Thursday, May 05, 2005

Bobby Driscoll: Peter Pan's Lost Angel

Peter Pan is not thought of as a mortal but he once was. Not just a mere figment of the imagination of writer J.M. Barrie, his earthly name was Robert Cletus Driscoll and he was born March 3, 1937 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But to millions of moviegoers he was simply known as "Bobby" Driscoll, a child actor of the 1940s and early 1950s who appeared in film classics such as Song of the South and Treasure Island.

Bobby Driscoll first appeared before the public in the 1944 feature Lost Angel and the film's title couldn't have been a more appropriate name for a biopic of his brief existence.

The Disney studio saw limitless promise in Driscoll's talent and screen presence and made him the first child actor signed to their roster. Netting money for Disney, Driscoll was honored with his own celebrity star on Hollywood's notorious "Walk of Fame" for his role as "Jim Hawkins" in the 1950 film edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel Treasure Island. Having entered the arena of universal fame directly on the springboard of his 1949 appearance as "Tommy Woodry" in the film noir classic The Window (for which he received a special "Outstanding Juvenile Actor of 1949" Oscar as well as a Golden Globe Award), Disney had great hopes for the freckle-faced young actor.

But with the monumental success of the Disney empire, the advent of television and the hiring of other child actors for venues such as The Mickey Mouse Club, and Driscoll's fading childhood elfishness, the studio soon forgot their former meal ticket. Even Driscoll's phenomenally on-target duties as the voice for Disney's 1953 animated Peter Pan extravaganza was not enough to save him from screenland obscurity.

Of his own celluloid obsolesence Driscoll is quoted as saying: "They carried me on a satin pillow, then dumped me in the garbage." Driscoll, who had been a straight "A" student at the Hollywood Professional Actor's School, began his spiral when, upon reaching puberty, his voice changed and he developed a severe case of acne. The fickle film studios began to bypass the adolescent Driscoll in favor of a new crop of fresh-faced kids.

In 1956, while still in his teens, Driscoll married Marilyn Jean Rush and the couple spawned three children in quick succession. But even prior to parenthood, Driscoll had begun experimenting with drugs, beginning with marijuana and graduating to speed and heroin. Chemical dependency soon led to brushes with the law and Driscoll spent time in California's Chino State Penitentiary.

After his parole from prison, Driscoll, divorced and on the skids, ended up in mid-1960s New York City in the company of artist Andy Warhol and his en tourage. Through his association with the Warhol crowd, Driscoll met filmmaker Piero Heliczer, and appeared in an experimental film, Dirt. Shot on 8mm the film is now considered by many to be an underground classic.

On March 30, 1968, just four weeks past his 31st birthday, Driscoll succumbed to a heart attack and died alone in an empty tenement apartment off Tompkins Park in Greenwich Village. Initially unidentified and buried in a pauper's mass grave in Potter's Field, on New York's Hart Island, Driscoll's true identity was discovered a year later after his mother implored Disney studios and police officials to conduct a thorough search.

(Bobby Driscoll's alter ego...who also never grew up)