Billy Chapin

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Billy Chapin
Billy Chapin.jpg
Billy Chapin in The Night of the Hunter, 1955
Born William McClellan Chapin
(1943-12-28) December 28, 1943 (age 72)
Los Angeles, USA
Occupation Actor
Years active 1944-1959
Awards 1951 N.Y. Drama Critics Award for Three Wishes For Jamie (stage musical version)

Billy Chapin (born December 28, 1943 in Los Angeles) is an American former child actor, known for a considerable number of screen and TV performances from 1943 to 1959 and best remembered for both his roles as the “diaper manager” Christie Cooper in the 1953 family feature The Kid from Left Field, starring Dan Dailey, Anne Bancroft and Lloyd Bridges and little John Harper in Charles Laughton's 1955 film noir classic The Night of the Hunter, opposite acting legends Robert Mitchum and Lillian Gish.

He is the brother of former child actors Lauren Chapin, known as Kathy “Kitten” Anderson from the TV series Father Knows Best (1954–60) and Michael Chapin, another successful child performer of the 1940s and 1950s. He is also an uncle of professional singer Summer-Healey Chapin, his sister's daughter.[1]

Life and career[edit]

Born William McClellan Chapin on December 28, 1943, in Los Angeles, he was the second of three children of Roy Chapin, a bank manager, and Marquerite Alice Barringer, who later became a kind of personal coach for all of her children's acting careers.[2] His sister Lauren later told about alcohol problems and sexual abuse in the troubled family.[3]

Early roles and Broadway[edit]

Chapin debuted on the screen at the age of only a few weeks, uncredited as Baby Girl in Casanova Brown, 1944, starring Gary Cooper, and just five months later had another uncredited baby role in Marriage Is a Private Affair, starring Lana Turner.[4] He had another bit role in The Cockeyed Miracle in 1946. He started acting professionally in 1951 in a supporting role in the Broadway stage musical Three Wishes for Jamie, which, while passably successful, toured the West Coast in the summer of the same year. After essential changes regarding dramatization of the play and replacements in the original West Coast cast, when the play moved to New York City in early 1952,[5] [6] it finally became a considerable success and earned him the N.Y. Drama Critics Award as the most promising young actor of the year.[7]

From The Kid from Left Field to A Man Called Peter[edit]

This stage success might have earned him his role as the grandson in the 1952 TV adaption of Paul Osborn's 1938 Broadway play, On Borrowed Time at the Celanese Theatre, but his first real screen role he landed just one year later as the "Diaper Manager" Christie Cooper, the lead role of the 1953 family release The Kid from Left Field, starring Dan Dailey, Anne Bancroft and Lloyd Bridges.

He then did three successive episodes of Jack Webb's Dragnet and two other television shows before he portrayed Brian "Gadge" Robertson, the bright grandson of a fictive astroscientist in the science fiction B-flick Tobor the Great, 1954.

Two smaller screen appearances then fell into line, one in a film noir, entitled Naked Alibi, 1954, with Sterling Hayden and Gloria Grahame and another bit role in the famous screen musical There's No Business Like Show Business, again starring Dan Dailey with Donald O'Connor and Marilyn Monroe, before the boy gained his next memorable screen attentions as the young son of historic clergyman Peter Marshall in A Man Called Peter and Victor Mature's screen son in his second film noir: Violent Saturday, both of which were released in 1955. In between he continued to appear in standard television series such as Waterfront, The Millionaire, and My Friend Flicka, and various TV theaters, anthologies and dramas.

The Night of the Hunter[edit]

Robert Mitchum and Billy Chapin in The Night of the Hunter, 1955

When Charles Laughton personally cast Billy Chapin for the role of young John Harper in his 1955 film classic The Night of the Hunter, the boy was already considered an "acting technician" among the child performers of his time. After a private meeting with Billy in his Hollywood home, Laughton told Davis Grubb, the author of the original story: "What I want is a flexible child, and the boy is exactly that."[8] Later, Laughton publicly offered praise especially for "...the strength of [Chapin's] innate ability to understand the construction of a scene, its impact and its importance."[4][8] Vintage sources claimed that Laughton might find it difficult to direct Chapin, as well as Sally Jane Bruce, who played his younger sister (Pearl Harper), but contemporary sources and rediscovered archival material from the production of The Night of the Hunter prove that, aside from a few intergenerational tiffs, the old man and the boy got along wonderfully, even if, according to these sources, Robert Mitchum, who played the bogus preacher Harry Powell, in fact took over some directing tasks.[8]

Charles Laughton directing Billy Chapin, watched by Peter Graves in The Night of the Hunter, 1955

Though now considered a classic, The Night of the Hunter was a critical and commercial failure when released, "because of its lack of the proper trappings."[9] Nevertheless, in 1992, the United States Library of Congress selected the picture for preservation in the National Film Registry.

Tension at Table Rock and a fading career on TV[edit]

It's not known if that was the reason for which Chapin's final screen attention was just a year later as young Jody Burrows in the 1956 B-Western Tension at Table Rock, starring Richard Egan, but from then on his film career declined until he was acting solely on television, where his career eventually ended late in 1959 in an episode of the long-running family series Fury (1955–60).

