If Peter Pan himself could regale us with a cautionary tale highlighting the dangers of growing up, he’d need not look further than that of Bobby Driscoll, the voice and real life model of Disney’s eponymous Peter Pan. Having starred in the live action Disney Classics Song of the South and Treasure Island, the precocious Driscoll was one of Hollywood’s brightest child stars of the 40s and early 50s. He was so well regarded that he won an Academy Award in 1950 as Outstanding Juvenile Actor for his iconic role as Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island, received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was the first actor to sign a long term contract with Disney’s Animation Department. Walt Disney was so fond of Driscoll he considered him to be “the living embodiment of his own youth.” Yes, life was good for a young Bobby Driscoll.
However, Peter Pan would prove to be Bobby's proverbial “last night in the nursery.” With puberty came changes and even Walt Disney noted that a teenage Driscoll would be better suited in roles as a young bully in lieu of a likeable protagonist. Then, because of severe facial acne, he had his contract terminated with the Disney Studio a few weeks after the theatrical release of Peter Pan. Both his professional and personal life would begin to suffer as roles were few and far between and he was often the victim of bullying in high school because of his child star past. It was during his teens that he first started using marijuana and a subsequent addiction to heroin would follow. In 1960, at the age of 19, he would marry and have three children but that ended in divorce after only four years. It was also during this time that various narcotic/violent related run-ins with the law began to pile up which ultimately led to him being convicted as a drug addict and imprisoned for a year in a rehabilitation center at the age of 24.
After his release in 1965 he moved to New York City to attempt a comeback on Broadway. However, because of his reputation as an addict and convict, he found no success and began hanging out at Andy Warhol's artist community “The Factory.” By 1967, after a few years of middling success as an artist, Driscoll would lose all contact with his friends and family and seemingly live out the rest of his life as a drifter - destitute and penniless. It was in 1968 that two young boys found his dead body in a deserted East Village tenement building and he was buried in a pauper's grave. Only, it wasn't until over a year later and after numerous inquiries by his parents about his whereabouts that the body was identified as Bobby Driscoll's. He was only 31 and the cause of death was determined to be from hardening of the arteries, a common condition of longtime heroin users although, he was found to have been clean of all drug activity at the time.
As Peter Pan, Bobby prophetically said “Once you've grown up, you can NEVER come back!” And, while his story isn't totally unique from that of other child stars, the eerie parallels between his life and that of a boy determined not to grow up is haunting. If Peter Pan ever did forgo Neverland and reach adulthood, let's hope he fared better than Bobby Driscoll did.
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