The Early Years
of Bobby Driscoll
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, Miss Susie Slagle's, From This Day Forward, and O.S.S., all three of which were released in 1946.
Bobby and Luana Patten on a promotional tour for Song of the South - November 1946
Working for Disney
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 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 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.
Bobby at age 17 in 1954
Departure from Disney
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 executive 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.