Paul Petersen, another former child actor, confirmed the news to Variety and posted a tribute on his Facebook page, along with a signed photo of a young Aaker with Rin Tin Tin, his onscreen canine pal.
“Saying Goodbye to Lee Aaker,” Peterson said. “You have to be a certain age to remember Rin Tin Tin. Lee Aaker passed away in Arizona on April 1st, alone and unclaimed…listed as an ‘indigent decedent.’ As an Air Force veteran Lee is entitled to burial benefits. I am working on that. God knows when a sparrow falls.”
Aaker was born on September 25, 1943. His mother, Myles Wilbour, was the owner of a dancing school in Los Angeles. He was singing and dancing at local clubs by the age of 4. At 8-years old, he played uncredited roles in the films “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “High Noon.” Moving onto featured status, Aaker appeared in the anthology film “O. Henry’s Full House” and co-starred alongside John Wayne in the classic western “Hondo” as the curious blonde son of homesteader Geraldine Page. He also appeared in many television shows such as “The Lone Ranger,” “Fireside Theatre” and “The Donna Reed Show.”
Two weeks before landing the role of Rusty on “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” Aaker lost the role of Jeff Miller on the original “Lassie” series to Tommy Rettig. Aaker was 11 when “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin” first appeared on ABC, airing from October 1954 to May 1959. An orphan, Rusty was being raised by a group of soldiers at a US Cavalry post known as Fort Apache. The series was such a hit that ABC reran it in from 1959-1961. It was then picked up by CBS in 1962, with reruns continuing into the 1980s.
When he got older, Aaker traveled around the world and became a producer and later worked as a carpenter for over 20 years. Aaker also spent time as a ski instructor at California’s Mammoth Mountain, teaching the sport to people with disabilities and underprivileged kids.