This story reads more like a Hollywood murder-mystery then an uplifting Disney fairytale – even if the main character was the star in one of the most beloved Disney movies of all time. But such is the story of Bobby Driscoll. Household name at the age of 9, Oscar winner at the age of 12, the voice of Disney’s animated Peter Pan at age 16… dead at the age of just 31. Keep watching to learn more about this classic Hollywood rise and fall, which reached its dramatic conclusion in March of 1968, when children playing in an abandoned, burned out New York City apartment discovered a young man lying dead, surrounded by empty bottles.
The questions about his death began right at the crime scene. There were no signs of foul play. The man was unknown and had no identification. And as time went on, the body went unclaimed. Who was this man, and what happened?
This, is the sad story of Bobby Driscoll.
Bobby Driscoll’s journey from child star to troubled adult included a stint in jail, multiple marriages (and divorces) – to the same woman, inclusion into the wild world of Andy Warhol’s Factory scene, and ultimately, a tragic end.
When it came time to declare Bobby Driscoll’s cause of death, authorities mentioned hardening of the arteries — a common side effect of habitual heroin abuse. They buried him in a mass, unmarked paupers’ grave on Hart Island in The Bronx, New York, alongside other homeless or indigent individuals who had fallen on hard times.
How could a former child star who worked with Hollywood greats like Alan Ladd, Roy Rogers and Joan Fontaine fall so far from the bright lights and big screen? It’s a question that still troubles his oldest friends, some fifty years after his death.
Actor Billy Gray, known for his role as Bud Anderson on the TV classic Father Knows Best and someone who became friends with Driscoll later in life said: “He didn’t really recover from being abandoned by Hollywood…it hit him hard. He was a heroin addict…. He was strong…(smart)… and he should have known better. But that was a choice he made, and you couldn’t talk him out of it.”
Who knew a trip to the barber could change his life?
Discovered at the age of 5 while getting a haircut, Bobby Driscoll was the son of an insulation salesman and former schoolteacher who had recently moved from Des Monies, Iowa to Los Angeles. During that fateful visit to the Pasadena, California barbershop, the barber remarked that Bobby should be in the movies – and introduced him to his son, who was in the business. That introduction led to an appointment with his soon-to-be agent.
The agent set right to work, landing Bobby Driscoll a bit role opposite Margaret O’Brien in the 1943 film Lost Angel. This led to a rapid succession of movies that highlighted Driscoll’s adorable freckled face and All-American looks. He performed in nine films in just three years, before landing the role as Johnny, a 7-year-old boy who visiting his grandfather’s plantation in Disney’s Song of the South.
Since its release, Song of the South has been a lightning rod for controversy – none of it Driscoll’s fault. In later years, critics have described the film’s portrayal of African Americans as racist and offensive, maintaining that it propagated negative racial stereotypes. However, it marked the start of a successful relationship between Disney Studios and Bobby Driscoll, who became the first male actor to secure a contract with the studio. What Disney saw in Driscoll was the perfect, wholesome kid who dreams of playing with animals and pirates, going on adventures, living the life so many boys his age dreamed of. In short, Bobby Driscoll was Disney’s live-action animated hero.
The ascending star made four movies for Disney, including Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and So Dear to My Heart — which, along with his role in The Window for RKO Pictures, earned Driscoll the Juvenile Academy Award in 1950. This award was given to the best child actor of the year from 1935 to 1961.
By the time Bobby Driscoll voiced Peter Pan at 16, however, he no longer had the adorable looks that kept him in demand. He was just another sullen teen with pimples. In today’s world, it’s a familiar story — the star who began his or her career on the Disney lot, growing up and out of the white-washed, antiseptic confines of the studio. Fairly recent Disney stars like Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake an Britney Spears were able to leave Disney on their own terms – Bobby Driscoll had no such choice when the studio unexpectedly dropped him in 1953.
