Bobby Driscoll at Disneyby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The stories of child actors who worked on Disney films and television shows do not always have happy endings. The young women, in particular, seem to make some strange life choices after leaving Disney employment.
Some, like Kathryn Beaumont who performed as Alice and Wendy in the two Disney animated features Alice in Wonderland (1950) and Peter Pan (1953) went on to a happy, productive life perhaps because she turned away from acting.
Unfortunately, Bobby Driscoll the first male child to be put under contract for Disney feature films had a troubled life after playing the role of Peter Pan in the animated feature.
Driscoll's sad later life is referenced in the new Chip'n' Dale: Rescue Rangers movie that premiered on Disney+ on May 20, 2022.
Trying to track down the villain who is kidnapping toons including their friend Monterey Jack, Chip and Dale discover "Sweet Pete" (voiced by Will Arnett), a former child star whose middle-aged potbelly protrudes prominently from his old Peter Pan costume and has a heavy stubble shadow.
Sweet Pete tells the two stars of the film as a clip from the Disney 1953 animated Peter Pan feature of Peter Pan flying over London on the way to Never Land is shown, "You know, I got my big break when I was just a kid. I got cast in the biggest movie in the world as the boy who wouldn't grow up: Peter Pan. I'd never been so happy in my entire life. Then I got older…"
A clip is seen of Sweet Pete sprouting facial hair on his upper lip as he looks in a mirror.
"And they threw me away like I was nothing.… I was scared, desperate, and all alone. So I decided to take the power back and make my own bootleg movie. I called it Flying Bedroom Boy. And guess what? It worked. I made lots of money, so I recruited other toons to star in more movies. And bangarang (a term from the Spielberg Hook film), now I run my own bootleg movie studio. Now I get to decide who's a star, and who gets thrown in the trash."
Disney fans flooded Twitter with harsh reaction from those who felt that Disney was mocking Driscoll's tragic life after leaving Disney and comparing making bootleg Disney films to human trafficking.
Co-screenwriter Dan Gregor said, "We (Gregor and co-screenwriter Doug Mand) were trying to think of a character who is loved and who no one ever thought badly of. How do we twist that and make them into a toxic villain?
"At one point, the idea was to have Santa Claus be evil, but we didn't want to destroy Santa for the children. Peter Pan is this character who's supposed to be sort of the ultimate child star. He's supposed to never grow up. But what happens when Hollywood doesn't want him anymore?"
According to the press book for the Disney Peter Pan film, "For the first time, Peter Pan is characterized as a boy. A woman has always played Pan on stage. The voice and gestures and actions are those of an adolescent boy. Bobby Driscoll, a child star groomed by Disney in a number of pictures, was given this honor."
Walt Disney told the press: "For the first time in the long history of the play, we have cast a boy – or at least his voice – for the part of Peter. Up to now, the role has always been played by a woman, from the first, unforgettable impersonation by Maude Adams down to the recent brilliant performance by Jean Arthur.
"But Peter is a boy, and we felt that a clear boy's voice was needed. We cast Bobby Driscoll in the part and we think that his personality is in perfect keeping with the cartoon character.
"Peter was a boy who can do very strange things. He flies without wings. His shadow leads a merry life of its own. He is forever twelve years old simply because he refuses to grow up beyond that comfortable age. Most remarkable of all, he knows where Never Land is and how to get there.
"He is able to do a lot of things in animation besides flying that he could never do on the stage. But he's the same Peter and it's the same Never Land and the same Tinker Bell and the same Darling family that we have always loved."
Robert "Bobby" Cletus Driscoll was born March 3, 1937. Thanks to the assistance of his barber's son in Pasadena, California who was an actor, Driscoll at the age of five got an audition for a two minute role in the MGM film Lost Angel (1943) and beat out forty other children.
That film led to small roles in nine other movies over a three year period until he was signed to a non-exclusive thirteen week contract by Walt Disney for the role of Johnny in Song of the South (1946). He was the first male actor to be put under contract at Disney at $500 a week.
According to the 1946 program book for the Atlanta, Georgia premiere, when casting the part of Johnny, Walt picked Driscoll because "he wanted a typical youth in which each male adult could recognize something of himself. Someone not too handsome, not so bumptious, not too brilliant, and not too thoughtless, someone mostly boy…"
In 1947, Driscoll was loaned out to RKO for two feature films. If You Knew Susie (1947) had him playing the little brother of Margaret Kerry who would later be the live action reference model for Tinker Bell.
"He was a fun little guy to work with," Kerry told me. "He always knew his lines perfectly, and was always listening carefully to the director. I was impressed with him as a little boy and as an actor."
