The acting career of Billy Chapin, who has died aged 72, ended 57 years ago, though his memorable performance in The Night of the Hunter (1955) has become an indelible part of film history. Charles Laughton’s only film as director is an eerily beautiful parable of good and evil, its bold visual style derived from the rural dramas of DW Griffith, German Expressionism and American folk art.
Most of Chapin’s previous roles, where he displayed a gravitas, contrary to the label “cute” often affixed to child stars, persuaded Laughton to cast him in The Night of the Hunter. As Laughton told Davis Grubb, the author of the original novel, “What I want is a flexible child, and the boy is exactly that … he has innate ability to understand the construction of a scene, its impact and its importance.”
The plot focuses on a psychopathic woman-hating preacher (Robert Mitchum), who marries and murders a widow, Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), in order to find out where a huge sum of money has been hidden. Only her children, the fair-haired, 12-year-old John (Chapin) and his younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), know of its whereabouts. Chapin is immediately suspicious of Mitchum, seeing through his pretence of doing the Lord’s work.
The brave young lad stands up to Mitchum, before escaping by river with his sister, whom he protects and reassures. As they are pursued through a nocturnal landscape by Mitchum, Chapin says rhetorically: “Don’t he ever sleep?” Later, having found refuge with an older woman (Lillian Gish), who protects them with a rifle, he is confronted once again by Mitchum, who claims to be the boy’s father. Chapin says: “He ain’t my dad,” with a defiant half-smile.
Although the film was a critical and commercial failure on its release, it has long since gained classic status and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1992 as a work of “cultural, historical and aesthetical” importance.
Such is the evanescence of child stars that, The Night of the Hunter proved to be Chapin’s penultimate film. His first was as Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright’s baby girl in Casanova Brown (1944). He had been born only months before in Los Angeles, the second of three children of Roy Chapin, a bank manager, and his wife, Marquerite Alice Barringer. She was a stage mother who managed to get all of her children, Michael, Billy and Lauren, into films at very early ages.
However, they had deeply troubled childhoods. Their father was a brute who sexually abused Lauren, and their mother was an alcoholic. Perhaps some of this is reflected in Billy’s sensitive performance in The Night of the Hunter with his little sister, whom he has sworn to guard with his life.
Chapin got his first real break in the Broadway musical Three Wishes for Jamie (1952), in which he played a boy who cannot speak. It won him the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award as the most promising young actor of the year.
This led to a busy career on television, starting as the orphan boy helping to delay his grandfather’s death in On Borrowed Time (1952), based on the hit Paul Osborn play, and the title role in The Kid from Left Field (1953), in which, as the unlikely nine-year-old manager of a big baseball league, he steals the picture from Dan Dailey (as his father) and Anne Bancroft.
Besides appearing in TV series such as Dragnet, Chapin had roles in three films in 1954: little Steve Donohue (played as an adult by Johnnie Ray) in There’s No Business Like Show Business; a shoe-shine boy who helps the cop Sterling Hayden track down a villain in Naked Alibi – the only cheerful character among the gloom; and a boy genius who befriends the eponymous robot in Tobor the Great.
This was followed by A Man Called Peter (1955), a pious biopic of a celebrated Scottish preacher (Richard Todd), in which Chapin, as his young son, carries the upbeat finale, and Violent Saturday (1955), a heist thriller where he takes his father (Victor Mature) to task for not having been a war hero like his best friend’s father.
Chapin’s last feature was Tension at Table Rock (1956), a decent western in which he is, once again, an orphan, this time rescued by gunman Richard Egan.
After a role in the TV series Fury in 1959, Chapin quit show business for ever, aged 16. Like his sister, Lauren, most remembered for her role as the youngest child in the television show Father Knows Best (1954-60), Chapin became addicted to drugs and drink. This dependency lasted until he was into his 30s, during which time he was unable to keep a job before kicking the habit.
He is survived by Lauren and Michael.
• Billy Chapin (William McClellan Chapin), actor, born 28 December 1943; died 3 December 2016
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