Bobby Driscoll, pictured with his mother and father, Cletus and Isabelle, while visiting England in 1949

 

Robert Cletus "Bobby" Driscoll was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 3rd 1937 to parents Cletus (1901-1969), an insulation salesman, and Isabelle (Kratz) (1897-1972), a former schoolteacher. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Des Moines where they stayed until early 1943. When a doctor advised Cletus to relocate to Altadena, California, due to pulmonary ailments brought about by his work-related handling of asbestos, the family moved to Los Angeles.   In 1943 Bobby was discovered by chance when he was 5 ½ years old. His parents were encouraged to try to get Bobby into films by their barber's son Bill Kadel, who got Bobby an audition at MGM for a bit role in the 1943 family drama Lost Angel. While on a tour across the studio lot, five-year-old Driscoll noticed a mock-up ship and asked where the water was. The director was impressed by the boy's curiosity and intelligence, and chose him over forty applicants. In the fall of 1943, Bobby debuted on the silver screen in Lost Angel. Thus began a movie, television, and radio career spanning 17 years from 1943 to 1960.   Driscoll's brief, two-minute debut in Lost Angel helped him win the role of young Al Sullivan, the youngest of the five Sullivan brothers, in the 1944 World War II drama The Fighting Sullivans. With his natural acting and talent for memorizing lines at that young age, he began to get more movie roles. One major studio recommended him to another, leading acting roles in Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944), Big Bonanza (1944), and So Goes My Love (1946). In addition, he had a number of smaller roles in movies such as Identity Unknown in 1945, Mrs Susie Slagel, From This Day Forward, and O.S.S., all three of which were released in 1946.

Working for Disney

Bobby and Luana. November 1946.
Bobby and Luana Patten on a promotional tour for Song of the South November 1946.

 

A few months after Bobby’s second movie was released in theaters, The Fighting Sullivans, in the fall of 1944 when Bobby was seven, he had two interviews at Disney Studios. This resulted in Bobby being contracted by Disney in early December of that year to play the leading role of Johnny in Song of the South. This contract would only be for 13 weeks, but would be reinstated constantly until its early termination in 1953.   Bobby, along with Luana Patten, became the first children Walt Disney put under contract. Now nicknamed by the American press as Walt Disney's "Sweetheart Team", Driscoll and Patten starred together in So Dear to My Heart. It was planned as Disney's first all live-action movie, with production beginning immediately after Song of the South.    By the fall of 1945 Bobby was loaned out to RKO for From This Day Forward, and loaned out to Universal Studios for So Goes My Love. In 1946 Bobby was loaned out to Paramount for O.S.S. and appeared in the Disney film, So Dear to My Heart. In 1947 at 10 years old Bobby was loaned out to RKO for If You Knew Susie. Filming of The Window began in New York City that fall. Throughout 1948, when Bobby was 11 years old, he began to do live radio performances. Two weeks shy of Bobby’s 12th birthday in 1949, he was signed to a new 7- year contract with Disney that was to end in 1956, though terminated early in the spring of 1953. That summer, filming of Treasure Island began in England.  At the age of 13, Bobby won a Juvenile Oscar on March 23, 1950, at the 22nd Academy Award Ceremony as the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949. This was awarded as recognition for his outstanding performance in two feature films: The Window, and So Dear to My Heart. Some of his radio performances took place that year, and the production of Peter Pan was just beginning. In the fall Bobby was also loaned out to Horizon Pictures for When I Grow Up. In 1951 when Bobby was 14 years old, story meetings, recordings, and live action rehearsals for Peter Pan were taking place. By February a 52-week option for Bobby’s contract at Disney was not picked up and future payments began on daily voucher. That autumn Bobby entered the 9th grade at Hollywood Professional School, which served child movie actors.   Driscoll's second long-run Disney contract allowed him to be loaned to independent Horizon Pictures for the double role of Danny/Josh Reed in When I Grow Up. When filming concluded for When I Grow Up, Driscoll's parents withdrew him from the Hollywood Professional School, and sent him to the public Westwood University High School instead. For the first two months of 1952, Bobby filmed The Happy Time. After filming of The Happy Time concluded, at the age of 15, Bobby continued to Westwood University High School where he spent the remainder of freshman year, sophomore year (Fall ’52 - Spring ’53) and junior year (Fall of ‘53 – Spring ‘54) of high school.

