Bobby Driscoll Was Once Disney’s Peter Pan, But A Tragedy Stopped Him From Ever Really Growing Up

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Bobby Driscoll once enjoyed a career that most child stars would dream of; he had a strong relationship with Disney and starred in a quartet of movies produced by the studio. But behind the scenes, the Oscar winner’s story didn’t play out like his on-screen fairytales. Instead, his short life ended in tragedy.

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Driscoll had it all going for him as a child actor. He won a juvenile Oscar in 1949 – a miniature statuette given to a promising young star. However, his Disney contract and flourishing early career didn’t secure him work in Hollywood forever. And he slowly drifted into obscurity.

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Driscoll had once been Disney’s golden child, but a change at the studio put the anti-child-star owner Howard Hughes in charge. As such, he unexpectedly severed ties with the then-teenage star. Driscoll later tried to make it alone, but things never quite lived up to his time with Disney.

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Driscoll’s life ended out of the spotlight; in fact, he had drifted so far from Hollywood that no one even knew what happened to him. It took his own mother more than a year to learn of her son’s fate. And it was a tragic end to a once-promising story of a child actor beloved for his freckles and curiosity.

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Robert “Bobby” Driscoll came into the world in March 1937 to an insulation salesman father named Cletus and his one-time teacher mother Isabelle. The star’s parents then moved him from his home state of Iowa to Altadena, California, in 1943. A doctor recommended the family’s west-coast relocation after their patriarch’s job exposed him to asbestos – thus creating pulmonary issues.

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The move to Altadena proved pivotal in Driscoll’s career. But his parents didn’t shuttle the young boy to Hollywood agents to get him his big break. Instead, it all started at the barbershop when the then-five-year-old sat down for a trim in Pasadena, California. And in a 1946 radio interview, Driscoll told the world what happened next.

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According to Entertainment Weekly, Driscoll said, “A barber in Pasadena told me I should be in the movies, so one Sunday he invited us out to his home and his son was there. We found out his son was in the movies, and [the latter] got me an appointment with his agent. His agent took me out to a part.”

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The audition took place on the MGM lot – presumably packed with bits and pieces for movies filming on-site. When Driscoll arrived, he noticed a faux ship nearby and pondered where the water was to set the vessel afloat. This inquiry impressed the director auditioning the young boy, who came off as both smart and curious.

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Driscoll nabbed a very small part in Lost Angel which saw him act opposite Margaret O’Brien. Although he was only on screen for two minutes, it was enough to cement the young boy as a rising child star. His next part came in 1944’s The Fighting Sullivans, when he played the youngest of five brothers.

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With his freckles and a button nose, Driscoll was an adorable child actor. The young talent learned lines with ease and portrayed his parts naturally. After his first two movies, he then starred in seven more – completing all nine in a short three-year span.

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The tenth movie, meanwhile, would prove to be Driscoll’s breakout role. It all started a few months after the young actor’s second movie – The Fighting Sullivans – hit theaters. Then, Disney Studios called him in for two interviews and, soon enough, they signed him to a 13-week contract.

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Disney had Driscoll sign the short contract with a purpose – they wanted him to star in the movie Song of the South. Nowadays, film critics see the 1946 flick as a very dark spot in the Disney archives. It glosses over slavery and incorporates a slew of stereotypes to tell the story of a young boy called Johnny who treks to his grandfather’s plantation for a visit.

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Despite Song of the South’s major mistakes, the movie made Driscoll the first-ever male star to sign a Disney contract. Biographer Marc Eliot told Entertainment Weekly in 2019 that the partnership made sense. He explained, “What Disney saw in Driscoll was the perfect, wholesome, all-American kid who dreams of being with pirates and all that. Bobby was Disney’s live-action Mickey Mouse.”

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Disney extended Driscoll’s 13-week contract and began production on So Dear to My Heart as soon as Song of the South wrapped. The movie featured him and the co-star from his first Disney film: Luana Patten. She had also signed to the studio as a child star, and many referred to the young pair of actors as Disney’s “Sweetheart Team.”

