Bobby Driscoll was a bright young child star for Disney… until he was ultimately terminated by the company, simply for becoming a teenager with acne. He died a tragic death, and is remembered today as a sad story of loss and drug addiction. Stay Tuned, as Facts Verse presents: Bobby Driscoll’s Cause of Death Was Utterly Tragic
Bobby Driscoll got his start in the entertainment business at the age of five. But it wasn’t because he was chasing a dream that had he’d already been having. It was simply on the advice of a local barber. He was in Pasadena, CA, and getting his haircut one day, when the barber commented that he had a look that would be perfect for movies. What Bobby and his parents didn’t realize was that the barber’s son was already in the acting world, and had an agent. The barber convinced them to come to his house that weekend and talk to his son about what he thought of being in the movies.
They did, and the barber agreed to set up a meeting between Bobby and the boy’s agent. The agent took Bobby on, and managed to help him land a role very quickly. It was a small part, but it was a great introduction to the business for the young boy. Bobby’s role was in the movie Lost Angel, from 1943, that starred Margaret O’Brien.
It may have been a bit part, but it led to parts in nine different movies in the next three years. One of those was called “So Goes My Love” and it starred Don Ameche and Myrna Loy. Not only did it give Bobby a chance to cut his chops in the acting world, it was also a gig that impressed his fellow costars. Don Ameche talked about the fact that he had worked with a lot of young stars in his career, but that of all of them, he thought Bobby had the brightest future.
Song Of The South
That prediction seemed to begin coming true when Bobby landed a role in the major hit, Song of The South in 1946. He was nine at the time, and this was by far the biggest project he’d worked on to date. The movie was ahead of its time in many ways, as it blended live action with animation, something that hadn’t been seen before. Bobby played the role of Johnny, a child visiting his grandpa at his plantation. The movie was set in the southern US during the Era of Reconstruction. Almost immediately, however, there was backlash against the movie, and it’s whitewashing of slavery.
It also relied upon some pretty horrible racial stereotypes. These days it’s no longer considered an important or good film because of those elements. But at the time it did well at the box office. And that was enough to make it a big step in Bobby’s career. He was offered a contract with the newly established Walt Disney Productions, becoming the first person to do so. Disney himself was quite fond of Bobby’s talent, and kept utilizing him in more movies.
These included So Dear to My Heart in 1948, as well as Melody Time that same year. And the production team at Disney certainly wanted to make sure their initial investment in Bobby panned out. They closely supervised many aspects of his life. According to Bobby’s mom, the workers there weren’t allowed to swear in front of him. Though that isn’t that crazy, considering he was only 9. Walt apparently saw Bobby as the classic All-American kid, and felt as such that he’d have a long career as a child actor, and potentially more. He even saw elements of his own youth in Bobby, making him like the child even more.
Bobby’s early success wasn’t limited to musical and animated fare however. Disney allowed him to be borrowed for the movie, The Window, in 1949. It was made by RKO Pictures, who perhaps saw the same potential in Bobby that Disney did. The movie was a thriller, and young Bobby’s character witnesses a murder. His performance was lauded by critics and fans alike. Even the NY Times wrote that his work in the film was brilliant, adding, that there was an “acute expression of peril etched on the boy’s face and reflected by his every movement as he flees death.”
Back in the day, the Oscars had an award for child actors, known as the Juvenile Award. It was given to performers under 18 for their work in general, not for any specific role. But after seeing Bobby’s performance in The Window, the Academy deemed him worthy of the award. The excited young boy was effusive in his acceptance speech, thanking God as well as his wonderful parents. It seemed as if Bobby was on a path towards mega-stardom.
The Early 1950’s
The early ‘50s saw Bobby’s career start to really take off. He was still a cute and talented young kid with a lot of burgeoning star power. He signed on to the Disney movie Treasure Island in 1950, which was live action adaptation of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novel. As the lead in the film, Bobby carried it quite well, putting his skills to the test as the main character, Jim Hawkins. Jim is on a hunt for buried treasure when he has run ins with local pirates.
