Brandon de Wilde Would Have Been 80 Today

Today would have been the 80th birthday of that evergreen exemplar of youth personified, Brandon de Wilde (Andre Brandon de Wilde, 1942-72). I have an unfortunate tendency to think of de Wilde as “the kid from Shane“, though he had a substantial career both before and after that early peak. It’s both because Shane is what I first saw him in, and because he made such a great impression in it. But de Wilde was the real deal from beginning to end, the farthest thing from a one-hit wonder, and kept doing good work in film and television and on the stage until his early death at age 30. There should be no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind that, had he lived longer, he’d have done a lot more.

As regards the spelling of his last name: it presents the same problem as DeMille and DeWolfe, and I’ve seen deWilde, DeWilde, de Wilde and De Wilde. Since he was a descendent (and the namesake) of Dutch surgeon merchant, landowner and planter Andries de Wilde (1781-1865), I’ll go with that way of styling it.

de Wilde came from a theatrical family. Both parents were actors, although his father Frederick de Wilde (1914-1980), found his greatest success as a Broadway stage manager, with credits including the original productions of Odets’ The Flowering Peach (1954), Inge’s Bus Stop (1955), Durrenmatt’s The Visit (1958), Neil Simon’s Come Blow Your Horn (1961), Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1961), Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964), Alan Ayckbourn’s Absurd Person Singular (1974) and dozens of others.

Brandon was seven when he was in Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1950) alongside Julie Harris and Ethel Waters; all three were retained for Fred Zinnemann’s Hollywood screen version in 1952. His wire-rimmed spectacles in the movie have always reminded me of Froggy from The Little Rascals.

Then came his Oscar nominated performance as the boy Joey in George Stevens’ classic western Shane (1953). The film is haunting for all sort of reasons: the lonely landscape; the quiet, frequently dialogue-free storytelling; the primal love triangle at its center; and the unique presence of de Wilde, which very cleverly becomes the entry point for younger viewers. Grown-up things are happening, to which he is a confused and innocent spectator. It’s very relatable, even if de Wilde himself is somewhat eccentric, even cloying. His predicament is almost existential. What’s it like to be the ONLY kid for, like, hundreds of miles? You’re going to be a little strange.

While these two screen performances established de Wilde with enviable gravitas, by some measures his next gig, though now forgotten, was an even greatest measure of his professional success. From 1953 through 1954, he starred in his own sit-com Jamie, featuring stage and screen veteran Ernest Truex as his grandfather, and Alice Pearce (the first Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched) as a comical maid. The show ran one season and part of a second before being cancelled.

After this high point, de Wilde’s star hardly sank like a stone. Quite the opposite. He was in nearly a dozen additional films, many or most of them prestige dramas of one sort or another that put him amidst top Hollywood players. He starred in William Wellman’s boy-and-his-dog drama Goodbye, My Lady (1956) with Phil Harris, Walter Brennan, Sidney Poitier, and Louise Beavers, one year before Old Yeller. Night Passage (1957) was another western, which cast him amongst Jimmy Stewart, Audie Murphy, Jay C. Flippen, Dan Duryea, Hugh Beaumont, Jack Elam, Paul Fix, and Ellen Corby. At age 15, he got another starring role in the period drama The Missouri Traveler (1958), with Lee Marvin, Gary Merrill, Ken Curtis, Paul Ford, Kathleen Freeman, Frank Cady, and Will Wright. In 1959 he starred in Philip Dunne’s Blue Denim, a drama about teenage pregnancy (a sort of Peyton Place meets Rebel Without a Cause) with Carol Lynley, McDonald Carey, and Warren Berlinger. He continued to ride high as Warren Beatty’s doting brother in John Frankenheimer’s All Fall Down (1962), scripted by William Inge and produced by John Houseman, with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Angela Lansbury. And then another classic: he played Paul Newman’s worshipful nephew in Martin Ritt’s Hud (1963) with Patricia Neal, Melvyn Douglas, Whit Bissell, and Yvette Vickers.

de Wilde had small roles in the ensembles of the epic war films A Gathering of Eagles (1963) and In Harms’ Way (1965), but starred (opposite Brian Keith) in Disney’s The Tenderfoot (1964) and Those Calloways (1965). He had a bit role in AIP’s The Trip (1967), but had a decent supporting role in Burt Kennedy’s The Deserter (1970), produced by Dino Di Laurentis, with John Huston, Richard Crenna, Chuck Connors, Ricardo Montalban, Slim Pickens, Woody Strode, Patrick Wayne, and Yugoslav heartthrob Bekim Fehmiu, the ostensible “star”. This was followed by a co-starring role in AIP’s Vietnam comedy Wild in the Sky a.k.a Black Jack (1972), co-written, co-produced and co-starring Dick Gautier! and co-written by Peter Marshall of Hollywood Squares! With a pre-Rookies Georg Stanford White, as well as Keenan Wynn, Robert Lansing, Larry Hovis, Bernie Kopel, and Dub Taylor!

Shane! Come Back! Actually, don’t bother — *I’ll* Be Shane!

Okay, so towards the end, the roles and projects weren’t as prestigious, but it seems probable, even likely, that he would have found his way back to top-of-the-line projects again. Meantime, there were additional Broadway roles and guest shots on such TV shows as Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Greatest Show on Earth (opposite his Shane co-star Jack Palance), The Virginian, Hawaii Five-O, Love American Style, The Young Rebels, Night Gallery and Ironside.

On top of his acting career, de Wilde was also exploring a career in rock music, collaborating mostly with Gram Parsons of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. One associates him very much with other youth actors of his generation who joined the counterculture, like Millie Perkins, Russ Tamblyn, Dennis Hopper, and others.

Yet unlike many casualties of his generation, de Wilde’s early death at age 30 (fifty years ago in July of this year) was neither from drugs (like Parsons, who O.D.’d the following year) or from daredevil behavior of the James Dean sort. He was starring in a Denver stage production of Butterflies are Free in July 1972, when the RV he was driving went off the road and rolled over, causing him fatal injuries. Could have happened to an 80 year old! In another timeline, it could have happened to him today!

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