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Driscoll didn’t just appear in Disney flicks once he signed with the studio, however. He was also loaned out to other major production companies including RKO and Universal Studios. With the former, Driscoll starred in the 1949 suspense film noir The Window, which filmed in New York City.

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In The Window, Driscoll starred as Tommy Woodry, a boy who witnesses his neighbors murdering a man. And the younger’s acting in that role – along with his work in Disney’s So Dear to My Heart – earned him an enormous award. In 1950 the then-13-year-old won the Juvenile Academy Award for his film work.

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Driscoll had signed a seven-year contract with Disney in 1949, and he would appear in Treasure Island in England just after the ink had dried. After he finished that – and won his aforementioned Oscar – the young star then began work on Disney’s animated production of Peter Pan.

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In the latter movie, Driscoll would provide the voice for Peter Pan opposite Kathryn Beaumont – who played Wendy. And in 2019 she recalled the experience of working with the major child star. The actress told Entertainment Weekly, “He was very lovely.” Beaumont also pointed out that Driscoll led a somewhat normal life when he wasn’t filming.

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Driscoll studied at Westwood University High School when filming wrapped up for 1951’s When I Grow Up. Nevertheless, he appeared in Happy Time a year later and Peter Pan in 1953, which came out when the young actor was celebrating his 16th birthday. But Driscoll’s journey toward adulthood wouldn’t be as storied as his childhood Hollywood career.

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Sadly, studio executives had decided before Peter Pan’s release that they would terminate Driscoll’s contract three years early. Furthermore, they planned to do it once the animated flick hit theaters. But the actor had no idea until he heard a rumor and supposedly went to the studio to speak to his team.

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According to Driscoll’s official website, the actor visited the studio to ask about his termination, but the executive secretary said that he was too busy. The actor then asked to see Walt Disney himself, who apparently was also unavailable. Then the secretary informed Driscoll that The Walt Disney Company no longer required his services, and security escorted the crying Oscar winner from the lot.

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Some say Driscoll’s dismissal came down to Disney’s new leadership under the then-owner of RKO: Howard Hughes. Biographer Eliot told Entertainment Weekly, “He controlled the money and he hated Bobby Driscoll. He hated Hollywood kids. He thought they were precocious, weren’t real, and were incredibly annoying. He didn’t want Bobby Driscoll to be with Disney anymore.”

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Driscoll took the contract dissolution hard, and his schoolmates didn’t make it any easier on him. Supposedly, they bullied him for his career setback and because he was short. In turn, the actor became friends with a crowd of kids so that they’d protect him at school, and he began experimenting with drugs shortly thereafter.

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But Driscoll also felt determined to keep his career going. He moved out of his parents’ house at 16 and studied acting in New York City. He later attempted to enrol at both Stanford and UCLA, but never found his place at either institution. Nearly ten years after leaving Disney, he then reflected on his career in a magazine article entitled “The Nightmare Life of an Ex-Child Star.”

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At that time, Driscoll heartbreakingly said, “I wish I could say that my childhood was a happy one, but I wouldn’t be honest. 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.”

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Driscoll did eventually find on-screen work again, though he mostly stuck to TV shows such as Dragnet and Rawhide. The actor attempted to build a life off-camera, too – marrying Marilyn Jean Rush five months after meeting her in Manhattan Beach. The pair’s tumultuous relationship reportedly saw them through a divorce, another marriage and another split in three years.

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Driscoll had also become a father of three during his relationship with Rush, but their split transformed him into something else. He said in his 1961 article, “I became a beatnik and a bum. I had no residence. My clothes were at my parents’ [house] but I didn’t live anywhere. My personality had suffered during my marriage and I was trying to recoup it.”