When Howard Hughes bought RKO, he essentially became head of Disney. He controlled the money and he hated Bobby Driscoll. It wasn’t personal – Hughes hated all Hollywood kids. He thought they were trying too hard, weren’t real, and found them to be grating. He didn’t want Bobby Driscoll to be associated with Disney any longer.
The split was devastating – and rather rude. Apparently, Driscoll was informed that he was no longer under contract when he arrived at the studio front gate one day.
Refering to his diffcult transition to teenage and adult years, Bobby Driscoll admitted that his childhood was not a normal one, with people continually praising him, creating an environment of innate conceit. He said his childhood wasn’t a happy one, and that he was lonely most of the time.
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Trying to forge his own path, Driscoll left Los Angeles at just 16. First he headed east to New York City to study acting. Then back west, where he enrolled first at UCLA and later Stanford. He eventually dropped out of both, failing to get the same fulfillment out of college life as he did from the bright lights of Hollywood.
Though his movie career fizzled, Bobby Driscoll eventually found fairly steady work on television shows like Dragnet and Rawhide. He was still earning $50,000 a year – good money in those days, working steadily with good parts. Unfortunately, he started putting that money into his veins. He was just 17 when he first experimented with heroin, and soon after was using whatever he could get his hands on…mostly heroin, because he had the money to pay for it.
At the same time, he also attempted to settle into a life of domesticity with Marilyn Jean Rush, a 19-year-old he met in Manhattan Beach, California. The couple eloped to Mexico just five months after they met, and would eventually have one son and two daughters. Theirs was clearly a complicated and volatile relationship, as they split up three years, two marriages, and two divorces later!
Bobby Driscoll then became, in his own words, a beatnik and a bum. He had no residence, and kept his clothes at his parents. He spent most of his time hanging out on Los Angeles beaches, where he befriended a group of young Hollywood actors like Robert Blake (Baretta), Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap), and Russ Tamblyn (West Side Story). It should be noted that all four of these men were all former child actors. It was at this time that Bobby Driscoll’s heroin addiction became much more obvious – he did little to hide his use.
Soon after, Driscoll started to spend time a bit inland, up in Topanga Canyon dabbling in poetry, songwriting and art. But trouble was never far away. Bobby Driscoll was arrested multiple times for drug possession, assault, burglary, and writing bad checks, before he ended up in Chino State Prison in 1961.
In those days, a prison sentence was as good as a death sentence when it came to a Hollywood career. So in 1965, after briefly working as a carpenter, Driscoll left his children with his now ex-wife and moved to New York City permanently. There he forged an unlikely relationship with infamous artist, film director, and producer Andy Warhol.
Warhol’s New York studio, The Factory, became an internationally known gathering place that mixed intellectuals, playwrights, Hollywood celebrities, wealthy patrons, drag queens and random street people in a late night, drug and alcohol filled stew. Bobby Driscoll wasn’t really part of the hip New York City underground crowd. But Warhol loved having him as part of his scene. That was typical Warhol — the fallen Hollywood Star as grotesque amusement.
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No one knows exactly how the then 31-year-old Driscoll spent his final days in New York City and why he ended up in the slum where his body was found. And unlike today’s celebrity obsessed social media, Bobby Driscoll’s death was barely noticed by the many.
Driscoll’s mother didn’t find out about his death for almost two years, and that was only after placing notices about his disappearance in New York newspapers. It would take the re-release of Song of the South four years later in 1972, for the general public to discover the former Disney star’s demise
Family, friends and fans were left wondering how a star that could shine so bright would burn out so quickly, and fall so far. Even the Oscar that Driscoll won — for many, the ultimate sign of professional success in the movie industry — was lost over the years.
Driscoll’s children will never see the spot where their father was laid to rest on Hart Island in The Bronx, since burial records from 1961 through July 1977 were destroyed by a fire. It has been said he’s located somewhere on the northern part of the island, where herds of deer and other animals roam free. There’s even a bird sanctuary there. In some ways, it’s a lot like Peter Pan’s Never Never Land.
For Bobby Driscoll, an actor that never got a chance to grow old, that seems like a resting place right out of a Hollywood movie.
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