“This business can be so tough,” laments Chip (John Mulaney), the animated chipmunk, about 30 minutes into Disney+’s reboot Chip ’n Dale: Rescue Rangers. Chip certainly gets it, having sacrificed his Hollywood dreams to schlep insurance packages.
The clever premise of Akiva Schaffer’s Disney+ reboot is that no one really remembers Chip or his trusty sidekick, Dale (Andy Samberg), from their brief Disney Channel run between 1989 and 1990. The film—a live-action and animated mash-up—finds the forgotten duo reuniting decades after their fleeting success to rescue an old friend, now with the cynical perspective of former flash stars burned by the industry.
Their search takes them to a villain’s lair. But instead of some Harvey Weinstein–type producer or chipmunk-biased studio exec, Chip and Dale discover “Sweet Pete” (Will Arnett), a former child star whose middle-aged potbelly pokes out from his old Peter Pan costume. Sweet Pete hops onto a treadmill to outline his origin story at an easy three-mph walk.
“You know, I got my big break when I was just a kid. I got cast in the biggest movie in the world as the boy who wouldn’t grow up: Peter Pan,” says Sweet Pete, recalling the memory as a clip from Disney’s 1953 classic Peter Pan plays. “I’d never been so happy in my entire life. Then I got older…”
Viewers then see footage of Sweet Pete sprouting facial hairs during puberty.
“And they threw me away like I was nothing.… I was scared, desperate, and all alone,” says Sweet Pete. “So I decided to take the power back and make my own bootleg movie. I called it Flying Bedroom Boy. And guess what? It worked. I made lots of money, so I recruited other toons to star in more movies. And bangarang, now I run my own bootleg movie studio. Now I get to decide who’s a star, and who gets thrown in the trash.”
His story recalls any number of child stars—but for those in the know, it comes across as a surprisingly dark reference to one of Disney’s lesser-known horror stories, particularly for a PG movie rolling out on the Disney platform. That would be the story of Bobby Driscoll, one of Disney’s first major child stars, who voiced and modeled Peter Pan in the 1953 animated film before being dropped from the studio. Embittered by the experience, Driscoll later said—in a line that Sweet Pete seemingly paraphrases—“I have found that memories are not very useful. I was carried on a silver platter and then dumped into the garbage can.” (The studio has not yet responded to a request for comment.)
But first, Driscoll’s auspicious beginnings. After being discovered at about five years old, Driscoll’s breakout came in 1946 at the age of nine—when he became “the first human being signed for Disney Productions,” and starred in the studio’s controversial film Song of the South. At age 13, he was presented with a special juvenile Academy Award for his work in The Window and So Dear to My Heart. In the years following, Driscoll earned something else as prestigious: the good favor of Walt Disney himself.
“Walt often referred to Driscoll with great affection as the living embodiment of his own youth,” wrote Marc Eliot in his 1993 biography Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. Continued Eliot, “Walt approved production of a live-action version of Treasure Island, to be shot on location in England, with fourteen-year-old Bobby Driscoll, Disney’s favorite ‘live-action’ child star, in the principal role.”
After filming Treasure Island, when Driscoll was 16, he played Peter Pan—voicing the beloved character and reportedly acting as a character model for illustrators. But in 1953, the same year that Peter Pan was released, an adolescent Driscoll was suddenly dropped from his contract—a cruel twist for the actor who just played a character who “never wants to grow up” for the studio. Per a 2019 story in Entertainment Weekly:
“When Howard Hughes bought RKO, he, in effect, became the owner of the Disney studio,” explains [Disney biographer Marc] Eliot. “He controlled the money and he hated Bobby Driscoll. He hated Hollywood kids. He thought they were precocious, weren’t real, and were incredibly annoying. He didn’t want Bobby Driscoll to be with Disney anymore.”
The split was devastating. “The way I understand it, it was a rather rude dismissal,” says [Driscoll’s friend, the actor Billy] Gray. “I heard that he was informed that he was no longer under contract through them by driving up to the entrance and being refused entrance into the studio. That was his notification that he was no longer needed there.”
In addition to being fired from his Disney family, Driscoll struggled to fit in at school with kids who bullied him for his career.
“I really feared people,” Driscoll said of his years after the firing. “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.”
Though he still booked small parts on TV shows like Dragnet and Rawhide, he struggled personally—and was arrested several times for drug possession, assault, and burglary. The former actor also turned to heroin to find solace.
In 1961, Driscoll found himself on the front page of the Los Angeles Times under the devastating headline, “Bobby Driscoll, a Film Star at 6, an Addict at 17, Sent to Chino.” After being arrested and “charged with being an addict and accused of trying to pass a worthless check,” the paper reported, “Young Driscoll, now only 24, the winner of an Oscar at 11, was committed to the California Narcotics Rehabilitation Center at Chino, where he must spent at least six months.”
Speaking to a judge, Driscoll conceded how far he had fallen.
“I had everything…was earning more than $50,000 a year…working steadily with good parts,” Driscoll told Judge Allen Miller at a hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times. Describing his turn to heroin, Driscoll said, “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.”
Driscoll estimated that he spent more than $100,000 of his earnings and confessed that he had damaged his most important relationships. “During all this time I’ve hurt a lot of people… especially my parents, my wife, my children, and myself,” said the former actor. “My parents are fine people. I’ve hurt them terribly.”
Driscoll tried to find work—but reportedly said, “No one will hire me because of my arrests.” He worked as a carpenter until his 1964 parole, after which Driscoll moved to New York City in the hopes of finding more sympathetic casting agents. He lost touch with family, and became an odd intrigue in Andy Warhol’s artist scene at the Factory.
“Warhol was so perverse, that he loved having Bobby Driscoll as part of his scene. That was Warhol’s perversity in full play—you know, dissipated Hollywood,” Eliot told Entertainment Weekly.
But Driscoll never found his way back to acting or the industry.
In 1968, Driscoll’s body was discovered in Greenwich Village by children playing in an abandoned tenement building. The onetime Peter Pan, aged 31, was found on a cot with two empty beer bottles and religious pamphlets. It was determined that he died from heart failure believed to have been caused by complications from his drug use. Because no identification was found on his body, his unclaimed remains were buried in a pauper’s grave on New York City’s Hart Island.
Driscoll’s mother had said she did not learn of her son’s death until almost two years later, after she listed advertisements in newspapers hoping to find him. She had hoped he would return to California to say goodbye to his dying father.
The world, meanwhile, did not learn about Driscoll’s sad ending until 1972, when Disney rereleased Song of the South and reporters asked about the film’s once promising nine-year-old star.
“He didn’t really recover from being abandoned by Hollywood,” Billy Gray recalled in 2019. “It hit him hard.”
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