mask'

November 15, 2006|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Florence "Rusty" Tullis, the strong-willed biker mother of a son with a rare disfiguring disease, who was portrayed by Cher in the 1985 movie "Mask," has died. She was 70.

Tullis died of an infection Saturday at Beverly Hospital in Montebello about a month after being injured in a motorcycle accident, her niece, Helen Cunningham, said Tuesday.

Tullis was driving a three-wheeled motorcycle through an intersection in Azusa on Oct. 14 when the right tire fell off and she lost control; she was thrown from the motorcycle after it struck a curb, Azusa Police Lt. John Momot said.

Cunningham said Tullis, who suffered two broken legs, was undergoing rehabilitation at a Montebello facility when she complained of having a stomachache and was taken to the hospital.

"She would never stop riding motorcycles unless something drastic happened," Cunningham said. "Well, something drastic happened."

A former go-go dancer with a penchant for drugs and bikers, the flame-haired Tullis was an unlikely candidate for the limelight.

Even she acknowledged that seeing her and her son Rocky Dennis' story on the big screen was "a fairy tale," as she told People magazine after the movie featuring Eric Stoltz as a teenage Rocky hit theaters.

Rocky, the younger of Tullis' two sons, was born in 1961. Although he appeared healthy, an X-ray technician noticed irregularities in the boy's skull when he was about 2.

A battery of tests conducted at UCLA Medical Center confirmed that Rocky had an extremely rare disease -- craniodiaphyseal dysplasia -- in which abnormal calcium deposits in his skull would distort his face and make it grow twice its normal size.

Furthermore, doctors told Tullis that her son would experience failing eyesight and hearing and suffer increasingly severe headaches and that the intense pressure would destroy his brain before he turned 7.

Rocky Dennis, however, was 16 when he died in Covina in 1978. And during the years they lived in Covina and Glendora, his mother insisted that he lead as normal a life as possible.

She ignored doctors who said her son's poor eyesight would prevent him from learning to read, and she disregarded teachers who tried to discourage her from placing him in a public school.

"They tried to say his intelligence was impaired, but it wasn't true," she told People. "I think they wanted to keep him out of the classroom because [they thought] it would bother the other kids' parents."

It took Rocky two years to get through the first grade, but he skipped seventh grade, and when he graduated from junior high school he was an honors student who had learned to accept his deformity and had a knack for making friends.

Tullis said it was Rocky's "happy-go-lucky attitude" that impressed "Mask" screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan, who saw him during a visit to UCLA's Center for Genetic Research.

"This was not the PTA mother of the year," Phelan said of Tullis in a 2001 interview with People. "But she was the perfect mother for Rocky. She never made him feel sorry for himself."

In a 1986 interview with the Chicago Tribune, Tullis said she "always thought showing Rocky's courage would help a lot of disabled kids -- and the parents of disabled kids; sometimes they are more disabled than their kids. I didn't realize the movie would be about me too. Thanks to Cher's brilliance, I come off a kind of heroine."

In 1987, Tullis' son Joshua died of AIDS at 32.

"People say, 'Oh, it's too bad they died so young,' " Tullis, then working as a psychic counselor and living in a trailer park outside Los Angeles, told People in 2001. "I say, you don't understand. My kids lived every day of their lives. Every moment."

Tullis, the Brooklyn-born daughter of a truck driver, got off to a rocky start.

She began smoking marijuana and riding with bikers at 14. Dropping out of school at 15, she went to work as a "hootchy-kootchy" dancer at Coney Island. A short-lived marriage to truck driver Tommy Mason, at 17, produced their son Joshua.

A stint with a motorcycle stunt team, Speedy Babs and his Cyclettes, when she was 19 ended when it was learned that she was hooked on amphetamines.

After returning to work at Coney Island as an exhibit hawker, she married painting contractor Roy Dennis. They moved to Covina in 1959.

Tullis, who at the time of her death was separated from her third husband, Bernie Tullis, was living in Glendora with her sister, Dorothy Stuart, and her niece when the accident occurred. Tullis, who had a number of run-ins with the law over her drug use over the years, moved in with them after completing a prison sentence for possession of methamphetamines in April 2005.

"She had a very colorful life," Cunningham said. "She did a lot of things. She got in trouble. She did what she did."

In addition to Stuart and Cunningham, Tullis is survived by another sister, Bonnie Meeker.

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dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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