Disney has given plenty of work to child actors over the years. Some have gone on to fame and notoriety. Others…have not. Learn about Kurt Russell, Shirley Temple, Britney Spears, and the sad, complicated tale of Peter Pan himself, Bobby Driscoll on Theme Park Time Machine.
Oh to be a kid again. No bills, no body aches, no responsibilities. Your whole life ahead of you. Nothing but whimsy and potential. Maybe that is why we are so drawn to the stories of child stars.
For example, Shirley Temple. She made her film debut at the age of three, and before her 10th birthday, was one of the biggest stars in the world. This continued through the 1930s and into her teenage years in the 1940s.
After some TV hosting gigs in the 50s and 60s, Shirley Temple became active in the California Republican Party, and was appointed ambassador to Ghana in the 70s, and ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 80s, the only woman ever to hold that post.
She served on the board of directors of several organizations, including Bank of America and Disney, and received the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award and Kennedy Center honors before her death in 2014.
Of course – Shirley Temple is a mostly-positive outcome. For every one of those, I can think of many examples of child stars who weren’t so lucky.
I think that one of the most important things about being a kid, is the freedom to screw up. And when you get into some kind of hijinks, assuming no one gets hurt and no one destroys any irreplaceable property, the grownups in your life are likely to chalk up your misbehavior to that old cliche… “Kids will be kids!”
But what happens when kids DON’T get the chance to be kids?
John F Kennedy, Jr was the first child ever born to an American president-elect, and he was a world famous celebrity pretty much from the moment he entered the world in November 1960. The paparazzi followed him and his equally famous mother around the world, and he never really had a private moment to himself.
The pressures of his public life, failing marriage, and unrealistic expectations created the stress that ultimately led to his fatal plane crash at the age of just 38 in the summer of 1999.
Then there’s Dustin Diamond. Starring as Screech on the 90’s smash-hit Saved by The Bell, Diamond was a megastar before he was even a teenager.
Dustin couldn’t find sustained work as an actor post-adolescence, and his later life was riddled with substance abuse, domestic violence accusations, prison stints, and of course the requisite starring role in an amateur…um…adult feature. Dustin Diamond passed away this year after a short battle with cancer.
Similar fates awaited Jodie Swetin, AKA Stephanie Tanner on Full House, Danny Bonaduce, AKA Danny Partridge, pretty much all of the child stars on Different Strokes: Todd Bridges, Gary Coleman, and Dana Plato…I think you get the idea.
Having given work to countless child stars over the years, it’s not surprising that Disney has made its fair share of contributions to the curse of the child star.
Who’s fallen victim to it? Who’s escaped it, and maybe most importantly of all…what can we do about it?
It’s March 17, 2021. Actor Kurt Russell, a former child star himself turns 70 today. Recently, you may have seen Kurt portraying Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. Or possibly starring as the one and only Santa Claus in The Christmas Chronicles.
In addition to now being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Kurt Russell has some deep Disney roots. How deep? Let’s point the time machine to December 1966.
Burbank, California, just north of Los Angeles. It’s almost Christmas…it’s also Southern California, so of course it’s sunny and delightful outside.
But not everyone is feeling the warm LA vibes. At St. Joseph’s Hospital, Walt Disney is near death. On December 15th, just 10 days after his 65th birthday, he’ll succumb to lung cancer, the end result of a lifelong smoking habit.
Jump ahead 4 years, and Disney archivist Dave Smith was tasked with documenting everything in Walt’s office, which had remained virtually untouched since his death. On Walt’s desk was a note he intended for his older brother Roy, quite possibly, though we can’t be certain about this, the last correspondence he ever wrote.
And among other things on the note was a name…Kurt Russell.
What did that note mean? Well, I can’t answer that definitively, because the only person who really knows the answer is the guy who wrote it…and he’s not around anymore.
But here’s what we do know. Walt Disney was a big fan of Kurt Russell. In the winter of ‘66, Kurt was a baby-faced 15 year old. Walt’s studio had just released a movie called “Follow Me, Boys”, about a traveling musician-turned-scoutmaster in Depression-era America, with Kurt in a minor role. Walt always had an eye for young talent, and he knew Kurt was talented. The affection was mutual. Kurt said Walt reminded him of his own grandfather-warm, welcoming, and creative.
Once, Walt gave Kurt career advice; Kurt enjoyed acting, but what he really wanted was to be a professional baseball player. Years later, his dad, actor Bing Russell, even owned the independent minor league Portland Mavericks. Walt said he didn’t think it was a great career path.
Kurt…eventually came to the same conclusion.
Follow Me, Boys was Kurt’s first Disney film, but it wouldn’t be his last. In fact, he signed a ten year contract with the studio, and even though the live-action Disney movies of the late 60s and early 70s…well…aren’t exactly cinema classics, Kurt Russell quickly became a household name and had no trouble finding work.
In fact, when you look through his list of credits, hardly a year went by that he didn’t star in something. From Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China, to Lieutenant Gabriel Cash in Tango & Cash, to Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Kurt was a bankable, bona fide movie star. Disney recognized his influence on entertainment by making him a Disney Legend in 1998. And it all started with a wholesome slate of Disney movies and, more importantly, a child star.
