Every fan of classic westerns has shed more than a few tears over the ending scene of George Stevens' 1953 film Shane, in which the adorable Joey Starrett (Brandon deWilde) calls after the stoic farm hand and gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd), shouting "Shane! Come back!"
The heartwrenching performance earned Brandon deWild (born Andre Brandon deWilde) an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. At the time, deWilde was the youngest nominee to receive an Oscar nomination in a competitive category.
But even before Shane, deWilde had begun to make a name for himself. The Brooklyn-born actor made his Broadway debut at the age of 7 in Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding, adapted from McCluller's 1946 novel of the same name. deWilde also co-starred in the 1952 film-version of The Member of the Wedding. The child actor even starred in his own ABC sitcom, Jamie, appeared regularly on radio and television and graced the cover of Life magazine in 1952.
In 1954, he appeared on the game show What's My Line?
Just a few years after appearing in Shane, deWilde took the lead in Good-bye, My Lady, a tearjerker about a boy and his dog, which co-starred Walter Brennan and Sidney Poitier.
In 1957, deWilde starred opposite James Stewart and Audie Murphy in the western flick Night Passage. In 1958, he appeared in the coming-of-age film The Missouri Traveler with Lee Marvin. The following year, he starred in the drama Blue Denim opposite Carol Lynley.
In addition to guest roles on the television series Wagon Train and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, deWilde's acting career showed no signs of slowing down. The young actor appeared in All Fall Down, co-starring Warren Beatty, and the Paul Newman western Hud.
At the 1964 Academy Awards, deWilde accepted the Oscar for Supporting Actor in Hud on behalf of Melvyn Douglas, who was unable to attend.
In 1964, deWilde would star in yet another western, Disney's three-part live action miniseries The Tenderfoot, co-starring Brian Keith. In 1965, he co-starred with John Wayne in the war film In Harm's Way. In 1971, he'd appear in his final western, The Deserter, an Italian-American film by Dino De Laurentiis.
But acting wasn't deWilde's only passion. He was a regular presence in the Los Angeles music scene and was a close friend of country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, who founded The Flying Burrito Brothers with Chris Hillman of The Byrds. deWilde even helped Parsons' early band, the International Submarine Band, land a cameo in the 1967 counterculture psychedelic film The Trip, written by Jack Nicholson and starring Peter Fonda.
Author Pamela des Barres writes about her friendship with deWilde and the actor's musical aspirations in her 1987 memoir I'm With the Band.
"He was irresistible when he smiled and laughed, which was all the time, and he was blind as a bat, always messing with his contact lenses, bumping into walls, or wearing his thick Coke-bottle glasses. His career was topsy-turvy; he quit acting after twenty-five successful years in front of the cameras to sing country songs like Chris [Hillman] and Gram [Parsons]," des Barres wrote.
deWilde frequently sang with Parsons and even requested that Parsons and his International Submarine Band back him on a recording session.
What Happened to Brandon deWilde?
Sadly, deWilde's dreams of a music career would never come to fruition. On July 6, 1972, while traveling in Colorado for a stage production of Butterflies are Free, deWilde was killed in a car crash. He was just 30 years old.
The talented artist is survived by one son, Jesse, his child from his first marriage to Susan M. Maw, and second wife Janice Gero, who he married four months before his tragic accident. His body was originally buried in Hollywood, but was later moved to Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, New York near Long Island.
"In My Hour of Darkness," which Gram Parsons co-wrote with Emmylou Harris, is partially about the untimely death of Parson's dear friend deWilde.
"Once I knew a young man, went driving through the night/ Miles and miles without a word but just his high beam lights," Parsons sings. "Who'd have ever thought they'd build such a deadly Denver bend/ To be so strong, to take so long as it would till the end/ In my hour of darkness, in my time of need/ Oh Lord, grant me vision oh, Lord grant me speed"
Patrisha McLean's 2012 biography All Fall Down, The Brandon deWilde Story traces the life of the artist and musician who was taken way too soon.