Departure from Disney

     Bobby at age 17 in 1954

 

One day in 1952 while Peter Pan was still in production, the Disney Board of Directors was discussing future film projects, and Bobby’s name came up. At this meeting, it was decided for Bobby to have his 7-year contract terminated three years early, thus being let go by Disney. The Board of Directors decided that Bobby’s coming termination be kept confidential until Peter Pan was released and its publicity campaign was over (Feb 53’). This would be kept secret for almost a year.

 

Sometime in late March, or early April, shortly after the release of Peter Pan, when Bobby was only 16 years old, Bobby heard one of the rumors about his termination. It has been said that, Bobby went to the studio and asked to see an executive with whom he had been friendly, but was told that the man was too busy to see him. Bobby asked the executives secretary to call and see if he could speak with Mr. Disney. As the secretary hung up the phone, she told Bobby that Mr. Disney was too busy to see him, too. Just then she excused herself, and stepped out for a moment. When she came back, she told Bobby that The Disney Company no longer needed his services and he could leave. Bobby broke down and cried. The secretary called security and had Bobby escorted off the property.

 

His contract with Disney was now prematurely terminated. Not only was Bobby fired during this time, he was also attending Westwood University High, were his grades dropped substantially, and ridiculed by other students for his previous film career, and short stature. He began to get beat up by the other students. Due to the constant bullying at Westwood, he befriended a gang of schoolmates for protection and began to take drugs in order to fit in, and to presumably deal with the pain of being let go by Disney.   Once fired by Disney, Bobby started using marijuana in the spring of ‘53. In the mid-1950s, Driscoll's acting career began to decline, and he turned primarily to guest appearances on anthology TV series.

 

Later Career - Anthology Television Shows – Heroin Use

Beginning in 1953 and for most of the next seven years, ending in 1960, the bulk of his work was on television. His career in radio productions continued until 1957.   By 1954 at age 17 years old Bobby began to experiment with harder drugs, mainly heroin, which caused him to develop an addiction to the substance. That summer he appeared in Ah! Wilderness at the Pasadena Playhouse. In September, Bobby returned to Hollywood Professional School for his last year of high school at his personal request, where he graduated in 1955. By the fall Bobby began to appear in more television roles.

Joined the Beat Generation

Bobby in San Francisco, 1959. Photograph by Wallace Berman
Bobby in San Francisco, 1959. Photograph by Wallace Berman

 

Sometime in 1956 at the age of 19, Bobby joined the Beat Generation, a subculture of Beatniks. Bobby was introduced to Wallace Berman (an influence of the avant-garde/beatnik culture) by best friend, Dean Stockwell.   In the summer of 1956 when Bobby was 19 years old, he was arrested on a marijuana charge. As the summer progressed Bobby and a friend, Lester Furgason, were arrested for bean shooting at two women from a car.   Sometime in 1957 at the age of 20, Bobby met George Herms at Hermosa Beach. Bobby and George Herms become best friends, both involved in the Beatnik culture. Bobby would be involved in the Beat Generation until his death.

Marriage to Marilyn Jeanne Rush

On December 3, 1956, Bobby eloped with his longtime girlfriend Marilyn Jeanne Rush in Mexico, to avoid their parents’ objections. This marriage was later annulled (not legally recognized). They were apart for some months. However, the couple was later re-wed in a Los Angeles ceremony that took place on March 8, 1957.   After the wedding he relocated to Santa Monica and began working as a clerk in a haberdashery in Pacific Palisades in order to support his marriage. Sometime in August Bobby has his first child, a son, who becomes the first of three children for the married couple.

Bobby and Marilyn at their wedding.
Bobby and Marilyn at their wedding.

Last Featured Film (Party Crashers), Narcotics Arrests, Divorce

In 1958, at age 21, Bobby appears in his last film, titled Party Crashers, which was released that September. A month before, in late August he has a daughter, his second child.