Kids have always featured heavily in Disney’s particular brand of family-friendly entertainment. That tradition goes all the way back to the late 20s. A young Walt Disney produced a series of shorts called The Alice Comedies. These shorts featured the first appearance of Virginia Davis, portraying the real-life Alice. Davis had a 20 year film career before retiring in the late 1940s, raising a family, and becoming a successful realtor in Southern California.
When it comes to child stars….people like Kurt Russell, Shirley Temple and Virginia Davis seem to be the exception, and not the rule.
Enter Britney Spears.
One of the biggest pop stars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries and in fact, the best selling teenage musician of all time. Last year in 2020, Rolling Stone named “Hit Me Baby One More Time” as the greatest debut single ever.
Yep, ever. Like, in the whole history of music.
Like Kurt Russell before her, Britney Spears got her start as a Disney star! In this case, as a Mouseketeer alongside some other folks you’ve probably heard of, Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Cristina Aguilera, and Keri Russell.
Then, by the mid to late 2000s, everything seemed to shift. If Britney Spears got any press, it was about her behavior off the stage. The media labeled her wild, erratic, and an unfit mother. Her ongoing struggles with mental health and addiction were pursued and publicized relentlessly. The same media that praised her as “The next Madonna or Debbie Gibson” now seemed to relish her falling to pieces.
It was during this time that Britney’s estate entered a conservatorship, supervised by her father, an arrangement that controversially continues to this day. One of the most talented and promising child and teen stars of all time is now an almost-forty year old woman who has very little control over her own life and finances.
And then, in the “definitely a sad story” department of former child stars, there’s Bobby Driscoll.
Bobby was born in Iowa in 1937, but when he was just five years old, his family packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Like Roy Disney a few decades earlier, his father was told the warm climate would ease his respiratory problems, in this case, years of working with asbestos.
Bobby’s breakout role came later that year in the MGM drama Lost Angel. The roles came quickly, and by the time he was seven, he was under contract with Disney. His first starring role came in Walt’s first feature film in years, the now notorious and maligned Song of the South. His portrayal of Johnny was so well received that he was getting Oscar buzz for the category of Best Juvenile performance…which evidently used to be a thing.
Bobby’s Disney star continued to rise in the 50s, when he starred in Walt’s first ever completely live-action film, an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. At the same time, he was giving voice to the absolute embodiment of childhood adventure and whimsy, the one and only Peter Pan.
But youth fades quickly, and so does youth stardom. By the time Peter Pan was released in 1953, Bobby was 16 years old. Kind of an iffy time in the life of a child actor. Too old to play kids, not old enough to play adults. His voice was changing, and his face was breaking out so badly that he needed a couple extra layers of makeup anytime he was on screen.
It all got to be too much for Disney to cope with. They terminated his contract shortly after the release of Peter Pan, and Bobby Driscoll was officially unemployed. For the first time in more than ten years, Bobby was enrolled in a public high school.
He was bullied relentlessly by his peers. Driscoll turned to drugs, first marijuana, and later heroin. He was arrested for drug possession in 1956, and infamous Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper predicted it would be the downfall of his career.
In an attempt to distance himself from the youthful roles of the past, Bobby began using the screen name “Robert Driscoll”. He found some work in minor TV roles, but nothing like the superstardom he’d known in the early part of the decade.
Hedda Hopper, it turned out, was right. Bobby’s career was over. He continued using drugs, and soon found himself in a combination prison/drug rehab facility. When he was released, he was bitter and resentful for the way he’d been treated his whole life.
Bobby moved to New York City and became part of artist Andy Warhol’s circle. He made his final film appearance in a Warhol-produced film called Dirt in 1965.
Three years later, two kids playing in an abandoned apartment found his body on a cot, surrounded by beer bottles. While the coroner determined he’d died of heart failure with contributing drug abuse, no one knew who he was. His unclaimed body was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave.
When his mother went searching for him to reunite him with his terminally ill father, the NYPD finally made a match with his fingerprints on file. His death wasn’t reported publicly until the 25th anniversary re-release of Song of the South in 1971, when reporters learned about his fate while researching the movie’s stars.
It’s incredibly sad and ironic that the boy who played Peter Pan…quite literally never got the chance to grow up.
So what’s the lesson here? This sounds really saccharine, but my biggest takeaway is just…be kind. Even if they ARE famous, kids need space to be kids.
And we need to be even more mindful of the social and emotional growth that kids need, in an era where you can be famous just by having a popular YouTube channel or TikTok.
Famous or not, influencer or not, kids need what we all need. Support, and the knowledge that someone’s in our corner who cares about us, will listen to us, and is on our side. You can accomplish that, right now, with a phone call or a text.That’s a solution we can all be a part of.
“I do not miss childhood, but I miss the way I took pleasure in small things, even as greater things crumbled. I could not control the world I was in, could not walk away from things or people or moments that hurt, but I took joy in the things that made me happy.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Theme Park Time Machine is a production of No Midnight Media. This show is written and recorded by me, sound design by Jack Milliken, story edits by the executive producer for No Midnight Media – Christopher J. Beale. Additional narration for this episode was provided by Nikki Drake. All of our work and contact info is at NoMidnightMedia.com. Special thanks to No Midnight cast member Josh Taylor, who also covered this topic on his podcast, Network 1901.