Bobby Driscoll: Disney’s First Fallen Child Star

Being an actor/actress is not easy but, being one as a kid, is a whole different ball game. Show business has always been cut-throat and full of an immense amount of pressure and stress. Celebrities have breakthroughs and break downs all the time but it seems as though child stars are more at risk for falling on hard times and hitting rock bottom in the future. Considering the events of past child stars, it is no secret that they go through hell and back to earn and keep a career or to cope with losing it. Some stars go on to have successful careers but not everyone is as lucky. The typical trend for them seems to be that once they have grown up or their show is over, they are stuck in that role. Paul- Mark Gosselaar, who played Zack Morris on the hit 90s show, “Saved By The Bell,” admitted that he was unable to find any serious work once the show was over because no one could see him playing anyone but the Bayside High student.

Miley Cyrus hit the same obstacles when she finished her show on The Disney Channel, “The Hannah Montana Show.” America loved her and she was viewed as an innocent, fun loving girl next door who could do no wrong. She continued to act and sing after her show but she was still associated with Disney and was still expected to be Hannah Montana. Cyrus eventually took a downward spiral shattering her squeaky-clean image and now won’t keep her tongue in her mouth but, hey, she still has a career. She also successfully distanced herself from Disney. Disney Studios has gone to extreme lengths to maintain their standards and family-friendly reputation. From day one, they have always expected their stars to act and behave a certain way to uphold their image. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney and grew up with the films. I still love them especially the animated adventure, “Peter Pan” but I have learned that sometimes there are some tragic stories behind the magic. Peter Pan is voiced by Bobby Driscoll, who was a child actor and also, Walt Disney’s first live-action movie star. Unfortunately, Driscoll’s life was anything but a fairytale and instead embodies the consequences and hardships that can sometimes come from the harsh reality of the spotlight.

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“When he went to have his tonsils out- he must have been seven or a little older- he sang songs all the way to the hospital. Most kids cry. You see, he was always such a happy boy, with keen humor. He smiled all the time.”

-Isabelle Driscoll

Robert Cletus Driscoll was born March 3, 1937 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and was an only child. His father, Cletus, was an insulation salesman and his mother, Isabelle, was a former schoolteacher. They were a religious family who attended church every Sunday and Driscoll’s uncle was a Baptist minister.  The family moved to Des Moines and then to Los Angeles, California in 1943. Driscoll’s father was suffering from pulmonary ailments from his job working with asbestos and was advised by his doctor to move. Once they arrived in LA, many encouraged Driscoll’s parents to get him into acting. Their barber’s son got Driscoll an audition for a small bit in MGM’s family drama, “Lost Angel,” starring Margaret O’Brien. The five year-old Driscoll noticed a mock up ship and asked where the water was. The director was impressed with the boy’s curiosity and intelligence and picked him over forty others. Driscoll’s two minute screen debut helped him earn a part in 20th Century Fox’s 1944 WWII drama, “The Fighting Sullivans,” as the youngest Sullivan brother, Al Sullivan. People started to notice Driscoll’s natural acting ability and talent of memorizing lines. He became known as the “wonder child” gaining parts in “Sunday Dinner For a Soldier,” “The Big Bonanza” and “So Goes My Love.”

 0bfb67136d63e048bb730b32ffb5234aarticle-2513685-0004C76400000C1D-619_634x502Driscoll became the first actor to be put under contract by Walt Disney to play the lead character in “Song of the South” (1946) co-starring child actress, Luana Patten. The movie made Driscoll and Patten stars and were nicknamed by the press as Walt Disney’s “Sweetheart Team.” Driscoll and Patten starred together again in Disney’s “So Dear To My Heart” (1948) and in “Pecos Bill” (1948) with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. In 1948, Disney “loaned” Driscoll to RKO Studios to play Eddie Cantor’s on-screen son in the musical comedy, “If You Knew Susie” (1949) and star in “The Window” (1949.) Howard Hughes, who owned RKO Studios at the time, found the film, “The Window,” unworthy of release and thought Driscoll was not much of an actor. The film was finally released in 1949 and was a big hit earning the studio a multiple of the film’s production cost. Driscoll received a number of positive reviews of his performance from film critics and ultimately made Hughes eat his own words.

 

“The striking force and terrifying impact of this RKO melodrama is chiefly due to Bobby’s brilliant acting, for the whole effect would have been lost were there any suspicion of doubt about the credibility of this pivotal character. ‘The Window’ is Bobby Driscoll’s picture, make no mistake about it.” -The New York Times

 