 

In October of 1959 at the age of 22, Bobby was arrested on a narcotics charge and was later acquitted.   Sometime in 1960, Bobby was separated from Marilyn, which later in the year resulted in a divorce. A day after Bobby’s 23rd birthday, his third child, a daughter, was born.   In mid June of ’60 he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon in Malibu. Two hecklers made insulting remarks while he was washing a girlfriend's car, and he struck one of them with a pistol. He was charged with "disturbing the peace" and "assault with a deadly weapon"; the charges were later dropped.

That December, Bobby appeared in his last televised role, Rawhide.

Tehachapi Prison

Bobby Driscoll, 24, in a Los Angeles courtroom, on October18th 1961 to be committed to narcotics rehab center in Tehachapi.
Bobby Driscoll, 24, in a Los Angeles courtroom, on October 18th 1961 to be committed to narcotics rehab center in Tehachapi.

 

Sometime in 1961, Bobby relocates to Topanga Canyon. Exactly a month and a day after turning 24, Bobby was arrested with girlfriend Suzanne Stansbury for stealing money from an animal clinic. Later, the burglary charge against Bobby dropped for lack of evidence. Almost a month after his arrest in April, he was arrested again for forging a $45 check, and he pleaded guilty. On May 2nd, Bobby was arrested a third time, this time for possessing narcotics.   Due to this, in October, Bobby was referred to psychiatric court and committed as a narcotic addict to a Narcotics Rehab Center at Chino (Men's Institution at Tehachapi) for 6 months.

 

In April of 1962 at the age of 25, Bobby was released from Tehachapi prison.

Marriage to Sharon Morrill

Sharon Morrill, San Francisco, 1959
Sharon Morrill, San Francisco, 1959

By the end of 1963, Bobby met Sharon (Didi, Dee Dee) Morrill, which resulted in a marriage officiated by Bob Alexander (a member of the Beat Generation). The wedding took place at Zack Walsh’s house. The marriage was never legalized, since paper work was never filed. At this time Bobby, and Didi relocate to Beverly Glenn.   Sometime in 1964, Bobby, and Didi try to smuggle drugs into New York City. According to Sharon’s brother, Terry Morrill, he states: “they were both (Bobby and Didi) doing a lot of drugs. The three of us then decided to go to New York planning to sell a bunch of pot, then fly to Crete, but we got ripped off, and Bobby, and Didi fled to Montreal”. After hiding out in Canada, Didi went back to Los Angeles, and Bobby went to New York.   In 1964 before the drug smuggling occurred, Bobby worked as a carpenter for a construction company in Los Angeles. Bobby’s parole from his 1961 arrest expired later that year.

New York City - Warhol’s Factory & Underground

Bobby in 1967 on the well known couch in Andy Warhol's factory
Bobby in 1967 on the well known couch in Andy Warhol's factory

In 1965, a year after his parole expired, he relocated to New York. People from the Beat Generation relocated here as well. Bobby became part of Andy Warhol's Greenwich Village art community known as the Factory, where he still focused on his artistic talents such as making collages, and writing poetry. In 1965, early in his tenure at the Factory, Driscoll gave his last known film performance, in experimental filmmaker Piero Heliczer's underground movie Dirt, alongside Sharon Morrill.   In the winter of 1966, Bobby wrote the poem titled, “The Sunday Bonnett”. In 1967, while he was 30 years old, his other poems were published in an underground book, The Great Society. By the end of 1967 he broke up with Didi. His funds depleted, he disappeared into the underground in either late 1967 or early 1968, completely dispirited and very ill from Hepatitis as the result from his substance abuse.   In February of 1968, he was arrested for unknown reasons and wrote to Allen Ginsberg asking for money.

Lonely and Tragic Death

Bobby in late 1967, New York
Bobby in late 1967, New York

In March, less than four weeks after his 31st birthday, Bobby Driscoll died unknown in Greenwich Village, New York City. On March 30, 1968, two playing children found his dead body in an abandoned East Village tenement at 371 East 10th Street. He was found lying on a cot, with two empty beer bottles and religious pamphlets scattered on the ground. The medical examination determined that he had died from heart failure caused by an advanced hardening of the arteries because of his longtime drug abuse. There was no identification on the body, and photos taken of it and shown around the neighborhood yielded no positive identification. When Driscoll's body went unclaimed, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in New York City's Potter's Field on Hart Island, where his remains rest to this day. He is memorialized on his father’s gravestone at Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside, California.