Darro in 1935
Frank Johnson, Jr.|
December 22, 1917
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
December 25, 1976 (aged 59)|
Huntington Beach, California, U.S.
|Resting place||Ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean|
Voice of Romeo "Lampwick" in Disney's Pinocchio (1940) |
Eddie Smith in Wild Boys of the Road (1933)
Aloha Wray (divorced)|
(m. 1943; div. 1951)
(m. 1951; his death 1976)
|Parent(s)||The Flying Johnsons|
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, which was originally released in February 1940.
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.
As a child actor, he appeared in many silent adventure, western, and serial pictures of the 1920s, becoming a very prolific actor as an adolescent. His convincing delivery of dialogue and his obvious comfort before the cameras kept him steadily employed. His most important role during the 1930s was as the lead in Wild Boys of the Road, director William Wellman's indictment of aimless teens vagabonding across America during the Depression; he also appeared 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). Darro remained popular in serials and co-starred with Gene Autry in Autry's first starring role, in the serial The Phantom Empire.
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 may be most familiar to modern audiences as the voice of the unlucky Lampwick in Disney's Pinocchio.
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. He was an accomplished athlete and performed various stunts for other actors in various films. Because of his size and fitness, he was cast in his most famous (but anonymous) big screen role: as the actor/operator inside the now iconic 7-foot-tall "Robby the Robot" walking screen prop that debuted in the classic MGM science fiction film Forbidden Planet (1956).
Later in life, Darro appeared on television in The Red Skelton Show, Bat Masterson, Have Gun—Will Travel, The Untouchables, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Batman (episodes 9 and 10); he also did voice-over work for various projects.
His 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. This proved unwise, however, given Darro's heavy drinking. By the mid 1950s, he had become too risky for producers to hire steadily, although he did continue to play small parts well into the 1960s.
While visiting one of his ex-wives, step-daughter Christy and friends in Huntington Beach, California, Frankie 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.
- The Judgment of the Storm (1924) as Heath Twin (first role)
- Half-A-Dollar-Bill (1924) as Half-A-Dollar-Bill
- The Signal Tower (1924) as Sonny Taylor
- Roaring Rails (1924) as Little Bill
- Her Husband's Secret (1925)
- Confessions of a Queen (1925)
- Wandering Footsteps (1925)
- Mike (1926)
- The Cowboy Cop (1926) as Frankie
- Enemies of Society (1927)
- Little Mickey Grogan (1927) as Mickey Grogan
- The Circus Kid (1928) as Buddy
- Blaze o'Glory (1929) as Jean Williams
- Way Back Home (1931) as Robbie
- The Public Enemy (1931) as the young Matt Doyle
- The Vanishing Legion (1931, Serial) as Jimmie Williams
- The Lightning Warrior (1931, Serial) as Jimmy Carter
- The Mad Genius (1931) as the young Fedor Ivanoff
- The Devil Horse (1932, Serial) as The Wild Boy
- The Mayor of Hell (1933) as James 'Jimmy' Smith
- Tugboat Annie (1933)
- Wild Boys of the Road (1933) as Edward 'Eddie' Smith
- The Wolf Dog (1933, Serial) as Frank Courtney
- The Merry Frinks (1934)
- Little Men (1934)
- No Greater Glory (1934) as Feri Ats
- Burn 'Em Up Barnes (1934, Serial) as Bobbie Riley
- Red Hot Tires (1935)
- The Phantom Empire (1935, Serial) as Frankie Baxter
- The Payoff (1935)
- Valley of Wanted Men (1935) as Slivers Sanderson
- The Unwelcome Stranger (1935) as Charlie Anderson
- Charlie Chan at the Race Track (1936) as 'Tip' Collins, Jockey
- A Day at the Races (1937) as Morgan's jockey
- Saratoga (1937) as Dixie Gordon
- Juvenile Court (1938)
- Boys' Reformatory (1939) as Tommy Ryan
- Irish Luck (1939) as Buzzy O'Brien (1st film with Mantan Moreland)
- Chasing Trouble (1940) as Frankie "Cupid" O'Brien (with Mantan Moreland)
- Pinocchio (1940) as Lampwick (voice, uncredited)
- On the Spot (1940) as Frankie Kelly (with Mantan Moreland)
- Laughing at Danger (1940) as Frankie Kelly (with Mantan Moreland)
- Up in the Air (1940) as Frankie Ryan (with Mantan Moreland)
- You're Out of Luck (1941) as Frankie O'Reilly (with Mantan Moreland)
- The Gang's All Here (1941) as Frankie (with Mantan Moreland)
- Let's Go Collegiate (1941) as Frankie Monahan (with Mantan Moreland)
- Junior G-Men of the Air (1942, Serial) as Jack (last before joining the US Navy)
- Junior Prom (1946) as Roy Donne (first after World War II and first of the TeenAgers series)
- Chick Carter, Detective (1946, Serial) as Thug (uncredited)
- Angels' Alley (1948) as Jimmy
- Trouble Makers (1948) as Feathers
- Heart of Virginia (1948) as Jimmy Easter
- The Red Skelton Show (1951) as the Little Old Lady
- Forbidden Planet (1956) as Robby the Robot (uncredited)
- The Untouchables (1960) 2 episodes as News Vendor
- Operation Petticoat (1959) as Pharmacists Mate 3rd Class Dooley, USN
- Batman (1966) episodes 9 and 10 as Newsman
- Fugitive Lovers (1975) as Lester, the town drunk (Darro's last role)
- Frankie Darro biography at (re)Search my Trash, retrieved 28 May 2007
- Weaver, Tom Robert Dix Interview Earth Vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers: 20 Interviews, p. 72, McFarland, July 30, 2005.
- 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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