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Florence 'Rusty' Tullis, 70; portrayed by Cher in 'Mask'

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

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

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. She was thrown from the motorcycle after it struck a curb and her body hit a telephone pole, said Azusa police Lieutenant John Momot.

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

A onetime 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 the story of her and her son Rocky Dennis 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 in 1985.

Rocky Dennis, the younger of Ms. Tullis's 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 years old. 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 told Ms. Tullis that her son would experience failing eyesight and hearing and 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. During the years they lived in Covina and Glendora, his mother insisted that 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.

It took Rocky two years to get through the first grade, but 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.

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

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

In 1987, Ms. Tullis was struck by the death of her other son Joshua, 32, from AIDS.

"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."

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 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.

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