Bobby Driscoll: Disney, Delinquency and Death

Bobby Driscoll (1937-1968) was one in that long chain of cursed child performers, falling in the chronology midway between the Little Rascals and the kids from Diff’rent Strokes. Referring to the fates of these unfortunate performers as a “curse” is misleading, of course. There’s nothing supernatural about it. The causes in every downward spiral are all too explicable.

Driscoll was the son of an insulation salesman and a schoolteacher from Iowa. Asbestos related health issues caused the family to move to Los Angeles when Bobby was about seven, and the cheerful, alert boy was cast in movies almost immediately. He’d had 10 supporting roles under his belt when he signed a contract with Walt Disney in 1946, resulting in the most successful phase of his career, during which time he appeared in Song of the South (1946), Melody Time (1948), So Dear to My Heart (1948), Treasure Island (1950), and voiceovers for Peter Pan (1953) and several animated shorts. During the same years, he appeared in If You Knew Susie (1948) with Eddie Cantor, the suspense thriller The Window (1949), When I Grow Up (1951), and Happy Time (1952). In 1950, Driscoll was awarded a special Juvenile Oscar for his work in The Window and So Dear to My Heart. That moment, for him, had to have been the summit. He was 12 years old.

By 1953, Driscoll was 16 and had a bad case of acne. Disney did not renew his contract, but he worked steadily until the end of the decade in television and in two additional films, The Scarlet Coat (1955) and The Party Crashers (1958). His last screen credit from his Hollywood period was a 1960 episode of Rawhide.

Why did Driscoll’s career abruptly end there at the young age of 23? His trouble began shortly after he was released from his Disney contract. Returning to ordinary public school halfway through high school proved awkward and unhappy for a well-known movie star. He was roundly razzed, and sought refuge in drugs, which he could easily afford at that stage. In 1956 he was busted for possession and eloped with his girlfriend to Mexico (they were divorced by 1960). Sometime after that he was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon after he pistol-whipped some guy for heckling him the street. In 1961 he began a one year stretch in Chino for his drug dependency, in a mandatory rehab center. His period of parole lasted through 1964, after which he came to New York in hopes of breaking into the theatre. Instead, he found himself one of the dozens of lost souls and countercultural aspirants in Andy Warhol’s Factory. In 1965 he appeared in the Warhol-produced film Dirt, directed by Piero Heliczer, his last known performance.

Towards the end of 1967, Driscoll went even further underground than the East Village art scene, by this point a full-time junkie. He was found dead in a squat in East 10th Street. The apparent cause was heart failure, brought on by his drug abuse. He was only 31 years old. At the time, he was a John Doe and buried in the Potter’s Field on Hart Island. His family did not learn of his death until they tried to reach out to him in 1969. Through their persistence, and fingerprint records, they were able to figure out what had happened. The world did not learn of his fate until 1971, amidst the publicity of the 25th anniversary re-release of Song of the South.

The moral of this story, friends? Run around with the likes of Long John Silver and you’ll come to a bad end!