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Originally published Sunday, November 19, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Obituary

Florence Tullis, portrayed by Cher in "Mask," dies at age 70

Florence "Rusty" Tullis, the strong-willed biker mother of a son with a rare, disfiguring disease who inspired the 1985 movie "Mask," has...

Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Florence "Rusty" Tullis, the strong-willed biker mother of a son with a rare, disfiguring disease who inspired the 1985 movie "Mask," has died. She was 70.

Ms. Tullis died of an infection Nov. 11 at a Montebello hospital about a month after being injured in a motorcycle accident, her niece, Helen Cunningham, said Tuesday.

Ms. 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. The motorcycle struck a curb, throwing her from the bike and into a telephone pole, Azusa police Lt. John Momot said.

A one-time go-go dancer with a penchant for drugs and bikers, the flame-haired Ms. 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 Cher as Ms. Tullis and Eric Stoltz as a teenage Rocky hit theaters in 1985.

Rocky Dennis, the younger of Ms. Tullis' two sons, was born in 1961. He appeared healthy, but 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 Rocky's skull would distort his face and make it grow to twice its normal size.

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

Rocky Dennis, however, was 16 when he died in Covina in 1978. During the years they lived in Covina and Glendora, his mother insisted he live 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."

When Rocky graduated from junior high he was an honor student who had learned to accept his deformity and had a knack for making friends.

Ms. Tullis said Rocky's "happy-go-lucky attitude" impressed "Mask" screenwriter Anna Hamilton Phelan.

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"This was not the PTA mother of the year," Phelen said of Ms. 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, Ms. 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, Ms. Tullis' older son, Joshua, died of AIDS at 32.

"People say, 'Oh, it's too bad they died so young,' " Ms. 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.' "

The Brooklyn-born daughter of a truck driver, Ms. Tullis had a rough start in life.

She started 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, when she was 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, and they moved to Covina in 1959.

Ms. Tullis, who at the time of her death was separated from her third husband, Bernie Tullis, had been living in Glendora with her sister, Dorothy Stuart, and her niece when the accident occurred. Ms. Tullis, who had several 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," her niece said. "She did a lot of things. She got in trouble. She did what she did."

In addition to her sister Dorothy, Tullis is survived by another sister, Bonnie Meeker.

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