Apparently, last week’s piece on Song Of The South (1946) touched some hearts and minds. All the e-mails were very supportive of the movie, and many correspondents expressed dismay that recorded copies were so hard to come by. Some even asked whatever happened to Bobby Driscoll, the actor who played cute little Johnny.
I wonder if Uncle Remus himself could have created a saga like Bobby Driscoll’s…
Born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 3, 1937, Bobby’s family moved out to Los Angeles in 1943. A friendly barber suggested that the boy should get into the movies, and he debuted in Lost Angel in 1944. Eight more features followed before his starring role in Song of the South. From the get-go, his talent and screen presence came shining through, and the youngster was earning $500/week. Needless to say, that was serious money back then, and unheard of for children. He was being touted as “the greatest child find since Jackie Cooper played Skippy (1931).”
Success continued, as Bobby stole the show in The Window (1949), an interesting movie about a boy who cries wolf, and then when he really does witness a murder, no one believes him except the perps. His bravura performance in this film caused New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther to remark that, “Bobby Driscoll is a brilliant actor. The Window is Bobby Driscoll’s picture, make no mistake about it.” Some even felt that he should have been nominated for the Best Actor Oscar. As it was, based on his work in Window and a Disney pic, So Dear To My Heart, Bobby did receive a special Oscar for “outstanding juvenile actor” of 1949.
Following this banner year, his career would encompass seven more features, including the well liked Treasure Island (1950), and Bobby’s voice as Peter in Peter Pan (1953). By 1954, though, the cute kid had become an awkward, gangly teenager, plagued with fairly nasty acne. Some TV jobs did come along, but the former golden boy felt rejected by his peers, and got into drugs. He started with marijuana at age 16, moving up quickly to cocaine and heroin, doing some hard time at California’s Chino State Penitentiary in the early 1960’s. He had been arrested previously on a drug charge in 1956, and did clean up his act long enough to land his last role in a feature called The Party Crashers (1958).
Ironically, this film also starred Frances Farmer, another Hollywood tragic figure, who also failed, with this vehicle, to make the big comeback to the silver screen. She was to fare better than Driscoll, in that she did host her own TV series for six years. Still, Farmer was wrongly committed to horrific mental institutions for 11 years, and was even lobotomized.
After Driscoll was released from Chino, he moved to New York, to take up stage acting, and supported himself with various odd jobs—none of which he kept very long. Unfortunately, his druggie reputation preceded him, so few acting gigs panned out, either.
Little more is known about his New York period, other than his final screen appearance in the short film Dirt (1965). We can assume that there were drug-free and drug-addled times, influenced, no doubt, by how well his life was going at that moment.
We do know that he died a pauper in an abandoned Greenwich Village tenement, with needle marks on his arms. The body was discovered by two children on March 30, 1968, but the exact date of death will never be known, since he was buried as a John Doe, in New York’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island. The causes of death were listed as heart failure and hardening of the arteries, brought on by drug abuse. It is probable that hepatitis was also involved.
Even while indigent, Bobby stayed in reasonable touch with his mother, who, after not hearing from him for several weeks, tried to find him. It took a year, but thanks to the efforts of the FBI, and the record keeping practices of the Potter’s Field officials, he was identified via fingerprints.
Some, in our cynical age, would write off this sad story with AJ Benza’s tag line: “Fame, ain’t it a bitch.” Surely, Driscoll was gifted, and was given excellent opportunities. However, it seems that more could have been done to help him adjust to reality, following the end of his Disney contract, when he was barely 17. As Driscoll himself put it, when an adult, “I was carried on a satin cushion, and then dropped into the garbage can.”
There are many sad child actor stories to come out of Hollywood, but none is sadder than Bobby Driscoll’s.