Of course, as tends to happen when you’ve had a string of great reviews, there were some critics who didn’t think Bobby nailed the part. But that was mostly because he was the sole American in a cast full of Brits. At the same time, the New York Times was floored by his performance, saying he fully embodied the role, and was a delight to watch. And clearly Disney was impressed with the performance as well, since they asked him to return to the role the next year in a radio adaptation.
Biggest Role Of Driscoll
But the biggest role of Driscoll’s career came off the back of these performances. Oddly enough, it was one that didn’t see Bobby performing on screen. Instead, he serves as the voice for the animated feature, Peter Pan. This was in 1953, when Bobby was 16. It was notable because prior to the film, Peter Pan had always been played by women. Bobby worked opposite Kathryn Beaumont, who provided the voice for Wendy. Together, they recorded in an empty sound stage, where Disney not only recorded their voices for the part, but also their movements. They choreographed much of the animation around the way Bobby and Kathryn moved in the sound stage.
Not only was Peter Pan well received by critics and audiences alike, it managed to become the highest grossing film of 1953. Disney capitalized on this by inviting the cast to perform it in a live action radio setting. The film has since become a Disney classic, having been rereleased eight different times over the years in theatres.
The Beginning of The End
While you might assume that Bobby’s success would have propelled him into further stardom, that couldn’t be further from the truth. He had managed to make the transition for a child actor to a teenaged actor, and was actually finding his biggest success to date. And yet, the challenges of puberty ended up wreaking havoc on Bobby’s career. Reportedly, Bobby suffered from a lot of acne in his teen years. This of course is an ailment incredibly common to teenagers, but it can become an issue for teens trying to be constantly on camera.
When he’d act, the makeup department would have to use a lot of make up to cover up the acne. But the acne, combined with his general changing face as he went through puberty, apparently turned off the execs at Walt Disney Productions. They felt he no longer had the boyish charm and looks that had made him so successful. And despite it being no fault of his own, Bobby lost favor with the folks at Disney.
Howard Hughes Purchased RKO
There was another factor that had nothing to do with him that contributed to his downfall as well. At the time, RKO pictures had begun distributing all of Disney’s movies. And the certifiably crazy Howard Hughes had recently purchased RKO. Hughes, among his many idiosyncrasies, didn’t like the idea of having children on the payroll. Which of course is a fairly ridiculous thing if you are distributing Disney films. But as the owner he was entitled to make those kinds of changes.
The end result was that Disney dropped Bobby from his contract a full three years before it was set to expire. And they didn’t have the courtesy to even let him know. One day, he tried to enter the studio lot to go to work, and they wouldn’t let him in. He soon tried to sign with other studios in town, but his status as a Disney star somehow meant that other studios didn’t take him seriously. This was in spite of his prior work in The Window, and his Juvenile Oscar.
The career fall had devastating effects on Bobby’s emotional state. He reportedly was utterly devastated by it, and felt as it Hollywood had thrown him away like garbage. He had been receiving schooling at Hollywood Professional School with other child actors, but his parents were forced to enroll him in local public school. His status as a former actor and new kid made him a target of bullies. And according to Bobby, his only recourse was to fight back. As such, he became “belligerent and cocky and was afraid all the time.” Eventually he was able to persuade his parents to let him leave public school and enroll back in the Hollywood Professional School. But by then he’d already begun experimenting with drugs, which eventually led to his downfall.
His late career and death
Bobby was able to get occasional roles in the next several years, but his drug addiction quickly overtook him. Any money he’d make from acting would immediately go towards his drug habit. His mother said in an interview that he completely stopped caring about how he looked and his hygiene disappeared. Soon, his acting roles dried up, and he began resorting to crime. He was arrested for a variety of felonies, garnering a solid criminal record. He spent some time in rehab, before moving to NY to try stage acting. But that didn’t yield much success. Sadly, in 1968, Bobby’s body was found in an abandoned apartment building in Greenwich Village, having died of heart failure. The signs all pointed to it coming as a result of heroin addiction. The tolls of failed stardom and drug addiction had finally taken their toll on him.
Do you remember young Bobby Driscoll from his Disney days? Let us know in the comments section below!