Rocky Dennis: The Extraordinary Life of a Determined Fighter

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Rocky Dennis was a truly remarkable person who showed us that disabilities don’t have to hold us back. Despite doctors believing he wouldn’t live past the age of seven, Rocky proved them wrong and lived a full and vibrant life. He became an inspiration to many and even inspired the famous movie ‘Mask’ in 1985. Rocky’s determination and strength of spirit allowed him to overcome incredible challenges and show the world that nothing is impossible.

Let us take a look at The Incredible Life of Rocky Dennis.

1) Rocky Dennis: Early life and diagnosis

Roy Lee Dennis, nicknamed Rocky was born on December 4, 1961. He was born to Florence “Rusty” Dennis and had an older half-brother, Joshua. Rocky was a healthy baby boy and showed no signs of any abnormality. However, it wasn’t until he was a little more than two years old that the first signs of his impending disorder appeared in his medical exams. Upon conducting further tests, it was discovered that Rocky had an extremely rare disorder called craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, also known as lionitis.

The disorder essentially causes calcium to build up in the skull, consequently distorting facial features and reducing life expectancy. Additionally, the doctors foretold that Rocky Dennis would become progressively deaf, lose his eyesight and die before his seventh birthday.

A picture of Rocky Dennis

2) Florence “Rusty” Dennis did not give up on her son

Rusty Dennis, a headstrong woman wasn’t going to accept her son’s fate. She wanted him to have a normal life. Consequently, she enlisted him into a public school at the age of six and raised him like any other boy. Despite his disorder, Rocky Dennis went on to become the star student and was also popular with other kids. 

Additionally, his mother tried healing him with natural remedies like vitamins and alfalfa sprouts. Rusty also raised him to believe in himself and advocated the philosophy of healing through willpower. Whenever Dennis had severe headaches, she would simply send him to his room to rest, advising him to “make yourself well”.

Rocky Dennis’ mother instilled a sense of strong self-belief in him. According to his mother when Rocky was seven he visited an eye specialist who said Rocky would never have enough vision to read. Rusty handed him a book and the boy promptly read it. The astonished doctor asked Rocky how he had done it. To which he simply replied, “I don’t believe in being blind”.

A picture of Rocky and his mother

3) Due to his mother’s perseverance, Rocky Dennis got to live a relatively normal life. At the Southern California summer camp for handicapped children he attended, Rocky went on to win many awards and medals after being voted “best buddy,” “most good-natured,” and “friendliest camper”.

4) However things weren’t easy, as Rocky faced constant discrimination and judgement

According to his mother, one day he came home from the playground crying because a kid called him ugly. His mother consoled him and firmly said that “if they laugh at you, you laugh with them. If you act beautiful, you will be beautiful and the people will see that and they’ll love you”.

He faced judgement in school as well. Doctors and teachers always tried to hold him back. In one instance his teachers tried putting Rocky in a separate school for the handicapped ”because of his appearance”. However his mother would not allow it and raised hell. Rusty recalled that “they tried to keep him out of the classroom because they believed it would upset the kids’ parents”. But Rocky Dennis continued to excel at school and graduated at the top of his class. 

A picture depicting a still from the movie 'Mask'
A still from the movie ‘Mask’

5) As a teenager, Rocky developed a strong sense of humour about his condition and even joked about it

Halloween was one of his favourite holidays and he took full advantage of the occasion. He would go to trick-or-treat with the neighbourhood kids and pull pranks on unsuspecting people. After collecting the candy from the neighbours, Rocky would pull down the fake Halloween mask to reveal his face. 

The neighbours would feign surprise thinking he’s wearing another mask. The boy would then pull at his own skin and say “Gee it must be stuck on”. Once the neighbours realised what was actually going on, they promptly gave him more candy. According to Rusty “Rocky always got a lot of candy”. 

A picture of young Rocky Dennis

6) Rocky Dennis learned to accept himself the way he was to such a degree that when a plastic surgeon offered to make him look “normal”, he declined it. 

7) Rocky Dennis: Later years and demise

Although Rocky Dennis had defied all odds, there was no denying his declining health and imminent death. Rocky became progressively weaker and his headaches got severer. On October 3, 1978, after suffering yet another headache, his mother sent him to bed with the instructions to feel better, but that was the last time she saw him alive. The next morning, on October 4, 1978, Rocky Dennis passed away at the age of 16. His mother subsequently donated his body to the UCLA genetics research centre.

A picture depicting a still from a musical inspired by Rocky Dennis' life
A still from a musical inspired by Rocky Dennis’ life

8) The inspiration for the 1985 movie ‘Mask’

Rocky Dennis’ life became an inspiration for the movie ‘Mask’ when screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan saw Rocky while visiting UCLA’s genetics research centre. The movie subsequently premiered 7 years after Rocky’s death. It received worldwide acclaim from both critics and general audiences. 

The Mask : Our love is like a red, red rose… and I am a little thorny.

The role of Rocky Dennis was portrayed by teen actor Eric Stoltz, who won an Oscar nomination for his performance. While the role of Rusty was portrayed by pop icon Cher, who won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival Awards for her role. 

A picture depicting the cover of people's magazine

In the movie ‘Mask,’ there are several notable differences in how Rocky Dennis is portrayed compared to his real-life persona. Firstly, in the film, Rocky is depicted as a charismatic and outgoing teenager with a larger-than-life personality. He is shown as someone who effortlessly captivates the people around him with his charm and wit. This portrayal highlights his ability to connect with others on a deep level, despite his physical appearance.

“My mom always told me I was a lion in my past life, but I did not completely leave my old body for this one!”

In reality, however, those who knew Rocky described him as more introverted and private. While he did have a close circle of friends and was well-liked, he was not necessarily the extroverted, social butterfly depicted in the movie. Rocky’s real-life personality was nuanced, and he possessed a quieter strength that resonated with those who took the time to truly know him.

Another notable difference is the focus on Rocky’s relationship with his mother, Rusty Dennis, in the movie. ‘Mask’ portrays their bond as the central driving force in Rocky’s life. The film highlights Rusty’s unwavering support and dedication to her son, portraying her as the primary source of inspiration and motivation for Rocky’s indomitable spirit.

While it is true that Rocky and Rusty had a close and loving relationship, the movie places a stronger emphasis on their connection than was perhaps the case in real life. In reality, Rocky had meaningful connections with friends, teachers, and peers who were equally inspired by his courage and determination. The movie’s narrative choice to amplify the mother-son relationship is a storytelling device that serves to heighten emotional impact and create a more streamlined narrative.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the movie ‘Mask’ condenses and dramatizes certain events from Rocky’s life for storytelling purposes. Real-life experiences are often compressed or modified to fit within the constraints of a cinematic narrative. While the film captures the essence of Rocky’s journey and the impact he had on those around him, it may not fully capture the intricacies and complexities of his actual life.


Read about another inspirational figure who did not let his disability hinder him from living a fulfilling life: The Legend of the Green Man: Raymond Robinson

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