March 18, 1985 12:00 PM

She was a strong-willed, flamboyant divorcee with a taste for drugs and bikers. He was her son, a disfigured boy who spent 16 years under a death sentence. Rocky Dennis was born with craniodiaphyseal dysplasia, which distorted his face, making it grow to twice its normal size.

Mask, the powerful Peter Bogdanovich film, tells their story. Splendid performances from Cher and Eric Stoltz, and a deft screenplay from first-timer Anna Hamilton Phelan—who saw Rocky while visiting UCLA’s Center for Genetic Research—reveal mother and son as they were: not tin angels or cardboard martyrs, but raucous comrades who shared a kind of outlaw bond. Together they constructed a life unimpeded by self-pity.

When he was 7, Rocky was taken by his mother, Rusty Dennis, to Las Vegas. In the lobby of the Hacienda Resort Hotel, he spotted a female dwarf, stumpy and out of proportion, making her way through the tourists. As she walked by, the boy began to giggle.

“Now do you understand?” Rusty said. “Do you understand why people sometimes treat you the way they do?” The first grader, whose face already was twisted by disease, nodded. “Rocky,” his mother said, “everyone can look like anyone else, but no one can look like you. Take pride in that.”

To Rusty, seeing their story brought to the screen in a $12 million film is “a fairy tale—I’m sure Rocky is enjoying every minute of it,” she says. With her smoke-roughened, Brooklyn-accented voice, her red mane and Levis, Rusty has the aspect of the hard-living biker she once was. But, at 48, her life has changed. When her son was growing up in smog-choked Covina, Calif., their home was a hangout for her road-warrior chums. After Rocky’s 1978 death, she moved to San Francisco, took up Buddhism and renounced drugs. Now her time is spent as a counselor at Narcotics Anonymous, and she plans to work at the Shanti Project, a workshop for the terminally ill, including patients with AIDS.

Rusty received a modest $15,000 for the rights to her story—some of which she promptly spent on a car—but she stands to make much more: Phelan and Bogdanovich each recently gave her a single percentage point, which could bring in millions if the film is a hit. But she is typically pragmatic about the potential windfall. “People I know wouldn’t be surprised at anything [that happens] in my life.”

No doubt. The daughter of a Brooklyn truck driver, Rusty rebelled early on. “I was what you call a juvenile delinquent,” she says. At 14, she began smoking pot and riding with motorcycle toughs. She quit school the next year to become a Coney Island cooch dancer and, at 17, she married Tommy Mason, a truck driver.

The marriage was a bad one, and shortly after the birth of her son Joshua Mason (now a 29-year-old aspiring writer in San Francisco), Rusty moved back in with her Jewish parents on Coney Island. By 19, she was hooked on speed—both kinds. An expert motorcycle rider, she joined a stunt team called “Speedy Babs and his Cyclettes,” but she was booted from the act when her penchant for amphetamines was discovered.

After a stint as a Coney Island exhibit hawker, she met Roy Dennis, a painting contractor and fellow biking enthusiast. In 1959 they married and moved to Covina, where life looked promising. For a while Rusty shed her drug habit, and they quickly found friends in the motorcycle crowd.

On Dec. 4, 1961 she gave birth to a baby with bright eyes—Rocky. He seemed perfectly healthy. It wasn’t until a routine tonsillectomy sent her 2 ½-year-old son to the hospital that she learned that he was doomed. An X-ray technician picked up irregularities in his skull, and a battery of tests at UCLA Medical Center confirmed the presence of an extremely rare disease. Doctors told Rusty that abnormal calcium deposits in her son’s skull would push his eyes toward the edges of his head and twist his nose out of shape; that his eyesight and hearing would fail; and that, if the handful of cases on record were any indication, the tremendous pressure would destroy his brain before he was 7.

Halloween was the biggest day of the year for Rocky Dennis. Under the light of the California moon, he would lead a pack of demons through the neighborhood, gleefully ringing doorbells and joining the chorus of “Trick or treat!” After the child goblins collected their booty, Rocky would whip off his dime-store mask to reveal the horror underneath. The uninitiated would exclaim, “How cute, he’s wearing two masks! Take off your other one, too.” Grinning ear to ear (like Howdy Doody, Rusty says), Rocky would tug playfully at his face and say, “Gee, it must be stuck on.” After his victims saw the joke, his mother says, “Rocky always got lots of candy.”

