Frankie Darro

Frankie Darro (born Frank Johnson, Jr.; December 22, 1917 December 25, 1976) was an American actor and later in his career a stuntman. He began his career as a child actor in silent films, progressed to lead roles and co-starring roles in adventure, western, dramatic, and comedy films, and later became a character actor and voice-over artist. He is perhaps best known for his role as Lampwick, the unlucky boy who turns into a donkey in Walt Disney's second animated feature, Pinocchio (1940). In early credits, his last name was spelled Darrow.[1]

Frankie Darro
Motion Picture Daily, 1935
Born
Frank Johnson, Jr.

(1917-12-22)December 22, 1917
DiedDecember 25, 1976(1976-12-25) (aged 59)
Resting placeAshes scattered in the Pacific Ocean
Other namesFrankie Darrow
OccupationActor, stuntman
Years active1924–1976
Notable work
Voice of Romeo "Lampwick" in Disney's Pinocchio (1940)
Eddie Smith in Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Spouse(s)Aloha Wray (divorced)
Betty Marie
(m. 1943; div. 1951)

Dorothy Carroll
(m. 1951; his death 1976)
Children1
Parent(s)The Flying Johnsons

Early life

Frankie Darro was born on Saturday, December 22, 1917, in Chicago, Illinois, as Frank Johnson, Jr. His parents, Frank Johnson, Sr. and his wife Ada, were known as The Flying Johnsons, a flying circus act with the Sells Floto Circus; it was a profession that his father attempted to train him in, and he cured Frankie's fear of heights by having him walk on a length of wire, gradually raising the height of it until his son had mastered the trick.

In 1922, while the circus was in California, his parents divorced, and their circus act ended along with their marriage. The growing film industry, however, found a use for a small child who could do his own stunts, and the young Johnson, renamed "Frankie Darro," appeared in his first film at the age of six.[2]

Acting career

As a child actor, he appeared in many silent adventure, western, and serial pictures of the 1920s. His visual appeal and his obvious comfort before the cameras kept him steadily employed. Darro remained popular in serials as the star or co-star; he appeared in the serial The Phantom Empire, opposite the new cowboy star Gene Autry.

Darro was featured in Mervyn LeRoy's Three on a Match in 1932 and was the principal character in the James Cagney feature The Mayor of Hell (1933). His most important role during the 1930s was as the lead in Wild Boys of the Road, director William Wellman's indictment of teens vagabonding across America during the Depression. From then on, Frankie Darro was usually cast as pint-sized tough guys, although he also played wholesome leads in mysteries and comedies.

Darro's name grew in stature, but he himself didn't: he stood only five feet, three inches, limiting his potential as a leading man. His wiry, athletic frame and relatively short stature often typecast him as jockeys; Darro played crooked riders in Charlie Chan at the Race Track and A Day at the Races. In 1938 Darro joined Monogram Pictures to star in a series of action melodramas. Darro's flair for comedy gradually increased the laugh content in these films, and by 1940 Mantan Moreland was hired to play his sidekick. The Frankie Darro series was so successful that Monogram used it as a haven for performers whose own series had been discontinued: Jackie Moran, Marcia Mae Jones, and Keye Luke joined Darro and Moreland in 1940, and Gale Storm was added in 1941.

Darro served in the US Navy Hospital Corps during World War II, wherein he contracted malaria. Upon his return to civilian life, Monogram welcomed him back and cast the perennially youthful Darro in its "Teen Agers" campus comedies. When that series ended, the studio gave Darro four featured roles in its popular Bowery Boys comedies. Darro's last assignment for Monogram, in 1950, was doubling for Leo Gorcey in Blues Busters.

Later life

Darro's recurring malaria symptoms caused him to increase his alcohol intake for pain management, and this affected his career. As film and TV roles became fewer, Darro opened his own tavern, naming it "Try Later" after the answer he most often received when he asked Central Casting for work. His new occupation proved unwise, however, given his heavy drinking. By the mid-1950s, he had become too risky for producers to hire steadily.

No longer starring in films, Darro accepted smaller roles and did stunt work for other actors in various films. It is ironic that Frankie Darro is best known to modern audiences for two films in which he isn't even seen: Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940, as the voice of Lampwick) and Forbidden Planet (1956, as the actor/operator inside the now iconic 7-foot-tall "Robby the Robot").[3]

Darro did continue to play small parts well into the 1960s, mostly on television: The Red Skelton Show, Bat Masterson, Have Gun—Will Travel, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Addams Family, and Batman (episodes 9 and 10); he also did voice-over work for various projects.

Death

While visiting an ex-wife and his step-daughter Christy in Huntington Beach, California, Darro died of a heart attack on Christmas Day 1976, three days after his 59th birthday. His remains were cremated and his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean.

Selected filmography

References

  1. Monush, Barry (2003). Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors: From the silent era to 1965. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 174. ISBN 9781557835512. Retrieved 8 January 2019.
  2. Frankie Darro biography at (re)Search my Trash, retrieved 28 May 2007
  3. Weaver, Tom Robert Dix Interview Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews, p. 72, McFarland, July 30, 2005.

Further reading

  • Twomey, Alfred E. and Arthur F. McClure, The Versatiles: A Study of Supporting Character Actors and Actresses in the American Motion Picture, 1930-1955", South Brunswick, New York e Londra, 1969.
  • Katchmer, George A. A Biographical Dictionary of Silent Film Western Actors and Actresses, McFarland, 2002, pp. 85-86.
  • Holmstrom, John. The Moving Picture Boy: An International Encyclopaedia from 1895 to 1995, Norwich, Michael Russell, 1996, pp. 87-88.
  • Dye, David. Child and Youth Actors: Filmography of Their Entire Careers, 1914-1985. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1988, pp. 50-51.
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