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Rebuilding his life didn’t put Driscoll on the straight-and-narrow, though. Instead, he became friends with other young Hollywood players, all of whom knew that the Peter Pan star had picked up a heroin habit. Billy Gray – once a sitcom actor on Father Knows Best – told Entertainment Weekly that Driscoll’s drug use “wasn’t a secret. He liked heroin. That’s just the way it was.”

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Soon enough, Driscoll’s penchant for illicit substances got him in trouble with the law. He would eventually face charges of possession, check kiting, burglary and assault. The actor then went to rehab in 1961, and he quickly realized what he had lost by doing heroin. According to Entertainment Weekly, he said in a post-rehab interview, “[I] was earning $50,000 a year… working steadily with good parts. Then I started putting all my spare time in my arm.”

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In Driscoll’s days, a prison sentence basically barred him or any other actor from working in Hollywood. The former child star tried his hand at carpentry, but he eventually ended up in New York City in 1965. There, Driscoll befriended Andy Warhol, who fit right into the iconic artist’s group of friends, biographer Eliot claimed.

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Eliot explained to the magazine, “[Driscoll] was a curiosity. He wasn’t really part of the crowd. Warhol was so perverse, that he loved having Bobby Driscoll as part of his scene. That was Warhol’s perversity in full play – you know, dissipated Hollywood.” And yet, the one-time child star faded from focus in that group, too.

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Sadly, no one knows how Driscoll spent the last days of his life in New York City. In March of 1968, though, two little kids ventured into an abandoned apartment building in the city’s Greenwich Village neighborhood. There, surrounded by religious pamphlets and bottles of beer, they discovered the dead body of a 31-year-old man.

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The authorities couldn’t identify the dead man in the cot before them, but they could determine how he had passed. Their investigation concluded that he’d died of hardened arteries, which occurs in many heroin users. And because no one claimed his body, they buried it in an unmarked grave site on Hart Island in the Bronx.

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The body would come to be identified as Driscoll’s, though it took time. Almost 18 months after his passing, the actor’s mom Isabelle placed ads in city newspapers – searching for information about what she thought was his disappearance. As such, she found out about her son’s 1968 death a couple of years after the fact. But the public wouldn’t hear about it for longer.

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The truth came to light when Disney re-released Song of the South in 1972. By that point, Driscoll’s mother shared her minister’s theory as to what had happened to her only son. She told Movie Digest that year, “He said later that Bobby just didn’t want to be a ‘good little boy’ anymore. He’d been too good, [and] he wanted to be just the reverse. Maybe that was it.”

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But others have come up with far more cutting reasons for Driscoll’s fall from the top. Eliot told Entertainment Weekly, “Obviously he was sick and an addict and broke. Nobody came to his rescue. That’s the real story of Hollywood. It’s a very sad story, but, you know, take a look at A Star Is Born. It’s the exact same story.”

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Driscoll’s actor friend Billy Gray, meanwhile, offered his own theory. According to him, it all boiled down to the former Disney star’s termination of his contract and subsequent disappearance from the silver screen. The Father Knows Best actor explained, “[Driscoll] didn’t really recover from being abandoned by Hollywood.”

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Gray continued, “It hit him hard. He was a heroin addict. It was tragic and there wasn’t much you could do about it. He was strong, he had a good intellect and he should have known better. But that was a choice he made, and you couldn’t talk him out of it.”

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Driscoll’s story ended tragically, but his legacy will continue to live on through books, documentaries and perhaps even biopics in the future. And the former child actor stands as the most well-known person entombed on Hart Island, where Melinda Hunt helms a project to identify everyone buried on the one-mile-long piece of land. And, according to her, it’s the perfect resting spot for the 31-year-old Peter Pan star who never got to grow old himself.

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Hart said, “It’s a really, really beautiful location. There are herds of deer, these red raccoons, and a whole bird sanctuary. So, for Bobby Driscoll, it’s the perfect place to be buried. It’s just like Never Never Land.” With that image, Driscoll’s role as Peter Pan and his death at 31 become all the more moving. He said it himself in the movie, “Once you’ve grown up you can never come back…”

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