Personal life[edit]

In her own biography, his sister Lauren mentions Billy's having had alcohol and drug problems in his twenties and thirties.[10]


Filmography (in order of release)[edit]

Year Film Role Other notes
1944 Casanova Brown The Brown's Baby Girl uncredited
Marriage Is a Private Affair The Baby uncredited
1946 The Cockeyed Miracle Boy aka The Return of Mr. Griggs (US promotional title) aka Mr. Griggs Returns (UK)
1953 Affair with a Stranger Timmy
The Kid from Left Field Christie Cooper
1954 Tobor the Great Brian "Gadge" Robertson
Naked Alibi Petey
There's No Business Like Show Business [2] Steve Donahue, aged 10
1955 A Man Called Peter Peter John Marshall
Violent Saturday Steve Martin
The Night of the Hunter John Harper
1956 Tension at Table Rock Jody Burrows

On the stage[edit]

Year Play Role Other notes
1951/1952 Three Wishes for Jamie Kevin N.Y. Drama Critics Award

Television (in order of airing)[edit]

Year Show/Series/Episode Role Other notes
1951 Celanese Theatre - Episode: Winterset [3] unknown originally aired on 31 October
1952 Celanese Theatre - Episode: On Borrowed Time Grandson originally aired on June 25
1953 Dragnet (aka Badge 714) - Episode: The Big White Rat unknown originally aired on September 3
Dragnet (aka Badge 714) - Episode: The Big Little Jesus Joseph Hefferman originally aired on December 24
1954 Dragnet (aka Badge 714) - Episode: The Big Children Richard Kessler originally aired on February 11
A Letter To Loretta (aka The Loretta Young Show/Theatre) - Episode: The New York Story Robbie Thorne originally aired on February 28
Lux Video Theatre (aka Summer Video Theatre)- Episode: Pick Off The Litter Jeremy originally aired on April 8
Waterfront - Episode: The Rift Teddy Herrick originally airing unknown
Waterfront - Episode: Sunken Treasure Teddy Herrick originally aired on August 28
Waterfront - Episode: Capt'n Long John Teddy Herrick originally aired on September 19
1955 Stage 7 - The Greatest Man In The World Todd Jennings originally aired on March 13
Lux Video Theatre (aka Summer Video Theatre)- Episode: The Last Confession Gaston originally aired on September 1
Celebrity Playhouse - Episode: Day Of The Trial unknown originally aired on October 4
Cheyenne - Episode: "Julesburg" Tommy Scott originally aired on October 11
General Electric Theater (aka G.E. Theatre)- Outpost At Home unknown originally aired on October 23
The Millionaire (aka If I Had A Million) - The Tom Bryan Story Tom Bryan originally aired on November 2
My Friend Flicka - Episode: Silver Saddle unknown originally aired on December 16
1956 Ford Star Jubilee - Episode: The Day Lincoln Was Shot unknown originally aired on February 1
Fury (aka Brave Stallion) - Episode: The Test Louis Baxter Jr. originally aired on March 3
TV Readers Digest - Episode: Lost, Strayed And Lonely

(aka It's A Wise Father)[4][5]

Christopher originally aired on March 5
Climax! (aka Climax Mystery Theatre) - Episode: A Trophy For Howard Davenport Billy originally aired on June 28
Crossroads - Episode: Tenement Saint Jerry originally aired on December 14
1957 The Ford Television Theatre (aka Ford Theatre) - Episode: Ringside Seat Billy Curran originally aired on February 13
Dick Powell's Zane Grey Theater (aka The Westerners)- Episode: Black Creek Encounter Billy Morrison originally aired on March 8
Panic! (aka No Warning - US second season title) - Episode: The Boy Tommy Williams originally aired on March 19
1958 Meet McGraw - Episode: Friend Of The Court [6] Tommy Cassidy originally aired on February 25
The Californians - Episode: The Marshall Joey originally aired on March 11
1959 Leave It To Beaver - Episode: The Grass Is Always Greener Pete Fletcher originally aired on January 8
Frontier Justice - Episode: Black Creek Encounter [7] Billy Morrison originally aired on July 27
Fury (aka Brave Stallion) - Episode: The Rocketeers Vic Rockwell originally aired on December 5


  1. ^ " - The Official Lauren Chapin Homepage - section: Summer Healey Chapin". Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  2. ^ Chapin, Lauren; Collins, Andrew (1989/90). Father Does Know Best- Lauren Chapin's Biography. New York: Berkley Books. pp. 7–13. ISBN 0-425-12101-1.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. ^ Interview with Lauren Chapin
  4. ^ a b Best, Marc (1984). Those Endearing Young Charmes - Child Performers of the Screen. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Co. Inc. p. 30. 
  5. ^ Wikipedia: Three Wishes for Jamie
  6. ^ "Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) - section Three Wishes For Jamie". Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  7. ^ Best, Marc (1984). Those Endearing Young Charmes - Child Performers of the Screen. Cranbury, New Jersey: A.S. Barnes and Co. Inc. p. 30. ISBN 0-498-07729-2. 
  8. ^ a b c Neal Jones, Preston (2002). Heaven & Hell To Play With - The Filming of The Night of the Hunter. New York: Limelight Editions. pp. 91–92. 
  9. ^ The Night of the Hunter - Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times Online, November 24, 1996 [1]
  10. ^ Chapin, Lauren; Collins, Andrew (1989/90). Father Does Know Best- Lauren Chapin's Biography. New York: Berkley Books. pp. 91–92. ISBN 0-425-12101-1.  Check date values in: |date= (help)


  • Marc Best, Those Endearing Young Charms - Child Performers of the Screen - A.S. Barnes and Co. Inc., Cranbury, New Jersey, 1971, Thomas Yoseloff Ltd., London, - Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: 73-124218 - ISBN 0-498-07729-2 - pages 30–34
  • Lauren Chapin, Andrew Collins, Father Does Know Best - The Lauren Chapin Story, Berkley Books, New York, 1989/1990, ISBN 0-425-12101-1 (in some chapters of her biography his sister Lauren is mentioning him in connection with her own life)

External links[edit]