John Drew Barrymore

Actor son of John Barrymore who exceeded even his father's off-screen excesses
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The Independent Online

A member of one of the most notable of acting dynasties, John Drew Barrymore was the son of the legendary stage and screen actor John Barrymore, and the father of the actress Drew Barrymore. Though his acting ability was limited, he inherited his father's good looks, quixotic temperament and taste for both alcohol and high living, achieving notoriety more for his off-screen exploits and tempestous relationships than for his career.

John Blyth Barrymore (John Drew Barrymore), actor: born Beverly Hills, California 4 June 1932; married 1953 Cara Williams (one son; marriage dissolved 1959), 1960 Gaby Palazzolo (one daughter; marriage dissolved), thirdly Ildiko Jaid Mako (one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Los Angeles 29 November 2004.

A member of one of the most notable of acting dynasties, John Drew Barrymore was the son of the legendary stage and screen actor John Barrymore, and the father of the actress Drew Barrymore. Though his acting ability was limited, he inherited his father's good looks, quixotic temperament and taste for both alcohol and high living, achieving notoriety more for his off-screen exploits and tempestous relationships than for his career.

His daughter, after her notable performance in E.T. at the age of seven, had her own problems with alcohol, drugs and failed relationships, and later confessed that she rarely saw her father or even knew where he was for much of her childhood. "The little bit of relationship that there was was very abusive and just chaotic," she said in 1990. She told Rolling Stone magazine that, after her success in E.T., she threw a chair at her father and did not see him again until she was 14.

Born John Blyth Barrymore Jnr in Beverly Hills in 1932 (Blyth was his paternal grandfather's born name), he was the son of the actress Dolores Costello, the third of John Barrymore's four wives, and remembered today for her role as the mother in Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). His parents separated when he was 18 months old, and he later said that he saw his celebrated father (who died in 1942) only once.

Educated at a series of private schools, including St John's Military Academy, he made his screen début at the age of 18 in two above-average westerns. In George Templeton's The Sundowners (1950), he played a young cowboy who idolises his older outlaw brother (Robert Preston), and in Alan Lemay's High Lonesome (1950) he was a drifter wrongly suspected of a string of murders. Templeton's Quebec (1951) was less distinguished, a potboiler starring Corinne Calvet as a British commander's wife who supports the Canadians in their fight for freedom in 1837, but Barrymore received some of his best reviews for his portrayal of Calvet's son.

In 1952, at a party given by his sister, Diana, Barrymore met the actress Cara Williams, seven years older and a Brooklyn redhead with a similar reputation for volatility - she had made headlines in 1948 when she fought another actress in a night-club. In 1953 they eloped to Las Vegas, and, when John was asked by reporters if he had informed his family members, Ethel, Lionel and his mother, he replied, "They can read about it in the papers."

The marriage was to be a stormy one - on return from their honeymoon in Palm Springs, a newspaper headline proclaimed, "Barrymore Arm Injured: Accident, Says Bride". Williams explained that her mother, who accompanied them on their honeymoon, had made some unkind remarks about John, and in the ensuing argument he had stepped back and his arm had crashed through a window.

He was a trainee pilot in Thunderbirds (1953), but his film roles were sporadic, blighted by his temperament and his bouts with the law due to speeding, drunken driving, drug abuse and public brawling. Williams said,

My marriage turned out to be a contest. It was a contest to see who loved John the most, me or John. And John always won.

In 1954 the couple's son, also John, was born, but the marriage remained a volatile one, and, after a kerbside brawl with Williams, Barrymore was jailed in Beverly Hills.

In 1956 he was cast in his finest film, Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956), and effectively played the psychotic killer whose detection is the subject of a contest between ambitious newspaper columnists. Williams later claimed that for a time she put her husband's career first - "I taught him his lines and how to read them, went with him to the set and worked with him constantly."

After being suspended by Actors' Equity due to "unprofessional behaviour", the actor returned to films, billed as John Drew Barrymore, in High School Confidential and Never Love a Stranger (both 1958). The same year his wife's career peaked with her Oscar-nominated performance in The Defiant Ones, and in September 1958 the couple parted. Williams filed for separate maintenance, charging him with "grievous mental cruelty", and in 1959 they were divorced, with Williams awarded custody of their son plus alimony and child support, both of which, according to Williams, he never paid.

In a 1959 interview with the New York Post, Williams was surprisingly generous to her ex-husband, rating him

the most talented of all the Barrymores. Next to him, they all spell ham of the old school.

She described him as

a victim of a strange heritage - a family that has always been concerned with itself. No member of the Barrymores was ever deeply interested in any other member, believe me. I know; I lived in the middle of the family tree. From the dead to the living, they are complete egomaniacs, brilliant and unusual, sure, but self-important.

Virtually unemployable in the US, Barrymore spent several years in Europe appearing in nearly a dozen low-budget costume epics ("none of them any good", he once said) including I Cosacchi ( The Cossacks, 1959) and La Donna dei Faraoini ( The Pharaohs' Woman, 1960). In Les Nuits de Raspoutine ( The Night They Killed Rasputin, 1960), he played Prince Yousoupoff, who had been portrayed by Barrymore senior in the more distinguished MGM production Rasputin and the Empress (1933).

While in Italy, he married the actress Gaby Palazzolo, the brief union resulting in a daughter, Blyth. After starring as Dr Stephen Ward in the Danish/UK co-production The Christine Keeler Story (1964), quickly made to exploit the scandal that had recently rocked the British parliament (the film was shown in Denmark but banned in the UK), Barrymore then returned to Hollywood, but was soon in trouble again, arrested and jailed for possession of marijuana.

In the late Sixties he suddenly dropped out of the Hollywood scene and, after a period of meditation in India, he secluded himself in the California desert for five years, living in a shack where he practised yoga and meditation and subsisted on wild lettuce, sunflower seeds, lamb's-quarters (a plant) and watercress. He returned to Hollywood in 1974 destitute, a gaunt, bearded figure with shoulder-length grey hair (looking similar to his father in the role of Svengali).

A friend, David Carradine (also part of a troubled acting dynasty), offered him a part in the television series Kung Fu, but later that year he was arrested again for possession of marijuana, and after pleading guilty he was fined and put on three years' probation. During this time he had a brief marriage to the actress Ildiko Jaid Mako, but they had parted by the time their daughter Drew was born in 1975. Drew said,

My father was a junkie and an alcoholic for 30 years. Nice combo, huh? It was hard for me to deal with growing up. It was chaotic, and violent and scary.

In her 1991 autobiography, Little Girl Lost, she told how her father would practise kung fu moves on her. When she complained about the pain, he would grab her hand and stick it into the flame of a candle.

He returned to the cinema screen with a bit role in Baby Blue Marine (1976) and, when asked if he was going back to acting for good, he replied, "Not going back, going forward." It was, in fact, his last screen role.

For most of his later life he was a recluse. Drew said,

He was the sort of man who had not owned a pair of shoes in 40 years, did not believe in material possessions and often muttered Scripture to passers-by.

She added,

I reconciled myself to the fact that he had chosen drugs over being a father. I still love him but he has never been and never will be a father.

On Monday she commented,

He was a cool cat. Please smile when you think of him.

Tom Vallance

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