For J.M. Barrie’s birthday, we have previously written about his connection to vaudeville, and a couple of versions of his most lastingly famous creation. Today, an overdue post on most of the major Peter Pans of stage, screen and television.
Nina Boucicault (1904)
Counterintuitively, the earliest incarnation of Peter Pan came not in a book but in a stage play. The character made his debut in the original London production of Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. It would be another seven years before that Barrie’s novelization Peter and Wendy would appear. And truly, theatre is baked into the story, and how it gets told. The most key element is the casting of the lead with women, which comes from the Principal Boy tradition in British theatre, music hall, burlesque, and pantomime. Women often played boy parts in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, originally to avoid having to hire a child, but it was also a clever way to have official permission to show a woman’s legs onstage when that was illegal. This was ironic, given that centuries earlier, BOYS had played women’s parts, also due to custom and law. Basically — the British are apparently never happy unless they have an excuse to wear drag. At any rate, the end result is that Peter is an uncanny character. Naturally, “Pan” suggests the Greek demi-God, and he seems very much like an elf or a sprite, but he also has a Diana-like quality, and evokes those Shakespeare heroines who went around disguised as young men in his comedies, an echo reinforced by Peter’s rustic Robin Hood-like outfit. NIna Boucicault, daughter of playwright/ manager Dion Boucicault, was the first woman to play the part. Gerald Du Maurier (son of the author/illustrator George, father of the novelist Daphne) played the dual role of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook. Boucicault was replaced in the lead role by Cecilia Loftus the following year, and others followed thereafter.
Maude Adams was the first Broadway Peter Pan; read all about her here. She didn’t (as may seem implied) play the role for 11 years straight, but in various different productions over that 11 year time period.
Peanut Butter (1920)
Derby Foods was a subsidiary of Swift & Co. Nowadays Peter Pan peanut Butter is manufactured by Post Consumer Brands (the folks who make Post cereals). I dunno — it seemed relevant.
Basil Dean directed the 1924 Jazz Age Broadway revival of Peter Pan. It’s fallen through the cracks for a variety of reasons. One is that it was a stage version, of which there is no cinematic record. But also because, though Marilyn Miller was reasonably well cast in the role, she was famous for so much ELSE. One tends to forget that she did this.
As I wrote here, this silent telling of the tale starring Betty Bronson, directed by Herbert Brenon, is my favorite screen version of the Peter Pan story. It also features Esther Ralston, Mary Brian, and Anna May Wong (as Tiger Lily) .
Another one we tend to forget about, because La Gallienne played so MANY roles with her Civic Repertory Theatre, and again because this was strictly a stage version. She may be the most distinguished actress ever to undertake the role.
A West End revival in 1943 was one of Glynis John’s first starring stage roles. Today she is probably best known as the sufragette mom in Mary Poppins (1964).
Wow. Just wow. Movie star Jean Arthur was all of 50 years old when she played the boy who wouldn’t grow up on Broadway, in a version that featured music by Leonard Bernstein and no less than Boris Karloff as Mr. Darling/ Captain Hook. Originally intended to be a full musical, it was cut down to just five songs, otherwise it might have better remembered, as even middling musicals often are. Even so, it played nearly a year. Thanks, Kevin Newland Scott, for reminding me that Veronica Lake starred in the touring version of this show.
Child star Bobby Driscoll was the first boy to play Peter Pan, in Walt Disney’s 1953 animated classic….the heresy perhaps forgivable due to the fact that he is offscreen. Also features the voices of Hans Conried, June Foray, Candy Candido, Tom Conway, Thurl Ravenscroft etc. Bill Thompson (the voice of Droopy) is Smee! There is a certain magic to this version, too, and you can certainly do a more convincing job of simulating human flight with pen and ink than with wires and pulleys.
Mary Martin became associated with the character thanks to a new Broadway musical with tunes by Comden and Green and Jule Styne. In addition to the stage production she played the part in TV adaptations in 1955 and 1960.
Mia Farrow (1976)
This version, presented on Hallmark Hall of Fame, may well be the first one I ever saw, for I distinctly remember Danny Kaye as Captain Hook! The elven Mia Farrow is perfect casting as Principal Boy. This version had songs by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse and a script by Jack Burns and Andrew Birkin. The opening song was sung by Julie Andrews, with narration by John Gielgud. Paula Kelly was Tiger Lily!