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At the age of 12, Driscoll earned a special Juvenile Academy Award for “So Dear To My Heart” and “The Window” as the Outstanding Juvenile Actor of 1949. Driscoll returned to Disney and was cast as Jim Hawkins in “Treasure Island” with British actor, Robert Newton, as Long John Silver. While filming in the UK, Driscoll ran into serious problems with immigration when it was discovered that he didn’t have a British work permit. He was ordered to leave the country in six days so the crew had to quickly shoot all of Driscoll’s scenes and close ups before he was forced to leave. The incident resulted in Driscoll’s family and Disney Studios being heavily fined. Disney’s first live-action film was a box office hit and Driscoll was soon in discussion for several upcoming projects with Disney but none of them materialized. According to director Byron Haskin’s memoirs, Driscoll was in talks of being casted as Tom Sawyer and was the perfect age for the role. Due to story rights ownership dispute with director, David O. Selznick, who had produced the property in 1938, Disney ultimately had to cancel the entire project. Driscoll was also supposed to play a young Robin Hood follower in the live-action version starring along side Robert Newton again as Friar Tuck. Disney wanted to film it in the UK again but, due to Driscoll’s work permit incident, they were unable to return for production.

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Driscoll’s second long-run contract with Disney allowed him to be “loaned” out to Horizon Pictures for a double role in “When I Grow Up.” He had an appearance in Walt Disney’s first Christmas special, “One Hour in Wonderland,” in 1951 and voiced Goofy Jr. in the Disney cartoon shorts. It was difficult for Driscoll to gain serious film roles because everyone saw him as Disney’s kid actor. He did some special star-focused television series with big names such as Loretta Young, Gloria Swanson and Jane Wyman. Driscoll also performed on a number of radio shows and special broadcasts. He was chosen in a nationwide poll as the winner of the Milky Way Gold Star Award in 1954 for his work with television and radio.

His last major success was “Peter Pan” (1953)  and was cast opposite of Disney’s “Little British Woman” child actress, Kathyrn Beaumont.  Driscoll not only provided the voice for Peter but was also the reference model for animators. Peter’s facial expressions, mannerisms and behavior all incredibly mimic those of Driscoll. Walt Disney was known to have held Driscoll in high adoration and essentially saw the young boy as the living version of his youth. According to Driscoll’s mother, her son had a great love for Walt Disney and always did what the director told him to do. However, during a projects meeting after the completion of “Peter Pan,” Disney admitted that he now saw Driscoll was better suited for the role of a young bully rather than a likable, lovable protagonist.  Driscoll’s salary was raised to $1,750 a week, but had very little work in 1952 compared to his high pay. In March 1953, an additional two year option Driscoll had extended on his contract with Disney, which would have kept at Disney until 1956, was canceled just weeks after the theatrical release of “Peter Pan.” Driscoll had hit puberty which came with a bad case of acting that caused him to wear heavy makeup during his performances. This was the official reason provided for the termination of Driscoll’s contract and all of his connections to Walt Disney Studios.

“I have found that memories not very useful. I was carried on a silver platter and then dumped into the garbage.”

-Bobby Driscoll

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After leaving Disney, Driscoll’s parents withdrew him from the Hollywood Professional School, which educated child actors, and enrolled him in public school as Westwood University High School. His graded dropped and was often times the target of teasing due to his film career.

“The other kids didn’t accept me. They treated me as one apart. I tried desperately to be one of the gang. When they rejected me, I fought back, became belligerent and cocky- and was afraid all the time.” – Bobby Driscoll

Driscoll revealed in an interview years later that he started using drugs when he was 17 years-old. He was using whatever was possible and available but mostly heroin because he could afford it. Driscoll’s mother recalls that her son was always disciplined before the drugs and that show business was not where he was first exposed to narcotics.

“He was so well supervised by Disney. People weren’t even allowed to use a swear word in front of him.”

-Isabelle Driscoll

He became friends with what his mother referred to as the “underdogs” because Driscoll felt sorry for them. These underdogs were poor, troubled kids who were a negative influence on Driscoll. His mother thought he was changing but his father brushed it off as a phase. At his request, Driscoll’s parents enrolled him back at Hollywood Professional School where he graduated in May of 1955. A year later he was arrested for the first time for possession of marijuana but the charges were later dismissed. Along with marijuana, he was also using coke, speed and heroin at the time. Driscoll’s mother described her son as always being an active person who consistently craved excitement. She often wondered if that may have been a factor in her son’s downfall into drugs. Driscoll traveled to Mexico in December of that same year with his new girlfriend, Marilyn Jean Rush, where the two eloped to avoid their parents’ objections. They ended up having a formal service in Los Angeles a year later. They had a son and two daughters. Driscoll began going by “Robert” to distance himself from his childhood roles and was able to gain parts on two television shows, “M-Squad” and “The Silent Service.” He also landed what would end up being his final film roles in “The Scarlet Coat” (1955) and “The Party Crashers” (1958.)

“I don’t want you to think he was a perfect child, just that he was a very normal boy.”

– Isabelle Driscoll

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“It isn’t true that people in Hollywood didn’t want to help him. Cornell Wilde wanted to help him. Michael Kanin wanted to help him. Disney Studios made a mistake. They didn’t call Bobby and say they wanted to talk to him.