Walt liked the young actor and the contract kept getting renewed and Driscoll was re-teamed with his co-star from the SOTS film Luann Patten in a segment of Disney's Melody Time (1948) where the two actors kept messing up lines because they wanted to spend more time with Roy Rogers until Driscoll put a stop to it because "it is costing Mr. Disney money" and the live action feature So Dear to My Heart (1949) where he plays a young boy adopting a lamb.
Just two weeks shy of his twelfth birthday, Disney signed Driscoll to a new seven year contract. At the age of 13, Bobby won a Juvenile Oscar presented by actor Donald O'Connor on March 23, 1950, at the 22nd Academy Award Ceremony as the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949.
This was awarded as recognition for his outstanding performance in two feature films: The Window, and So Dear to My Heart. He received great reviews for both performances.
The rising child star made another film at Disney, Treasure Island (1950) playing the role of cabin boy Jim Hawkins that was well received. Director Byron Haskin stated, "Bobby Driscoll was a truly great actor."
Walt had additional plans for the boy including starring him in a film version of Tom Sawyer but the rights were unavailable. He also suggested re-teaming him with his co-star in Treasure Island, Robert Newton. Driscoll would have portrayed a young Robin Hood with Newton as his mentor, Friar Tuck.
In 1951, work at the studio began in earnest on the production of Peter Pan (1953) and Driscoll was signed to provide the voice of the character and to do live action reference modeling to help the animators.
It is clear in the final film that the artists made use of Driscoll's pert nose and facial expressions. He was five foot six inches tall at the time.
Once again, he was well regarded by everyone he ever worked with on the production including actress Kathryn Beaumont who was doing the live action reference for Wendy.
Animator Milt Kahl who animated the character of Peter Pan in the film and was well known for his crustiness and dislike for so many things said, "Bobby Driscoll did the live action. He was a nice little boy but he had an absolutely terrible mother. She was one of these Hollywood mothers who was a pusher. Damn shame. Nice little kid. I just loved him in Song of the South. Real cute little boy and you loved him.
Driscoll also lent his voice to the character of Goofy's son in the Disney cartoon shorts Fathers are People (1951) and Father's Lion (1952).
The Walt Disney Christmas Show special aired on CBS December 25, 1951 and featured clips of Disney cartoons, but its purpose was to promote the upcoming Peter Pan.
Walt is showing artwork on an easel from the upcoming Peter Pan to children who have gathered on the "Disney Studio" set for the holiday festivities. He is joined by Kathryn Beaumont who is dressed as Wendy.
Shortly thereafter Driscoll in full Peter Pan costume comes flying into the set looking for Captain Hook and pulling out his knife to a vocally appreciative audience. He then flies out while the show continues.
Driscoll also provided new dialog for the voice of Peter Pan on the RCA Little Nipper Story Book Album record released in 1952 on two 45 rpm records lasting seventeen minutes.
The adaptation of the story required new dialog and narration to bridge scenes to fit the time. It was written by Disney storymen Winston Hibler and Ted Sears. At the sound of the ticking of the crocodile, children were urged to turn the next page in the storybook.
Kathryn Beaumont and Bill Thompson also re-created their roles but Captain Hook was performed by John Brown since Hans Conried was apparently unavailable with one of his many other commitments. In this version the pirates desert Hook in the end and Hook is devoured by the crocodile.
"Lux Presents Hollywood" was the opening line from one of the most popular dramatic anthology series on radio that was broadcast for approximately two decades. In the days before VHS and DVD, there was no way for someone to see their favorite film again unless it was re-released.
The radio show aired one hour adaptations of popular films (five Disney films were adapted over the years) often with the original cast but sometimes substituting another popular actor if the original was unavailable. Most studios granted the rights for free since they could use the show to promote another upcoming film.
Driscoll had previously appeared on the adaptation of Treasure Island and on December 21, 1953 re-created his role in Peter Pan.
The cast included: Bobby Driscoll (Peter Pan), Kathryn Beaumont (Wendy), John Carradine (Captain Hook and Mr. Darling), Bill Thompson (Mr. Smee), Herb Butterfield (Narrator), Christopher Cook (John), Richard Beals (Michael), Mary Flynn (Mrs. Darling), Billy Bletcher (Indian Chief), Michael Miller (Cubby), Stuffy Singer (Foxy), Earl Keen (Nana), Shep Menken and Eddie Marr (Pirates).
Billy Bletcher was not in the original film, but he was well known as the voice of Pete in the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts. Candy Candido had done the voice of the Indian Chief in the film. Dick Beals, who is best known as the voice of Speedy Alka-Selzer, took over from Tommy Luske to play Michael.
