Disney’s Peter Pan celebrates it’s 70th anniversary this year. But what many people don’t know is the tragic story of its lead actor…
The Lost Boy: The Tragedy of Peter Pan’s Bobby Driscoll
Find the second star from the right and fly straight on till morning. Those are the instructions given to Wendy Darling, Michael and John by Peter Pan as they fly off to Neverland, a place with no rules, no grown-ups, nothing but magical forests and endless adventures. Home to the boy who never wants to grow up.
This year, Disney’s Peter Pan is celebrating its 70th anniversary. It is one of Disney’s most successful animated movies of all time and has inspired different sorts of merchandise, amusement park rides and video games.
But what many people don’t know is the tragic story of Peter Pan’s voice actor, Bobby Driscoll. It’s a story that reflects on many child stars today. Child stars have great success in movies, tv shows and are recognised everywhere…until they grow up. And while there have been some who have successfully transitioned from child stars to adult roles, other have not been as fortunate. Bobby Driscoll’s story is only one of them.
Born an only child in 1937, Bobby Driscoll started his acting career at five with a small role in the family drama Lost Angel (1943). His role only lasted 2 minutes but it was enough for him to land the role of Al Sullivan in The Fighting Sullivans (1944).
Alongside Luana Patten, Driscoll was one of the first two actors placed under contract with Walt Disney, and quickly landed roles in Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948). His success continued into 1950, starring in Treasure Island (1950). With a steady workload and recognizable talent, Driscoll received an Academy Juvenile Award in 1950 (which in an ironic twist of fate, was lost in a house fire years later).
Driscoll was on the rise when he landed the lead role in Disney’s latest animated movie Peter Pan. His co-star, Kathryn Beaumont (who voiced Wendy Darling) remembered him as ‘very lovely. went to his own public school when he was not working. He had normal experiences with his peer group—just as I did.’ By 16, Driscoll seemed to have it all – until he did the one thing that his character never wanted to do; he grew up.
By the time, he had reached his teen years, Driscoll had grown from a cute little boy to a lanky teenager with bad acne – a precursor for child stars of today. By 1953, he had unexpectedly been dropped from Disney Studios, despite having signed a multiple-year contract. Overnight, he had gone from Disney’s Golden Child, to thrown out in the trash. As Hollywood biographer, Marc Eliot explains, ‘When Howard Hughes bought RKO, he, in effect, became the owner of the Disney studio. 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.’
Having been dropped by Disney, Driscoll was left wondering where to go. At 16, he moved to New York City hoping to study acting but ultimately dropping out of UCLA and Stanford. He found some happiness in TV work and tried to settle down with a young woman named Marilyn Jean Rush. They eloped to Mexico five months after meeting, but three years, three kids, two marriages, and two divorces later, their relationship was over.
Moving to Topanga Canyon, Driscoll befriended Beat Generation artist and photographer Wallace Bearman. Driscoll even dabbled in art himself with some his work surviving today. But then he began to dabble in drugs, ultimately getting arrested in 1961 and sent to California Institute for Men. This proved to be the final nail in the coffin for his acting career as he was unable to find any work after his release in 1962. “I had everything,” he said in an interview after his sentence. “Was earning $50,000 a year…working steadily with good parts. Then I started putting all my spare time in my arm. 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.”
Driscoll seemed to drift in his final years, unable to truly find a place where he belonged. Nobody knows how he ended up alone in a derelict apartment block in 1968 when two young boys discovered a body lying in a cot. Beer bottles and religious pamphlets were scattered around his body but investigators could not find any identification. With nothing to go on, the body was buried in a mass pauper’s grave on Hart Island.
In fact, the discovery of Driscoll’s death would not be discovered until a year later, when his mother, Isabelle, who had not seen her son in years, tried to get in contact. A fingerprint match at the New York City Police Department would reveal Bobby Driscoll’s death at just 31 years of age. News of his death would only come to light in the 1970s, due to the re-release of Song of the South. From one of the most recognized stars of his generation, to being just a brief news report, is a tragic fall for this young man who once had it all.
Bobby Driscoll is immortalized as one of the most tragic child stars in Hollywood history. He was truly a Lost Boy who after being cast aside by the movie industry, couldn’t find a place where he really belonged. Even now, he is still lost on Hart Island; the whereabouts of his grave are unknown as the burial records between 1961 and 1977 were lost in a fire.
The story of Bobby Driscoll has proven to be a cautionary tale for the child stars of Hollywood today. One minute you can be the most adored little star, then the next, you can be cast aside for the next big thing.
Perhaps Driscoll described his downfall best in his own words: “I was carried on a silver platter—and then dumped into the garbage.” But thanks to bringing Peter Pan onto our screens and into our childhood memories, many believe that Bobby Driscoll has emerged from the garbage heap. Hopefully now, he has finally found the second star to the right and has flown on to eternal peace.