The Tragic Life Of Bobby Driscoll
In Disney+ revival of Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022), Chip (John Mulaney), the cartoon chipmunk, laments, "This business can be so tough.". Chip understands because he gave up his dreams of becoming a Hollywood star in order to peddle insurance policies.
Akiva Schaffer uses a creative premise in his new Disney+ revival of Chip and Dale, which is that no one remembers the characters from their brief stint on Disney Channel between 1989 and 1990. The film—a live-action and animated mash-up—finds the forgotten couple reconnecting decades after their short popularity to rescue an old acquaintance, now with the cynical perspective of former flash stars scorched by the industry.
Also Read: Sensation of 60s Hollywood - Juliet Prowse
To their surprise, they find themselves in a villain's den. Rather than a Harvey Weinstein-type producer or a chipmunk-biased studio boss, Chip and Dale run upon "Sweet Pete" (Will Arnett), a former child star whose middle-aged potbelly pokes out from his old Peter Pan outfit. Sweet Pete takes a three-mph walk on a treadmill to tell his origin tale.
“You know, I got my big break when I was just a kid." As a clip from Disney's 1953 classic Peter Pan plays, Sweet Pete recalls the time he was cast as "the boy who wouldn't grow up" in the most famous movie in the world. “I’d never been so happy in my entire life. Then I got older…” “And they threw me away like I was nothing.… I was scared, desperate, and all alone,” Sweet Pete recalls his fear, desperation, and sense of isolation. “So I decided to take the power back and make my own bootleg movie. I called it Flying Bedroom Boy. And guess what? It worked. I made lots of money, so I recruited other toons to star in more movies. And bangarang, now I run my own bootleg movie studio. Now I get to decide who’s a star, and who gets thrown in the trash.”
He has a plot that evokes any number of child stars—but for those who are familiar with Disney horror stories, it comes off as a rather grim reference, particularly for a PG movie to be released on the Disney platform. Bobby Driscoll, one of Disney's first prominent child stars, was fired from the studio after voicing and modeling for the 1953 animated picture Peter Pan. "I have found that memories are not very useful," Driscoll later stated, bitterly, in a line that Sweet Pete appears to have paraphrased. "I was carried on a silver platter and then dumped into the garbage can.”
But first, some background on Driscoll's illustrious career. Driscoll's big break came in 1946 when he was nine years old, when he became "the first human being signed for Disney Productions," and starred in the studio's controversial film Song of the South. He was discovered when he was just five years old. For his efforts on The Window (1949) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), he was awarded a special juvenile Academy Award at the age of 13. In the years that followed, Driscoll was able to gain the favor of Walt Disney himself, which was an honor in and of itself.
Marc Eliot noted in his 1993 biography Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince that "Walt often referred to Driscoll with great affection as the living embodiment of his own youth." "Walt approved production of a live-action version of Treasure Island, to be shot on location in England, with fourteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, Disney's favorite 'live-action' child star, in the principal role."
When Driscoll was 16, he starred in Treasure Island (1950) as Jim Hawkins, and he apparently served as a role model for illustrators while portraying the much-loved character. After starring in Peter Pan in 1953, a young Driscoll was abruptly discharged from his contract—a bitter twist for the actor who just played a figure who "never wants to grow up."
To make matters worse, Driscoll was ridiculed at school by students who teased him because of his job.
Also Read: The Life and Legend Of Sean Connery
In the years following his dismissal, Driscoll recalled how he "really feared people." “I tried desperately to be one of the gang. When they rejected me, I fought back, became belligerent and cocky and was afraid all the time.”
However, while he was still able to land a few minor roles on television shows like Dragnet (1958) and Rawhide (1959), he struggled with personal issues and was jailed numerous times for drug use, violence, and burglary. To cope, the former actor turned to heroin.
A terrible headline greeted Driscoll in 1961: “Bobby Driscoll, a Film Star at 6, an Addict at 17, Sent to Chino.” appeared on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, “Young Driscoll, now only 24, the winner of an Oscar at 11, was committed to the California Narcotics Rehabilitation Center at Chino, where he must spend at least six months.” following his arrest and "charged with being an addict and accused of trying to pass a worthless check."
Driscoll admitted his mistakes in front of a judge. “I had everything…
was earning more than $50,000 a year…working steadily with good parts,”
At a hearing in Los Angeles, Driscoll told Judge Allen Miller that he was making more than $50,000 a year and working steadily with decent parts. After that, Driscoll says, “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.”
With an estimated loss of more than $100,000 in net income, Driscoll acknowledged the harm done to the most important relationships in his life. As a former performer, “During all this time I’ve hurt a lot of people… especially my parents, my wife, my children, and myself,” he stated.“My parents are fine people. I’ve hurt them terribly.”
Driscoll remarked, "No one will hire me because of my arrests." When he was released from prison in 1964, Driscoll came to New York City in the hopes of finding more sympathetic casting agents. He worked as a carpenter till then. When he lost contact with his family, he became a minor celebrity in Andy Warhol's Factory art scene.
Also Read: Pundits on Borrowed Accounts – OTT and the movie going experience in the Pandemic
“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,”Eliot told Entertainment Weekly, Driscoll, on the other hand, never returned to acting or the entertainment world.
Driscoll's body was found in an abandoned tenement building in Greenwich Village by children in 1968. On a cot, the 31-year-old former Peter Pan was found with two empty beer bottles and religious tracts. According to the autopsy results, he died of heart failure brought on by the side effects of his drug use. His unclaimed remains were interred in a Hart Island pauper's cemetery as no identification was found on his body.
In an interview, Driscoll's mother had stated that she learned of her son's death nearly two years after she had placed newspaper ads in an attempt to locate him. To say farewell to his dying father, she had thought he would fly back from California.
It wasn't until 1972 that the world learned of Driscoll's tragic death when Disney released Song of the South again and reporters inquired about the film's previously hopeful nine-year-old star.
Billy Gray said in 2019 that "he didn't really recover from being abandoned by Hollywood." “It hit him hard.”