Bobby Driscoll was born Robert Cletus Driscoll in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the only child of Cletus, an insulation salesman, and Isabelle (née Kratz) Driscoll, a former schoolteacher. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Des Moines, where they stayed until early 1943. When a doctor advised the father to relocate to balmy California due to pulmonary ailments he was suffering from his work-related handling of asbestos, the family moved to Los Angeles.
Driscoll's parents were encouraged to try to get Bobby into films. Their barber's son, an actor, got Bobby an audition at MGM for a bit role in the 1943 family drama Lost Angel, which starred up-and-coming Margaret O'Brien. 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 out of forty applicants.
Driscoll's brief, two-minute debut helped him win the role of young Al Sullivan, the youngest of the five Sullivan brothers, in the 20th Century Fox's 1944 World War II drama The Fighting Sullivans, opposite Thomas Mitchell and Anne Baxter. With his natural acting and talent for memorizing lines at that young age, he was soon considered a new "Wonder Child". One major studio recommended him to another, leading to screen portrayals as the boy who could blow his whistle while standing on his head in Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (1944), the "child brother" of Richard Arlen in The Big Bonanza (1944), and young Percy Maxim in So Goes My Love (1946), with Don Ameche and Myrna Loy. In addition, he had a number of smaller roles in movies such as Identity Unknown in 1945, and Mrs Susie Slagel's, From This Day Forward, and O.S.S. with Alan Ladd, all three of which were released in 1946.
Driscoll was the first actor Walt Disney put under contract, to play the lead character in 1946's Song of the South, which introduced live action into the producer's films, in addition to extensive animated footage. The film turned Driscoll and his co-star Luana Patten into child stars, and they were discussed for a special Academy Award as the best child actors of the year, but in 1947 it was decided not to present any juvenile awards at all.
Now nicknamed by the American press as Walt Disney's "Sweetheart Team", Driscoll and Patten starred together in So Dear to My Heart, opposite acting balladeer Burl Ives and veteran character actress Beulah Bondi. It was planned as Disney's first all live-action movie, with production beginning immediately after Song of the South, but its release was delayed until late 1948 to meet the demands of Disney's co-producer and long-time distributor RKO Radio Pictures for some animated content in the film.
Driscoll played Eddie Cantor's screen son in the 1948 RKO Studios musical comedy If You Knew Susie, in which he teamed up with former Our Gang member Margaret Kerry.He and Patten appeared with Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers in the live-action teaser for the Pecos Bill segment of Disney's cartoon compilation Melody Time, which was released in 1948.
Driscoll was "loaned" to RKO to star in The Window, based on Cornell Woolrich's The Boy Cried Murder. However Howard Hughes, who had bought RKO the previous year, considered the film unworthy of release and Driscoll not much of an actor, and delayed its release. When it was released in May 1949, it became a surprise hit and recouped a multiple of its production costs. The New York Times credited Driscoll with the film's success:
- "[...]The striking force and terrifying impact of this RKO melodrama is chiefly due to Bobby's brilliant acting, for the whole effect would have been lost were there any suspicion of doubt about the credibility of this pivotal character.[...] "The Window" is Bobby Driscoll's picture, make no mistake about it.[...]
So Dear to My Heart and The Window earned Driscoll a special Juvenile Academy Award in March 1950 as the outstanding juvenile actor of 1949.
Driscoll was cast to play Jim Hawkins in Walt Disney's version of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, with British actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver, the studio's first all-live-action picture. The feature was filmed in the United Kingdom, and during production it was discovered that Driscoll did not have a valid British work permit, so his family and Disney were fined and ordered to leave the country. They were allowed to remain for six weeks to prepare an appeal, during which director Byron Haskin hastily shot all of Driscoll's close-ups, using his British stand-in to film missing location scenes after he and his parents had returned to California. Driscoll's work in this film earned him a star at 1560Vine Street on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.