-Isabelle Driscoll

Driscoll’s marriage started to unravel and separated from Rush. He was arrested shortly after for disturbing the peace and assault with a deadly weapon after hitting two men with a pistol who were heckling him while he was washing a girlfriend’s car. The charges were later dropped. Driscoll and his wife were unable to mend their relationship and ended up divorcing in 1960. Rush took custody of their children who all became estranged from Driscoll and his parents. Driscoll’s last known television appearances were small character roles in, “The Best of the Post” and “The Brothers Brannagan.” In 1961, Driscoll was charged with assault, robbery, narcotics possession and forging checks. He was sentenced as a drug addict to the Narcotic Rehabilitation Center of the California Institution in Chino, California. After his release in 1962, Driscoll was unable to find any work as an actor. He tried to live a normal life as a salesman in California but it didn’t last.

” Drugs changed him. He didn’t bathe. His teeth got loose. He had an extremely high IQ, but the narcotics affected his brain.”  – Isabelle Driscoll

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“After he went to jail, he felt everyone was against him- no, I said that wrong- he felt people were pointing a finger at him and thinking you can’t take a chance on an addict. Anyway, he didn’t want anyone’s help, he wanted to straighten himself out. He didn’t ask me for money. In fact, when he worked, he always sent me something.”

-Isabelle Driscoll

In 1965, a year after his parole expired, Driscoll left everyone and everything behind relocating to New York with the hopes of renewing his career on stage. He kept in touch with his parents calling them every once in a while. He always told them that he was going to become a successful actor and stay clean from drugs. Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful at both and disappeared. His mother called her son’s attorney in California to ask where he was but his attorney didn’t know either. She decided to let well enough alone in case her son was back on drugs and didn’t want to be found. She figured he would contact her when he wanted. Driscoll had abandoned his dreams of redemption and became part of Andy Warhol’s Greenwich Village art community known as The Factory. Driscoll began exploring his other artistic talents and started to make collages and paintings. Some of his pieces were considering brilliant and outstanding by Warhol and the art community. Driscoll gave one last performance in an underground film by experimental filmmaker Piero Heliczer titled, “Dirt.” With his funds drained, Driscoll was broke and left The Factory in 1968 disappearing into Manhattan’s underground.

On March 30, 1968, two boys playing in an abandoned East Village tenement found Driscoll dead in one of the rooms. He was lying alone on a cot with nothing but two beer bottles near by and scattered religious pamphlets. The medical examiner determined that Driscoll had died from a heart attack caused by an advanced hardening of the arteries, due to his longtime drug abuse, and liver disease. Police reports said that there were no signs of drugs found around Driscoll or in his system. Driscoll had no identification on him when he was found. Authorities showed his picture around the East Village neighborhood for two weeks but were unsuccessful. With his body unclaimed, Driscoll was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in New York City’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island. He was 31 years-old.

“I had everything. Working steadily with good parts. Then I started putting all my spare time in my arm. I’m not really sure why I started….” – Bobby Driscoll

 About nineteen months after his death, Driscoll’s father had become deathly ill and was asking to see his son as his health was deteriorating fast. Driscoll’s mother placed ads in New York newspapers in hopes of contacting him or learning of her son’s whereabouts. She wrote to Merv Griffin, who Driscoll appeared with on television, who promptly answered yes to trying to locate her son. Disney Studios still had Driscoll’s fingerprints and sent them to the NYPD. This resulted in a positive match to Driscoll’s unmarked grave. Two weeks after learning of his son’s fate, Cletus Driscoll died. Isabelle Driscoll had her son’s name included on his father’s tombstone, who is buried in Oceanside, California, but there is only an empty casket buried with him. Driscoll’s body still remains on Hart Island unmarked. The public didn’t learn of Driscoll’s unfortunate death until the re-release of his first film, “Song of the South,” in 1972. Many reporters had been researching and asking about the film’s major cast member’s whereabouts. Driscoll’s mother decided to attend the film’s screening event alone where she broke the news of her son’s tragic death.

“Our minister had a theory. He said later, that Bobby just didn’t want to be a ‘good little boy’ anymore, he’d been too good. He to be just the reverse. Maybe that was it.”

– Isabelle Driscoll

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More on Bobby Driscoll

  • The Santa Monica Museum of Art in California still has a few of Driscoll’s surviving collages and cardboard mailers.
  • Driscoll’s body was found two miles away from where he filmed his award winning film, “The Window.”
  • In Feburary 2009, singer-songwriter, Benjy Ferree released, “Come Back To The Five and Dime Bobby Dee Bobby Dee,” a concept album based on Driscoll’s life.
  • Due to his issues with immigration, a British stand in was used to replace Driscoll after he left the UK in order to finish filming.
  • Singer, Tom Russell, wrote the song, “Goodbye Never Neverland,” an elegy to Driscoll as Peter Pan.
  • Before he married Marilyn Jean Rush, Driscoll was madly in love with another girl in the movie business who abruptly broke things off when she found out about his drug addiction.
  • Driscoll died four weeks after his 31st birthday and the day before his mother’s birthday

 

 

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