Yet, Rodney Allen Rippy—the kid who can't quite swallow the Jack-in-the-Box burger—is still running strong after three years (he debuted at age 3½), in the process parlaying himself into a showbiz mini-conglomerate. Rodney is already a circuit-riding regular on the grown-up variety and talk shows (including four shots on Tonight); has played a movie cameo in the R-rated Blazing Saddles; cut a record album featuring the Jumbo Jack commercial theme, Make Life a Little Easier; and this month, became a co-star on the new CBS Saturday morning feature, The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine. Inescapably, there has been a merchandizing Rippy-off of Rodney Allen T-shirts, sweatshirts, posters, sneakers and talking dolls. Now, at 3'8¼" and age 6, the Rippy money machine is pulling in $200,000 a year.
The other side of the coin is a potentially ruinous celebrity for a kid just entering the first grade. Already he is grand-marshaling parades, stopping traffic ("All the time, everywhere I go," he pipes, "WHAM, they be hitting their brakes"), and being honored with official Rodney Allen Rippy days even in Texas. He is capable of asking friends on the playground for quarters to hear him sing or sign an autograph. He can volley one-liners with Johnny Carson (refusing to discuss his own girls, Rodney sassily retorted: "I'll bet you go for 'em, don't ya?") or play studio brat, exiting from fans with the line, "I've got to go now—my camera angle's ready."
Those trouble signs notwithstanding, Jim Grumish, the producer of his commercials, reports, "I've seen kids destroyed by this kind of attention, but Rodney is coming through sensationally." The salvation seems to be the sense of perspective of his parents, Fred and Flossie Rippy. Devout Baptists and migrants from North Carolina, they were originally victims of a classic Hollywood scam. They were fast-talked into enrolling their three kids (Rodney has an 11-year-old brother and 13-year-old sister) with a "talent agency" for $100 which eventually became $900. Against all odds, Rodney did make it, but the Rippys still maintain their modest original house in Long Beach, their 1970 Pontiac, and Father continues his job with the sanitation department. "This is an uncertain thing," he says. "Best to keep on working."
While deferring to an agent on professional matters, the Rippys maintain control at home, administering Rodney a "whoopin" (his own term for spanking) when he needs it. He suffers the usual trauma of kids—his basset hound was run over by a car (the driver, he said, should "go to jail"). His racial conciousness seems minimal but he once concluded a song on the Tonight show—to audience approval—with his fist in a black-power salute.
"He's very instinctive about doing the right things," observes Carson's talent coordinator Howard Papush. "Perhaps this instinct will extend to his personal life. I think his romance [with showbiz] will end in a year or two. He will get bored and just want to be a little boy again."
The half-life of a child star tends to tick away much faster these days with the relentless exposure of TV. Within a matter of months, an irresistible imp can become a pain in the coaxial.