Another prominent Peter Pan of my childhood, Sandy Duncan played the role on Broadway, and on tour and television for years thereafter
Seemed relevant that the emotionally arrested King of Pop Michael Jackson named his fantasy manor in honor of the stomping grounds of a boy who never grew up. Sadly crimes against children were likely committed there. More on the topic here.
Cathy Rigby (1990-2000)
The obvious benefit of having an Olympic gymnast in the role on stage is that she can dazzle you with her moves. Less a thespian or song-and-dance triple threat, Rigby was more of a running, jumping action star. Kind of like Annette Kellerman. This kind of thing is as old as theatre itself, so don’t knock it (in fact, more controversially, it’s at the center of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.) As with Adams, we don’t imply that Rigby did nothing but one straight run of Peter Pan for a decade, but that she played him on Broadway and in tours and on TV off and on throughout the ’90s.
Just so ya know — I hated this. I think it’s one of Spielberg’s worst movies, this conceptualization of a Peter Pan (Robin Williams) who in the end DID decide to grow old, but has to go to Neverland and fight Captain Hook (Dustin Hoffman) as a middle-aged man anyway. Who is it for? Seems like one of those occasions when producers miscalculate in thinking it will appeal to both kids and adults, but in the end it appeals to neither. The only thing more nauseating than watching Robin Williams wallow in sadness is watching him express joy (“I can fly!”). This one does get a pass for having a male Peter though — I for one have no desire or need to see a woman play a depressed, flying middle-aged man. Also in the cast: Gwyneth Paltrow as young Wendy, Maggie Smith as old Wendy, Julia Roberts as Tinker Bell, Bob Hoskins as Smee.
Jeremy Sumpter (2003)
Australian director P.J. Hogan had previously written the terrific Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and directed the hilarious (and unrelated) My Best Friend’s Wedding, so this 2003 movie is something of a disappointment, Though you could posit it as many firsts: first talkie, color, live action, non-musical contemporary version starring a boy (not that that’s a virtue, see my commentary below). Yet it still feels unnecessary and not very special. I guess others feel the same way. It cost a fortune to produce, but still lost money at the box office, Rachel Hurd-Wood and Lynn Redgrave also in the cast,
Kelly MacDonald (2004)
It’s just a blip but Kelly MacDonald plays Peter in the play within the film Finding Neverland , which is actually about the real life J.M. Barrie (Johnny Depp) and his relationship with Gerald Du Maurier’s widowed sister (Kate Winslet) and her kids. Dustin Hoffman is Charles Frohman, Julie Christie is Emma Du Maurier. I’d love to see Kelly MacDonald play the part in a real version! She’s great!
Adam Chanler-Berat (2012)
Adam Chanler-Berat played the Boy who would become Peter in the Broadway production of the prequel musical Peter and the Starcatcher. The show had earlier played La Jolla Playhouse and Off Broadway with different casts.
Live NBC TV production with Christopher Walken as Captain Hook, with Minnie Driver and others. I quite liked it, wrote about it here.
Levi Miller (2015)
Pan (2015) is actually an origin story/prequel, directed by Joe Wright, who actually has a lot of terrific credits under his belt , Hugh Jackman plays Blackbeard who is in this in addition to Captain Hook. It was an expensive box office failure (I somehow had never even heard of it). As in the 2003 version it seems far too literal minded, and for some reason it re-sets the events in the mid 20th century, which is not in the spirit of the thing at all. Miller later went on to appear in A Wrinkle in Time (2018) among other things.
Alexander Molony (2022)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but if a boy MUST play Peter Pan, shouldn’t he be mischievous, maybe even a little scary, and an adolescent, to boot? He’s the kind of kid who likes fighting. After all, Pan is in his name — a Pagan demi-God, who was one of the visual bases for the devil. Disney has cast the kid above in their upcoming live action Peter Pan and Wendy. He looks entirely too sweet and too young, but on the other hand some internet sources seems to indicate he is around 15 or 16 years old. All the photos online make him look half that — about the right age and temperament for Michael Darling.
At any rate, I wish they’d quit this crap of casting boys. I’ll lay dollars to donuts that they’ve begun doing it so it wouldn’t look like they’re guilty of some P.C. woke gesture in response to the times, but as you’ve just seen above, women have been playing the part for well over a century (and the Principal Boy tradition began another half century before THAT). Casting a girl or a woman is kind of the essence of the thing. Modern producers seem to have a way of boiling all the flavor out of everything and making everything the same. But who I am to squawk? They’re the billionaires! On the other hand, I’m the consumer, and if I watch any of these versions again in future, it’s always going to be the Betty Bronson silent one, followed by the Disney cartoon.