Treasure Island was an international box office hit, and there were several other film projects involving Driscoll under discussion, but none materialized. For example, Haskin recalled in his memoirs that Disney, although interested in Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate story as a full length cartoon, always planned to cast Driscoll as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. At that point in time, he was at the perfect age for the role, but because of a story rights ownership dispute with Hollywood producer David O. Selznick, who had previously produced the property in 1938, Disney ultimately had to cancel the entire project. Driscoll was also scheduled to portray a youthful follower of Robin Hood following Treasure Island, again with Robert Newton, who would play Friar Tuck, but Driscoll's run-in with British immigration made this impossible.
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 (1951). His casting was suggested by Oscar-winning screenplay writer Michael Kanin.
In addition to his brief guest appearance in Walt Disney's first television Christmas show in 1950, One Hour in Wonderland, Driscoll lent his voice to Goofy, Jr. in the Disney cartoon shorts, Fathers are People and Father's Lion, which were released in 1951 and 1952, respectively.
Driscoll portrayed Robert "Bibi" Bonnard in Richard Fleischer's comedy The Happy Time (1952), which was based on a Broadway play of the same name by Samuel A. Taylor. Cast with acting veterans Charles Boyer, Marsha Hunt, Louis Jourdan, and Kurt Kasznar, he played the juvenile offspring of a patriarch in Quebec of the 1920s, the character upon whom the plot centered.
Driscoll's last major success, Peter Pan, was produced largely between May 1949 and mid-1951. Driscoll was cast opposite Disney's "Little British Lady" Kathryn Beaumont, in the role of Wendy Darling; he was used as the reference model for the close-ups and provided Peter Pan's voice, while dancer and choreographer Roland Dupree was the model for the character's motion. Scenes were played on an almost empty sound stage with only the most essential props, and filmed for use by the illustrators.
In his biography on Disney Marc Elliot described Driscoll as the producer's favorite "live action" child star: "Walt often referred to Driscoll with great affection as the living embodiment of his own youth [...]" However, during a project meeting following the completion of Peter Pan, Disney stated that he now saw Driscoll as best suited for roles as a young bully rather than a likeable protagonist. Driscoll's salary at Disney had been raised to $1750 per week and compared to his salary, Driscoll had little work from 1952 on. In March 1953, the additional two-year option Driscoll had been extended (which would have kept him at Disney into 1956) was canceled, just weeks after Peter Pan was released theatrically. A severe case of acne accompanying the onset of puberty and explaining why it was necessary for Driscoll to use heavy makeup for his performances on dozens of TV shows, was officially provided as the final reason for the termination of his connection with the Disney Studios.
TV and radio
Driscoll encountered increasing indifference from the other Hollywood studios. Still perceived as "Disney’s kid actor" he was unable to get movie roles as a serious character actor. Beginning in 1953 and for most of the next three years, the bulk of his work was on television, on such anthology and drama series as Fireside Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Front Row Center, Navy Log, TV Reader's Digest, Climax!, Ford Theatre, Studio One, Dragnet, Medic, 'and Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater. On another series, Men of Annapolis, he appeared with John Smith, future second husband of Driscoll's Song of the South co-star, Luana Patten.
In some special star-focusing series, Driscoll appeared with Loretta Young, Gloria Swanson, and Jane Wyman.
Between 1948 and 1957, he performed on a number of radio productions, which included a special broadcast version of Treasure Island in January 1951 and of Peter Pan in December 1953. And as it was common practice in this business, Driscoll and Luana Patten did promotional radio gigs (starting in late 1946 for Song of the South) and toured the country for various parades and charity events through the years.
In 1947, he recorded a special version of "So Dear to My Heart" at Capitol Records. In 1954, he was awarded a Milky Way Gold Star Award, chosen in a nationwide poll for his work on television and radio.
After he left the Disney studios, Driscoll's parents withdrew him from the Hollywood Professional School which served child movie actors, and sent him to the public Westwood University High School instead. There his grades dropped substantially, he was the target of ridicule for his previous film career, and he began to experiment with drugs. He said later, "The other kids didn't accept me. They treated me as one apart. 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." At his request, Driscoll's parents returned him the next year to Hollywood Professional School, where in May 1955 he graduated.