The narrator and music cues transitioned the story to each scene. Most significantly, Hans Conried (who was unavailable because he toured extensively in summer stock and lectured on Shakespeare in schools and colleges around the country) was replaced by John Carradine (mimicking Conried's interpretation of the character in the film) who was doing a one-man stage show in Hollywood at the time of monologues from Shakespeare.
At the end of the show, he plugged the show and Kathryn Beaumont gushed that she would love to see it since she was interested in Shakespeare. At the sound of loud ticking, Beaumont feared the crocodile was after Carradine but he assured her it was just his watch reminding them it was time to go.
Driscoll's salary was now up to $1,750 a week but there were no new movies on the horizon for him. With Driscoll growing up, Walt suggested perhaps using him as a juvenile bully rather than as the type of characters that had propelled him to popularity.
When the Disney Board of Directors began discussing new film projects, they decided to terminate Driscoll's contract three years early but not to inform the young actor until after he had completed the publicity campaign for Peter Pan that included personal appearances at events for the animated feature during the year 1953.
The official reasons for his termination were his severe acne that required heavy makeup and that he had outgrown the cute child roles with his voice changing as he was entering puberty, a fate that plagued many other popular child stars.
Unofficially, Howard Hughes (who took over RKO who were distributing Disney films disliked child actors and for some unknown reason) particularly disliked Driscoll, who he felt was precocious and annoying.
It has been suggested that Bobby heard rumors he was being let go and went to the studio to see an executive who he was friendly with to find out the truth. The executive was unavailable to talk to him.
Driscoll had his secretary phone and see if he could talk with Walt and was told that Walt was too busy to talk to him. She stepped out of the room briefly and when she returned she told him that the Disney Studio no longer needed his services and his contract was terminated.
Driscoll broke down in tears and Disney security escorted him off the property. He was constantly bullied at school for being "that Disney kid actor" and because he was still so short. He befriended some boys and got involved in taking drugs to try to fit in and dull his hurt feelings.
He started using marijuana and progressed to heroin because he was still earning enough money to afford it. He was unable to find work in movies but found steady work doing guest roles on anthology television series.
For the opening television broadcast of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, Walt had intended to have actor Robert Newton appear on the Chicken of the Sea pirate ship in Fantasyland. It had been designed to resemble Captain Hook's Jolly Roger.
Unfortunately, Newton fell ill and Driscoll was invited to take his place not as Peter Pan but as Jim Hawkins. Driscoll accepted, not just at the urging of his mother in the hopes it might renew a connection with Disney, but Driscoll and Newton had become good friends and this would help out the ailing actor.
Driscoll was just seen in a brief long shot with him agreeing with the commentary by co-host Bob Cummings.
It was actor Alan Young who accompanied a costumed Captain Hook on the inaugural voyage of the Peter Pan's Flight attraction. When Newton died in March 1956, Driscoll wept uncontrollably at the funeral.
Starting in 1959 and for several years, Driscoll was arrested for drug possession, assault, robbery, check forgery and various narcotics violations. He was sentenced to a six month term at the Narcotics Rehabilitation Center of the California State Penitentiary at Chino.
His marriage ended and he was estranged from his children so he moved to New York. At one point he became associated with artist Andy Warhol and then simply disappeared.
When Driscoll's father became seriously ill in 1969, his mother tried to get in touch with him in New York through newspapers. Desperate, she contacted the Disney Studio and explained the situation to Roy O. Disney who had always liked Driscoll. Roy contacted local police officials to contact their counterparts in New York but it was initially a dead end.
On March 30, 1968 two children were playing in an abandoned building in Greenwich Village when they happened upon what they thought was a sleeping man stretched out on a cot. The man was not sleeping but dead. It was Bobby Driscoll dead at thirty-one years old.
He had succumbed to a heart attack caused by advanced atherosclerosis from his drug use. There were no drugs found in his system.
With no identification found on the body, he was considered a vagrant and buried in an unmarked pauper's grave on Hart Island. Later, through a fingerprint match sparked by that 1969 inquiry, New York authorities were able to contact Driscoll's mother for confirmation a year and a half after he had died.
"I wish I could say that my childhood was a happy one, but I wouldn't be honest," he said in a 1961 magazine article titled The Nightmare Life of an Ex-Child Star.
"I was lonely most of the time. A child actor's childhood is not a normal one. People continually saying 'What a cute little boy!' creates innate conceit. But the adulation is only one part of it.… Other kids prove themselves once, but I had to prove myself twice with everyone."
Just like Peter Pan, Bobby Driscoll was the boy who never got a chance to grow up.