Disney: the tragic and sordid fate of the studios’ first child star

54 years ago, on March 30, 1968, tragically and completely anonymously, Bobby Driscoll disappeared. First child star hired by Walt Disney, Oscar winner at 13, his career subsequently plummeted into a terrible descent into hell…

Disney: the tragic and sordid fate of the studios' first child star
United Artists

He had acted in his first film at age 6; he was one of the first child stars to sign a contract with Walt Disney at the age of 9; he won an Oscar at age 13. The upward and dazzling trajectory of the very young prodigy Bobby Driscoll was as spectacular as his eclipse and his terrible descent into hell will be of an absolute sordid, to the point of dying in complete anonymity just 54 years ago, March 30, 1968 .

Born March 3, 1937 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Bobby Driscoll was the only son of Cletus, a sales representative in the building industry, and Isabelle, a former teacher. On the advice of the family doctor, she left to settle in California in 1943, where, the doctor said, the air would be better for the father of the family, whose health was failing because of his regular work in the contact with asbestos.

It was by pure chance that the young Bobby was spotted, while he was accompanying his father to a barber. “My dad took me with him to a barber in Pasadena, whose son worked in the movies. The barber liked me, so he told his son about me, who told his agent about me. , who arranged tryouts with a director, for a role with Margaret O’Brien in The lost Angel Bobby will tell in a radio interview in 1946.

A golden contract at Disney

Although his screen presence in this film is very minimal (barely 2 minutes), it allows him to quickly move on to other roles. In 1946, it was truly revealed by a Disney production, Mélodie du Sud. The 11th animated feature film from Disney studios, mixing animation and live action, is adapted from “Tales of Uncle Remus” (Tales of Uncle Remus) by Joel Chandler Harris, published between 1880 and 1905.

The film had also allowed actor James Baskett, who plays Uncle Remus, to be awarded an honorary Oscar, while the film won the Oscar for Best Song. Set in the old American South with former slaves and their former masters on a cotton plantation, Southern Melody remains, even today, the biggest rock in the shoes of the Disney firm.

Shortly after this film, Bobby signs a contract with Walt Disney. Like the adorable Shirley Temple, “America’s darling little girl”, Bobby’s chubby face is adopted and acclaimed by millions of Americans, who discover it again, still at Disney, in L treasure island, or in Danny, the little black sheep in 1949.

Here’s a little excerpt from the movie…

In 1950, he won an Oscar de la jeunesse (a category that no longer exists) for his film An Incredible Story. Three years later, he lends his features to the boy who did not want to grow up, Peter Pan, and doubles the animated character created by the Disney firm. At the height of his notoriety, he even had the signal honor of already receiving his star on the walk of fame from Hollywood Blvd.

Below is an excerpt from the Oscars ceremony, where Bobby picks up his award:

However, this same year of 1953 resonated like a thunderclap for the young actor: Disney abruptly terminated his contract, three years before the scheduled date. The reasons, although uncertain, are diverse. But at least, already physical.

Bobby already doesn’t look like that adorable toddler or chubby face anymore; he has acne, his voice has changed and is now deeper… And it is rumored that Howard Hughes, the billionaire owner of RKO and distributor of Disney films, can’t stand this Hollywood incarnation he hates . Still, he learns of his dismissal very abruptly: he is banned from entering the studio overnight…

The descent into Hell

The downward spiral begins. His parents enrolled him in West Los Angeles University High School, to no avail. Eager to forge his own destiny and trace his path, he leaves to lose himself for a while in New York; married and divorced, twice. Despite some roles on television, including in particular in the series Rawhide (which will launch a certain Clint Eastwood) or Dragnet, “he will never recover from being abandoned by Hollywood” said his friend Billy Gray at Entertainment Weekly.

Falling into drugs, he regularly takes heroin, and he was arrested several times for drug possession, fraud, theft, assault… A full criminal record, which sent him to the Chino rehabilitation center in 1961. “I had it all. I was making $50,000 a year, working out regularly. Then I spent all my free time on my arm. I’m not sure when I started using narcotics” he will tell the judge before his sentencing. “I was 17, when I really experimented. In a short time, I was injecting everything that was within my reach, especially heroin. Because I had the money for it”.

On his release from prison in 1962, he became a carpenter, then attempted a comeback, but Hollywood no longer wanted him. In 1965, he moved to New York in Greenwich Village, but his bad reputation preceded him and no one hired him. He then turned to underground culture and frequented Andy Warhol’s Factory for a while, then disappeared completely from the public scene.

Disney: the tragic and sordid fate of the studios' first child star

On March 30, 1968, two kids playing in a vacant lot near the East Village discovered the body of Bobby Driscoll, among empty beer bottles and religious publications. The police who came to the scene were unable to identify the body. The forensic examination will certify that Bobby Driscoll died of a heart attack, caused by an advanced stage of atherosclerosis.

His identity could not be verified and no one claiming the body, he is buried in the almshouse in Hart Island Cemetery. It was not until a year and a half after his death that his identity was confirmed, thanks to a fingerprint he had left in a dormant file in the drawer of a police station in New York. Tragic memory of one of his many arrests…

In a cruel fate, his mother will not learn of his death until two years later. As for the public, they will only know the fate of Bobby Driscoll in 1972, thanks to a brief release in cinemas. Southern Melody. It’s sad to split the stones in two…

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