Once You’ve Grown Up You Can Never Come Back

Posted on Mon, 11/14/2011 - 06:00

Our movie of the month, The Adventures of Spin and Marty, celebrates the joy of youth, and features two child stars who made a graceful and successful transition to adulthood. Sadly, Walt’s very first contract player was not so fortunate, and his tragic tale is an unhappy facet of Walt’s story. There are many who suspect that these sad events forever informed the way that Walt and his staff managed their juvenile contract players—and played a more active and supervisory role in their transition out of Studio contracts and into adult lives. Disney Historian Jeff Pepper shares the story of Bobby Driscoll with Storyboard.

The motion picture industry has long had a disquieting reputation for chewing up and spitting out many of its juvenile performers and unfortunately the Walt Disney Studio is not without its own tragedy in that regard. The Bobby Driscoll story could be easily considered a textbook example of the rise and ultimately fatal fall of a child star. It was a story that began happily against the backdrop of 1940s Hollywood, but ended sadly in an abandoned New York City tenement building two decades later.

A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bobby Driscoll arrived in Southern California very early in life with his parents Isabel and Cletus Driscoll. It was, interestingly enough, a Pasadena barber who helped launch Driscoll’s career in the movies. In an interview in 1954, a seventeen year-old Bobby described the sequence of events that led to his first film role: “My dad used to take me to a barber [sic] in Pasadena whose son was in the movies. The barber liked me, so he spoke to his son and his son spoke to his agent and his agent spoke to a director who was arranging a tryout for a part with Margaret O’Brien in Lost Angel.” The then five year-old Driscoll won the part, an uncredited minor role as a young train passenger. A few years later, Walt Disney selected him for the very high profile part of Johnny in Song of the South. He was the first actor the Disney Studio signed to a long-term contract. While his Disney-related performances were in fact the most prominent of his career, he notably won a juvenile Oscar for his performance in a non-Disney film, the 1949 RKO release The Window.

His resume at Disney was considerably less than one might imagine. After Song of the South, he appeared again with co-star Luana Patten two years later in So Dear to My Heart. His tenure with the studio culminated in the early 1950s with the part of Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, the voice of Goofy Jr. in cartoons, and then finally the voice of Peter Pan. In 1953, the studio released Driscoll abruptly and prematurely from his second studio contract, likely due to a severe acne infliction. 

During the remainder of the decade he played small guest parts on television. His final theatrical film was the B-grade The Party Crashers with Connie Stevens, released in 1958. Discouraged over his career slide and often socially ostracized by peers, he began experimenting with various narcotics as early as age 17, leading to a heroin addiction and subsequent run-ins with law enforcement. He was arrested for possession of drug paraphernalia on October 12, 1959 after a police officer noticed needle marks on his arm. According to a newspaper report the following December, he was acquitted of the charge because “…a sheriff’s deputy testified he was unable to say definitely that a paper sack containing a hypodermic needle and a syringe fell from Driscoll’s hand.”

In June of 1960, he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon “…after he allegedly whacked a heckler with a pistol,” according to newspaper accounts. He told police that the victim, a young woman, had turned her face into the gun. He had taken the gun from a car he was washing in Topanga Beach near Malibu, after the victim and her boyfriend began to taunt him. Felony assault charges were later dropped when the local DA failed to issue a complaint.

The following April he was held by police on suspicion of burglary in the theft of cash and checks from a veterinarian’s office. Charges were dismissed a few weeks later, but within days he was in trouble again. On May 1, 1961, he was arrested for attempting to cash a check that had been stolen from a liquor store the previous January, and at the same time was also charged with driving under the influence of drugs. He pled guilty to both charges and was sentenced to six months of treatment for drug addiction at the California Institute for Men at Chino. Prior to entering the facility, he told a reporter, “I’m not really sure why I started using narcotics. I was 17 when I first experimented with the stuff. In no time at all I was using whatever was available, mostly heroin, because I had the money to pay for it.”

Following his release from Chino, he reportedly remained clean and worked as a carpenter until his term of probation was complete in 1964. Shortly thereafter, he headed east to New York City where he purportedly settled into Andy Warhol’s Greenwich Village art community known as “The Factory.” During this time, he also participated in an underground film entitled Dirt, directed by avant-garde filmmaker Piero Heliczer. In late 1967, he fell completely out of touch with family and associates. His mother later remembered, “Bobby had called us once and said he was having a hard time getting work. None of the studios in New York would hire him because he had once been on drugs.”

On March 30, 1968, two children would discover the dead body of Bobby Driscoll on a cot in a deserted apartment building in the East Village. Beside his body were two empty bottles of beer and a number of religious tracts. The medical examiner determined the cause of death as “socclusive coronary arteriosclerosis,” or hardening of the arteries. No identification was found, and a canvassing of the local neighborhood with a photograph of the body provided no answers. He was classified as a John Doe and buried in an unmarked grave in the Potter’s Field section of New York City’s Hart Island cemetery. Two years would pass before his family would learn of his fate. The public at large would not know of the tragedy until 1971, when Driscoll’s mother revealed the story to the press just as The Walt Disney Company was preparing to re-release Song of the South to theaters after a controversial 17-year moratorium.

“In October 1969, Bobby’s father was dying,” Isabel Driscoll explained to a reporter. “He asked to see Bobby. I called Disney Studios, and asked if anyone there knew where my son was.” Disney’s New York offices made inquiries and fingerprint records ultimately provided the very sad solution to the mystery. His mother took some comfort from the police and medical reports relating to her son’s death. “He told us that he would straighten himself out. And we know he kept his promise. Police reports state that he was clean at the time of his death. There were no traces of heroin in his body. There were no puncture marks on his arms, and no paraphernalia was found in his apartment.”

Bobby Driscoll once told the press, “I shall not return until I can be accepted as an actor again, not a freak exhibit.” Those words would ultimately become both heart-wrenching and tragically prophetic. But perhaps even more poignant is a piece of dialog from Peter Pan, his final film for the Walt Disney Studios. It was spoken by Driscoll himself in the title role: 

“Once you’ve grown up you can never come back…“

Jeffrey Pepper is a journalist and historian who writes extensively about popular culture, and most especially about Walt Disney and the history of The Walt Disney Company. He is the author of the popular Disney-related website 2719 Hyperion. He is also the author of Boom-Pop!, a website devoted to 20th century pop culture, and the creator, author and designer of Hawkins Strongbox, a faux-history website with a distinct steampunk flavor.

Our Movie of the Month for November is actually a collection of chapters from the beloved Mickey Mouse Club serial, “The Adventures of Spin and Marty,” showing daily at 1:00 & 4:00pm (except Tuesdays, and November 19 and 24). Tickets are available at the Reception and Member Service Desk at the Museum, or online by clicking here.

Images above of Bobby Driscoll © Disney.