Enter a family friend and Broadway producer who was mounting the 1949 play, A Member of the Wedding, about a dreamy-eyed tomboy longing to leave her dismal little hometown to go off with her newly-married brother. Julie Harris would play the lead with Ethel Waters as the lady who watches over her. There was a part for the girl's younger cousin and after soothing over the parents' worries, seven-year old Brandon would win the part. In 1952, the actors repeated their roles for the Fred Zinnemann film and Brandon became a movie star.
His most famous role was up next when George Stevens hired him for the showy part of Joey Starrett in one of the finest westerns ever made, Shane. He was perfect for the part of the boy who idolizes a mysterious gunman who shows up at a homestead family's small ranch in time to help Joey's parents and others fight greedy neighbors.
The kid could really deliver. His face easily registered fear when he sat under the swinging door of a saloon watching a (glorious) fight. And there was no doubt about the love he felt for a man who seemed to need the boy's love as much as the other way around. Young Brandon more than held his own against the likes of Alan Ladd, Van Heflin, Jean Arthur (in her final movie) and Jack Palance, who scared the Shredded Wheat out of me. Brandon would cop an Academy Award best supporting actor nomination for his stellar work. Take a look at the film's iconic final scene:
Movies then or now don't hold a lot of promise for most juvenile performers, particularly in starring roles so what is a young, in-demand kid to do but turn to television. In the 1953-54 season, he even starred in his own series, Jamie. It was good, too, but cancelled quickly due to some behind-the-scenes shenanigans.
In 1956 he made Good-bye, My Lady, the story of a country boy's love for a dog that wanders onto his property but obviously belongs to someone else due to his breed. That breed is a basenji (African barkless dog), which I thought was so ugly-- I mean, it's no Lassie I'll tell ya-- that I couldn't understand why a kid would want it. The last quarter of the film was kind of clunky and despite the presence of Walter Brennan and Sidney Poitier, it didn't strike a chord with me.
In the following two years he costarred in a not-so-great James Stewart western, Night Passage, and had the lead in The Missouri Traveler with Lee Marvin, which missed the mark as well.
While I grew up, so did deWilde and his participation in the teenage, highly-anticipated Blue Denim (1959) proved the little boy roles were long gone. He was 17 when he joined Carol Lynley in what I surely thought at the time was some pretty hot stuff on teen pregnancy. Of course, having seen it 10 years or so ago, I had to laugh at the sanitized thing before me.
Perhaps he and Lynley had the right looks of innocence but neither particularly struck me as horny or even eager. It was all played out a little too pat and blasé. Of course, we are talking 1959. For the first time, I saw deWilde as antiseptic, well-scrubbed, a bit fey, way too earnest, with a decided lack of virility. Was it possible that his career as an adult would be short-circuited because of this? He was a good child actor, there was no doubt. But did he have the chops, the sex appeal to make it as a young male star?
He gave two forceful but understated performances in his next two films (two that shine along with his first two) that in some ways were very similar, All Fall Down and Hud. I think the latter, like Shane, is a classic, and the former is so damned good that I will never understand why it didn't do better.
In each he is an innocent who is enamored of a handsome, douchebag relative. Warren Beatty plays his older brother in All Fall Down and Paul Newman his uncle in Hud. Neither character deserved to share the oxygen with their young, adoring relative and I wanted to wipe the drool from deWilde's mouth as he dealt with them. In each film, he was enamored of an older woman who did not return his teenage lust (Eva Marie Saint in All Fall Down and Patricia Neal in Hud). Such roles may have given birth to the gay rumors that circulated about deWilde. They certainly may have started with his less-than-studly role in Blue Denim. Regardless, he was one of those actors whose name kept cropping up in certain circles. Nonetheless, around this time he married for the first time. It would last seven years and would produce a son.
In 1965 he did the last two films worth mentioning... and some of you might dispute that. First up was Disney's Those Calloways... back again as a clean-cut country boy, the son of Brian Keith and Vera Miles, awkwardly wooing Linda Evans. It concerned a family who dreams of creating a sanctuary for geese. He was hopelessly miscast and adrift as John Wayne's son in In Harm's Way. Wayne did spend a lot of time trying to get him to man up.
From here on out, deWilde did a lot of television and a few poor films. He would also do what a lot of actors do when their film careers dry up and that is regional theater. He would go on record as saying maybe acting was no longer for him but music was. He had some friends and connections in the music industry and was planning on pursuing something there.
But on July 6, 1972, the pursuit would end. He was outside of Denver, where he had completed a run in regional theater and on his way to visit his second wife (of only a few months) who was recovering in the hospital after surgery, when he was killed. He was alone in his van, lost control on wet streets. He was 30.
Brandon, come back. Don't go. I always liked him... probably more as a young kid actor... but I liked him. I always thought he sat on the Hollywood sidelines... never getting involved in anything beyond showing up to work, doing a little acting and going home. He was a bit of an enigma and of course his early death only perpetuated that.
A bio was written about him two years ago, All Fall Down: The Brandon deWilde Story, but I can't find it anywhere. Would love to read it. I did, however, read another book where his name cropped up. It was a juicy biography on one of his male costars and it offered that the two clandestinely met over the years for a little male bonding. Maybe one day I need to post a part two.
Coming in December