When you hear the name Bobby Driscoll, you might not realize why it should be recognizable or even if you’ve ever heard of him at all. Truth be told, he made a huge impact in his early career and you may not recognize his face but you will certainly remember his voice.
Bobby Driscoll was born in 1937 and was discovered in a barber shop in Altadena, CA at the age of 5 1/2 years old. A staple in the films of Walt Disney in his younger years, which is the era where most movie fans will recognize him, his first film for Disney is the ‘buried-so-deeply-in-a-vault-it-will-never-see-the-light-of-day-again’, controversial and problematic film, Song of the South (1946). In this film, he starred alongside other dynamic performers of the time including, Hattie McDaniel, Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress (1939) for her role in Gone with The Wind, and Ruth Warrick who worked with Orson Welles on his first and most iconic film, Citizen Kane (1941).
Even more amazing, and a bit of an interesting side note here, is the story of another Song of the South actor, James Baskett, who portrayed both Uncle Remus and provided the voice for Br’er Fox in the film. James Baskett considered his portrayal of Uncle Remus to be the crowning achievement in his career and, in fact, because not only the first African-American actor to win (albeit honorary) an Academy Award in 1946 for this role but also the first actor to win the award for a role in a Walt Disney film. Sadly, Baskett passed away in 1948 of a heart condition at the age of 44, making his role in The Song of the South his final screen performance and, ironically, a performance that the Walt Disney Company has pledged to never be seen again due to the film’s controversial nature which was denounced by the NAACP upon its release in 1946.
Driscoll’s next major role was in another Walt Disney film, So Dear To My Heart, which, similarly to Song of the South, combined live-action and animation. It tells the story of a young boy (Driscoll) who adopts a black sheep after it is abandoned by its mother and follows him as he learns lessons about love, friendship and dedication. Portraying Jeremiah Kincaid, Driscoll had all of the necessary young boy good looks and charm to make his performance engaging, emotional and entertaining. Starring alongside other Hollywood big shots like Burl Ives as Uncle Hiram, Beulah Bondi as Granny Kincaid and Harry Carey as Head Judge at the Country Fair, Driscoll continued to build his young career at the Walt Disney Studio which would ultimately lead to other iconic roles as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island (1950) and, possibly his most recognizeable role, as the voice of Peter Pan in the studio’s animated classic Peter Pan (1953).
FUN FACT: A complete, live “acting” performance of Driscoll was filmed for Peter Pan and then rotoscoped for the animated character. Having done this, Driscoll became the first male actor to ever portray the role of Peter Pan since all prior performances were done by female actors.
As a life-long, full fledged, card carrying member of all things Disney, I was very familiar with the films Bobby Driscoll made for the Walt Disney Company; however, I wasn’t familiar with his film The Window (1949) which he made in-between So Dear To My Heart and Treasure Island. As with so many films, I was introduced to this one through Turner Classic Movies a couple of years ago. When I realized that Driscoll starred in this film, I was intrigued immediately and it did not disappoint. Recently TCM broadcast the film again, which I watched, of course, and I was curious to discover whatever happened to the boy wonder after he had been the first contract player at Walt Disney.
In The Window, a noir film just about as far away as you can get from any Disney property, Driscoll portrays 9-year old Tommy Woodry who is known to tell many a tall tale to anyone who will listen. On a sweltering summer night, Tommy decides to sleep out on the fire escape of his family’s Manhattan apartment. When that doesn’t provide enough relief, he decides to move up 1-story, outside the Kellerman’s apartment, where there is more of a breeze. There he observes an argument between a man and a woman which turns to murder. He manages to safely return to his apartment, without alerting the Kellerman’s as to what he has witnessed, and rushes in to tell his mother what he has seen happen just 1-story up. Since he is always telling those tall tales, including one that nearly caused his family to lose their apartment earlier that night, his mother ignores his pleas for help about what has just happened. It is a classic “boy cries wolf” story which unfolds and leads to a very exciting climax as Tommy tries everything he can to make someone listen while also avoiding the Kellerman’s who discover that he is the only witness to their terrible act of murder.
FUN FACT: In 1984, director Richard Franklin was looking to do a “thriller for kids” and planned on a remake of The Window; however, the writers made significant changes and the film turned into Cloak & Dagger starring Henry Thomas (who I had the biggest crush on at the ripe old age of 9) and Dabney Coleman.
The Window was shot in 1947 when Driscoll was 10 years old. When Howard Hughes became head of RKO in 1948, this film had already been completed and Hughes made the decision to shelve the film for 2 years stating that it was “not worth releasing”. A little bit short sighted as a studio chief, Hughes was proved wrong when, in 1949, The Window was released and became one of RKO’s bigger hits both with audiences and at the box office.