However, his drug use increased. In an interview years later, he stated, "I was 17 when I first experimented with the stuff. In no time I was using whatever was available, ... mostly heroin, because I had the money to pay for it." In 1956, he was arrested for the first time for possession of marijuana, but the charge was dismissed. On July 24, 1956,Hedda Hopper wrote in the Los Angeles Times: "This could cost this fine lad and good actor his career." In 1957, he had only one television part, that of the loyal brother of a criminal immigrant in M Squad, a long-running crime series starring Lee Marvin.
In December 1956, Driscoll and his girlfriend Marilyn Jean Rush (occasionally misspelled as "Brush") eloped to Mexico to get married, to avoid their parents' objections. The couple was later re-wed in a Los Angeles ceremony that took place in March 1957. They had three children, but the relationship didn't last. They separated, then divorced in 1960.
Driscoll began using the name "Robert Driscoll" to distance himself from his youthful roles as "Bobby" (since 1951, he had been known to friends and family as "Bob", and in Schlitz Playhouse of Stars - Early Space Conquerors, 1952, was credited as "Bob Driscoll"). He landed two final screen roles: with Cornel Wilde in the 1955 release The Scarlet Coat, and performing opposite Mark Damon, Connie Stevens and Frances Farmer in The Party Crashers (1958).
He was charged with "disturbing the peace" and "assault with a deadly weapon", the latter after hitting one of two hecklers with a pistol, who made insulting remarks while he was washing a girlfriend's car; the charges were dropped.
Late in 1961, he was sentenced as a drug addict and imprisoned at the Narcotic Rehabilitation Center of the California Institution for Men in Chino, California. His last known appearances on TV were, among others, small roles in two single-season series: The Best of the Post, a syndicated anthology series adapted from stories published in The Saturday Evening Post magazine, and The Brothers Brannagan, an unsuccessful crime series starring Stephen Dunne and Mark Roberts. Both were originally aired on November 5, 1960.
When Driscoll left Chino in early 1962, he was unable to find acting work. Embittered by this, he said, "I have found that memories are not very useful. I was carried on a silver platter ... and then dumped into the garbage."
In 1965, a year after his parole expired, he relocated to New York, hoping to revive his career on the Broadway stage, but was unsuccessful. He became part of Andy Warhol's Greenwich Village art community known as The Factory, where he began focusing on his artistic talents. He had previously been encouraged to do so by famed artist and poet Wallace Berman, whom he had befriended after joining Berman's art circle (now also known as Semina Culture) in Los Angeles in 1956. Some of his works were considered outstanding, and a few of his surviving collages and cardboard mailers were temporarily exhibited in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. In 1965, early in his tenure at The Factory, Driscoll gave his last known film performance, in experimental filmmaker Piero Heliczer's underground movie Dirt.
He left The Factory in late 1967 or early 1968 and, penniless, disappeared into Manhattan's underground. On March 30, 1968, about three weeks after his 31st birthday, two boys playing in a deserted East Village tenement at 371 East 10th St. found his body. The medical examination determined that he had died from heart failure caused by an advancedhardening of the arteries because of his longtime drug abuse. There was no identification on the body, and photos taken of it and shown around the neighborhood yielded no positive identification. When Driscoll's body went unclaimed, he was buried in an unmarked pauper's grave in New York City's Potter's Field on Hart Island.
Late in 1969, about nineteen months after his death, Driscoll's mother sought the help of officials at the Disney studios to contact him for a hoped-for reunion with his father, who was nearing death. This resulted in a fingerprint match at NYPD, which located his burial on Hart Island. Although his name appears on his father's gravestone at Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside, California, it is a cenotaph since his remains still rest on Hart Island. Driscoll's death was not reported until the re-release of his first Disney film, Song of the South, in 1971-1972, when reporters researched the whereabouts of the film's major cast members, and his mother revealed the tragic outcome.