THE BOOK SHELF: A Chronicle of My Fair Lady and a Biography of Actor Brandon de Wilde

By Steven Suskin
19 Aug 2012

Cover art for "All Fall Down: The Brandon de Wilde Story"
Chronicles from Broadway at the mid-century mark tell of three legendary performances in Carson McCullers' Member of the Wedding. The play opened on Jan. 5, 1950 at the fabled Empire — now the site of an office building — with 24-year-old Julie Harris establishing herself as a star in the role of the 12-year-old Frankie Addams; the veteran Ethel Waters returning to the stage, with much acclaim, as the maid Berenice; and featuring 7-year-old Brandon de Wilde as John Henry. All three, we are told, were astonishing alone and together.

The boy, though, gave a performance so natural and real that it was said to be breathtaking. We cannot relive stage performances from 1950, needless to say, although the performances were recreated for the screen in 1952 (when de Wilde was pushing ten). The film recreates a good deal of the magic, but it's not quite the same as watching the thing live from a seat at the Empire.

People don't much remember 1950 stage plays, understandably so, or even 1950s film versions of stage plays (unless you're talking A Streetcar Named Desire). De Wilde holds a place in cinema history, though, for his performance in the 1953 classic "Shane." The wide-eyed 11-year-old looking out over the prairie as the gunslinger Shane rides in; that same boy in the final moments, eyes filled with tears, forlornly crying out "Shane! come back!!" These are unforgettable moments, that capture de Wilde at the height of his fame. He received an Oscar nomination, competing against castmate Jack Palance; they lost to Frank Sinatra, for "From Here to Eternity."

De Wilde starred in a second Broadway hit, opposite Helen Hayes in Mary Chase's Mrs. McThing (1952); and in a second important film, the 1963 "Hud" (with Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal). In the latter, the 20-year-old de Wilde played a boy of 16. And that was the end of it. In a typical scenario, the former child actor was unable to sustain a career; everyone wanted that cute little boy, who was no more. In de Wilde's case, it wasn't (initially) a question of money; his father — Fritz de Wilde, longtime production stage manager for Broadway producer Robert Whitehead — carefully saved the boy's earnings. But Brandon aimlessly spiraled into the world of rock music (unsuccessfully) and drugs (with typical results). By 1971, he was lucky to get a job playing Butterflies Are Free in summer stock in Denver. On July 6, 1971, he ran his van into a truck and died, at the age of 29.



All of this is covered in All Fall Down: The Brandon de Wilde Story by Patrisha McLean. The book is a bit odd, written in something of a facile, fan magazine style — which actually works well in this instance. McLean started the project in 1988 as homage to the actor, contacting many of the still surviving people who had surrounded him. The author dropped the project after a few years, stymied by various obstacles including the inability to locate the woman de Wilde married three months before his death.

Twenty years later, McLean decided to finish her book as best she could, before de Wilde was all but forgotten. The day before she sent the manuscript to the printer, she tells us, a priest in Italy emailed with contact information for the widow.

Thus, McLean was able to redraft, revise, and fill in some missing pieces. This leaves us a book written over two generations, in two centuries, based on memories from not all that many people (although Julie Harris is, happily, present). Some of the people the author relies on don't seem to have much of import to say, but that can happen when you don't have enough first-hand sources. Despite the decided oddities of this apparently self-published book, McLean really does give us a sense of who that arresting, talented and forlorn boy — "Shane! come back!!" — actually was.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," now available in paperback, "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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