Not only was the film a commercial success, Driscoll, now 13 years old, was widely praised for his performance in The Window and, in 1950, was awarded a special Academy Award for the Most Outstanding Juvenile Actor in 1949 in recognition of his work in both So Dear To My Heart (1948) and The Window (1949). He was presented with his award on March 23, 1950 and, shortly thereafter, was chosen by Walt Disney for the title role in Peter Pan.
The future looked incredibly bright for Bobby Driscoll; however, that would change significantly when he was released by Walt Disney from his second long-term contract (7 years) shortly after the release of Peter Pan in 1953. Word on street has long been that Disney made the determination to release Driscoll due to his severe acne which he considered to be too much of an obstacle to overcome for Driscoll to continue playing roles in Disney films like Johnny Tremaine (1957) and The Light In the Forest (1958).
Driscoll, now 16, started hearing rumors of his release, and went to Walt Disney’s office. When he asked to see Walt, he was told that he was too busy to see him and, eventually, a crying Bobby was escorted off the lot by security. According to Driscoll, “I was dropped like garbage when I was no longer a cute little kid, and I didn’t appeal to him anymore.”
Uncle Walt, seriously?! Make up? Lighting? Was it so bad that you had to release the kid? In later photos of Driscoll, like the one below from his final screen appearance, I don’t see any signs of the severe acne that had doomed him as a teenager.
After his release from Disney, Driscoll’s mom made the decision to remove him from Hollywood Professional High School, which was attended by other child actors and provided support for such talent, deciding instead to send him to a public school, Westwood University High School. I’m sure Driscoll’s mom thought that she was making the right decision, at the time; however, at his new school his former stardom became a huge burden and obstacle for him each and every day. Driscoll was bullied, eventually joining a “gang” of schoolboys who helped provide him protection. Although Bobby had already started smoking marijuana in early 1953 after his release by Walt Disney, his drug use continued and ramped up as he took drugs to try and fit in with his “friends”.
In 1954, Bobby started to experiment with harder drugs, having a penchant for heroin and eventually becoming a full-blown addict. He also made the personal decision to re-enroll for his senior year to Hollywood Professional High School. In spite of the challenges he faced, he did graduate in 1955 and continued to pursue his career on TV and even managed to be cast in 2 final screen roles: The Scarlet Coat (1955) and The Party Crashers (1958).
After his appearance in The Party Crashers, the party truly started crashing around Driscoll. In 1956, Driscoll eloped with his long-time girlfriend, Marilyn Jeanne Rush, to Mexico, in the hopes of avoiding their parents’ objection, but this marriage was later annulled. In March 1957, the couple were re-wed in a ceremony in Los Angeles and, in August of the same year, they welcomed the first of three children, one son and 2 daughters. In late 1960, the couple divorced.
Over the course of the next 8 years he battled drug & alcohol addiction, had several run-ins with the police for theft, forgery, burglary and narcotics possession, and was eventually sentenced as a drug addict in October 1961. He was sent to a narcotics rehab center in Chino, CA for 6 months eventually gaining his release from Tehachapi Prison in April 1962. Now 25, Driscoll wanted to revive his career in Hollywood but was totally rejected by the industry that had raised him due to his status as a convict and drug addict. After completing his parole in 1964, and even having worked as a carpenter for a construction company in LA, he was determined to revive his career on the stages of New York but, sadly, no one wanted him there either.
Driscoll bounced around for a bit in New York, and in 1964, even attempted to smuggle drugs into New York with his girlfriend/wife, Sharon Morrill. (The couple had wed in late 1963 but it was not legal since no paperwork was ever filed.) A drug deal gone bad, he and Sharon, nicknamed Didi, fled to Canada. In 1965 Bobby returned to New York without Didi, and became a part of Andy Warhol’s Factory, a Greenwich Village art community where he focused on writing poetry and visual arts. Although he had found acceptance by people in the “Beat Generation”, by 1967 was seriously ill with hepatitis from his years of drug abuse, his funds and spirit depleted, and he disappeared completely.
Sadly, on March 30, 1968, 18 years after he had been hailed by Hollywood with a special Academy Award, 2 children playing found his dead body in an East Village. He was found lying on a cot with 2 beer empty beer bottles and surrounded by religious pamphlets. No one claimed his body and, as a result, he was buried in an unmarked grave in New York City’s Potter Field on Hart Island, where he remains to this day; however, he is memorialized on his father’s headstone. His fingerprints were used 1 year after his death to identify his remains.
Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll is not alone in living out this sad and heartbreaking story that began with so much hope & promise as a young child star. Bobby Driscoll was Walt Disney’s first and most successful child stars but, to this day, he has never been enshrined as a Disney Legend.
Films mentioned in this post: