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EXCLUSIVE: Billy Gray still has fond memories of his beloved pal Bobby Driscoll.
The former Disney child star who rose to fame at age 9 as “the first human being signed for Disney Productions,” won a Juvenile Oscar at age 12 and then went on to voice the title role in 1953’s animated film “Peter Pan” at age 16, met a tragic end.
In 1968, the actor’s body was discovered by children playing in an abandoned New York City tenement. Only beer bottles and religious handouts were by his side.
The cause of death for the penniless 31-year-old was hardening of the arteries, a common side effect of longtime heroin use, Entertainment Weekly reported. Driscoll’s remains were unclaimed and he was eventually buried in a mass, unmarked grave on Hart Island alongside other unidentified bodies.
Bobby Driscoll with pen in mouth in a scene from the film ‘When I Grow Up’, 1951.
(United Artists/Getty Images)
Gray, who also got his start in Hollywood at a young age, told Fox News puberty hit Driscoll especially hard, forever impacting his career.
“Like many adolescents, he developed a rough complexion,” explained the former “Father Knows Best” star. “You know, pimples and all that kind of stuff. And I guess Disney thought he was no longer useful for them.”
Multiple reports alleged the once “Wonder Child” had to rely on heavy makeup to hide pockmarks on his skin. His voice had also suddenly deepened.
In 1953, the teen was unexpectedly dropped by the studio.
American film director, animator, and businessman Walt Disney with Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten in 1946.
“He came to the lot one day and they wouldn’t let him in at the gate,” said Gray. “They told him he was no longer able to come to the studio. That’s how he found out he was fired. He was devastated. He was treated so rudely by Hollywood. And he didn’t take the news well.”
Driscoll attempted to maintain steady work in several TV shows and guest appearances over the years, but he never achieved the same stardom he once had as a sought-after actor. In high school, he was teased by his peers and his grades declined.
According to Entertainment Weekly, he left home at age 16 and headed to New York City to study acting. He also reportedly enrolled in UCLA and Stanford but dropped out.
Gray said Driscoll eventually resorted to heroin.
Bobby Driscoll was the voice of Peter Pan in the 1953 film.
(LMPC via Getty Images)
“He had a drug problem,” said Gray. “He got into heroin. He just never found his way and made that choice.”
In Driscoll’s later years, he was arrested multiple times for drug possession, assault, burglary and check-kiting before he was committed for drug rehabilitation in 1961.
“I had everything,” Driscoll said in an interview after his sentencing, as quoted by Entertainment Weekly. “Was earning $50,000 a year… working steadily with good parts. Then I started putting all my spare time in my arm. I’m not really sure why I started using narcotics. I was 17 when I first experimented with the stuff. In no time at all, I was using whatever was available… mostly heroin, because I had the money to pay for it.”
“Memories are not very useful,” he later reflected about his child stardom. “I was carried on a silver platter and then dumped into the garbage can.”
Bobby Driscoll (left) with Hedda Hopper (right) and Luana Patten (center), circa 1947.
(CBS via Getty Images)
Gray said he and his pal lost touch when Driscoll headed to New York.
“We were buddies,” said Gray. “We hung out before he moved to New York City. Then we just kind of lost touch after that. I later heard he was discovered overdosed in an abandoned building. And that was the end of it. He just never got his life together. It was horrible what happened to him.”
Driscoll’s mother Isabelle wouldn’t learn of her son’s death until nearly two years later after placing advertisements about his disappearance in New York newspapers, the outlet shared. And it wouldn’t be until four years later that the public learned of Driscoll’s grim fate in 1972 when his Disney film “Song of the South” was re-released.
In 1972, the matriarch described to Movie Digest how drugs changed her son.
“He never showed any fear of people,” she said. “Before he went on narcotics he almost never cried. Afterward, he was crying all the time. Drugs changed him. That’s when he became belligerent. Then he didn’t care about his appearance or cleanliness, he didn’t bathe, his teeth got loose. He had an extremely high I.Q., but the narcotics affected his brain. We didn’t know what it was. He was 19 before we knew. I felt he was changing but his father said no, it was just a phase he was going through like most boys.”
Bobby Driscoll, circa 1950.
Today, Gray remembers Driscoll not as the fallen child star, but simply as his friend.
“He turned me on to Bach when I was 15,” he chuckled. “I remember he came up to me so excited, ‘You’ve got to hear this!’ It was Brandenburg Concerto No.5. It was incredible. It really blew me away. And I never listened to any other music after that. Bach was my guy, that was it for me. It’s given me so much joy throughout my life. And then I immersed myself into his extensive collection of work. I still thank [Bobby] for that.”
“He really was a sweet guy,” Gray shared. “A lovely guy, a dear friend. He was responsible for one of the real high points of my life. That’s how I remember him.”
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