Many parents would have been crushed by such a scenario. “People used to ask me if I felt cheated,” Rusty says. “I just told them that questioning it would drive you crazy. Why me? Well, why not me?”

Rusty encouraged her son to do everything the experts deemed impossible. (Although Roy remained close to Rocky after the 1971 divorce, it was Rusty who raised the child.) Doctors said his 20/200-20/300 eyesight—which made him legally blind by the age of 6—would keep him from learning to read, and teachers discouraged her from enrolling him in a public school. “They tried to say his intelligence was impaired, but it wasn’t true,” Rusty remembers. “I think they wanted to keep him out of the classroom because [they thought] it would bother the other kids’ parents.” She had her way, however—he entered school at 6, and it soon became obvious that Rocky had a great talent for making friends. And mischief. He delighted in profit-making scams like selling neighbors the newspapers he had stolen from their lawns.

Although Rocky stayed in the first grade for two years, he progressed quickly thereafter. He skipped the seventh grade, and on graduation day at Sandburg Junior High he took the stage in a new suit to collect his diploma and a gold certificate that read, “Rocky Dennis—Honors Student.”

Along the way, he learned to accept his deformity to such a degree that he turned down a plastic surgeon who suggested an operation that could have made him look more normal. “Who will I see in the mirror if I change my face?” he asked his mother. When a circus invited him to become part of its freak show, the boy’s impulse was to accept in order to grab the money. It was Rusty who had to ask “[whether] he wanted to sit there all day and have strangers stare at him.” (The question was moot, since the circus never pursued its offer to Rocky.)

Money, in fact, was a problem for the pair. Although the two received welfare and state medical benefits, and some of Rocky’s bills were covered by genetic research organizations, Rusty had to work as a go-go dancer and door-to-door saleswoman to pay for her son’s annual week-long examinations at the Medical Genetics Clinic at Harbor UCLA Medical Center. Rocky did his part by taking baby-sitting jobs. Children, Rusty says, weren’t put off by his deformity.

Adults were something else. One day, lounging in her living room, a biker friend told Rusty that he had been sitting on a park bench, high on acid, when a bizarre-looking kid sat down next to him. It had freaked him out so badly that he renounced drugs on the spot. No sooner had he finished the story than Rocky burst into the room, smiling, his arms wide open. The biker jumped to his feet and screamed, “That’s him! That’s the kid!” Rocky always enjoyed a little drama.

Rusty would never let doctors discuss Rocky’s condition unless he was in the room. Every time he went through a rapid growth spurt—at 6, at 7, at 12, at 14—physicians would tell mother and son that death was imminent. After one of these consultations, Rocky looked at his mother and asked, “Do you think I’m gonna die this time, Mom?” She answered: “That’s up to you. You’ll know when you’re ready.”

Rocky came to believe that when his life was over, he would simply be transformed into another sort of energy—the void held no fear for him. With the help of a self-taught form of biofeedback, he learned to handle the fierce headaches that plagued him to the end. But as he grew older, the pain became stronger—and his body weaker.

In late September 1978 he indulged in an uncharacteristic bit of self-pity: He told his mother that he was sorry that he had been born and apologized for being such a problem child. On October 3 they ate dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, where everyone in their party noticed how weak Rocky had become. “I had a feeling that if we took him to the hospital, we wouldn’t have him home again,” Rusty says.

After sending her son to bed with instructions to “go make your headache better,” Rusty never saw him alive again. She heard him stir at around six the next morning, but when she went in at 10, “He was already gone…” she says. “I hugged him and said goodbye, but he wasn’t there.”

Rusty, who has since resumed the name Mason, donated Rocky’s body to the UCLA genetics research center. She and her biker friends held a fine wake that included 30-odd Harley-Davidsons revving in tribute to the boy who had loved bikes and Bruce Springsteen. But it was Rocky himself who had the last word.

“The year after he died,” Rusty says quietly, “I woke up in the middle of the night, and there he was, sitting in a chair in my bedroom. He said, ‘Hi, Mom. I’m on my way to San Francisco. I’ll see you there.’

“The funny thing was, it was just before my son Josh called and told me to join him in San Francisco. I had been off drugs for months, and I don’t know if I was dreaming. But I still hear Rocky’s voice all the time.”