Sunday, September 11, 2022

Brandon deWilde: Together Again

Born in April 1942, Brandon deWilde* was the darling of Broadway at the age of seven. Acting alongside Ethel Walters and Julie Harris, he played John Henry West in the first production of Carson McCullers’ play The Member of the Wedding.

He took part in 492 performances and won a Donaldson Award for the best male debut in a play. (Charles Boyer had won it the year before: Denholm Elliott was to win it the next.) When he appeared in his second play aged nine, he was on the cover of Life magazine.

And as an 11-year-old he starred in his own comedy series, Jamie. He must have been a pro: it was broadcast live.

deWilde was 10 when The Member of the Wedding was filmed – he naturally won a Golden Globe. You can watch the whole film on YouTube.

But by then he had already recorded a film performance that was to make him immortal.

George Stevens took two years editing Shane, but his care resulted in a Western that the world took at its own high estimation: an instant classic and a candidate for the greatest ever made. And deWilde played Joey, the little boy who cries out "Shane! Come back!" at the end of the film.

Given what a gruelling life this sounds for a boy, it’s nice to know that, put up to it by his screen mother Jean Arthur, he began filming that scene by pulling faces to make Alan Ladd laugh.

deWilde received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, but both he and Shane's other nominee Jack Palance lost out to Frank Sinatra.

And that was as good as it got for him, because he suffered from the male child star’s curse: he did not grow tall and kept his boyish looks too long.

He was still playing orphans in peril as a teenager and, in an echo of Shane that directors must have been aware of, his best adult performances saw him cast as a younger relation who first idolised and then saw through a charismatic older man.

So he appeared alongside Warren Beatty in All Fall Down and Paul Newman in Hud. But his characters in these films were 16 or 17 and he was 19 or 20 when he played them. His performance in Hud was widely praised, but you don’t go on to be cast as a leading man from parts like those.

And when he appeared in his second Western as a teenager - Night Passage with James Stewart and Audie Murphy - his character was inevitably called Joey. He had become a walking touchstone of cinematic authenticity while he was still making his way as an actor.

Soon he was going downhill and he was left with little besides Disney films, guest appearances on television shows and work in regional theatres.

In the 1960s he began hanging out with David Crosby and Gram Parsons, and even with the Beatles when they were filming Help! in the Bahamas. Paul McCartney said of him:

"He was a nice guy who was fascinated by what we did. A sort of Brat Pack actor. We chatted endlessly, and I seem to remember writing Wait in front of him, and him being interested to see it being written."

deWilde hoped to have a music career and return to acting at 40 when a wider range of character parts would be open to him. And he must have had talent: it was said that the only person who harmonised better with Gram Parsons than he did was Emmylou Harris.

Together Again appears on a collection of Parsons' early recordings, but the singer is Brandon deWilde.

His music career and return to acting were not to be. He died after crashing his car in July 1972 at the age of 30.

* He was billed as De Wilde in his earlier films and probably changed it to deWilde in an attempt to get people to pronounce it properly. The name is Dutch and has three syllables.

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