The Mondo-Esoterica Guide to

John Drew Barrymore


Born John Blyth Barrymore, Jr. in 1932 in Beverley Hills, California, he was the son of legendary silent era star John Barrymore (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)) and his third wife, the actress Dolores Costello (The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)). The couple would divorce just 18 months later and Barrymore claimed to have met his father only once before his death in 1942. Instead of spending his youth in Hollywood, Barrymore was sent away to a series of private schools including the St John's Military Academy in Wisconsin where he attempted to sign up for the Navy in the latter days of the Second World War, despite his youth.

In 1949 he decided to follow the family profession and become an actor - he was quickly offered stage parts but instead chose to make his film debut in a Western filmed on location in Texas, The Sundowners (1950) playing alongside Robert Preston (This Gun for Hire (1942)) as feuding brothers. Producer George Templeton quickly commissioned a follow-up film with Barrymore in the lead role and heavily promoted this on the posters for High Lonesome (1950), he would also cast the young actor in the leading role in historical war film Quebec (1951) in which he received positive notices. Two more parts followed, as a young man forced to grow up fast to avenge his father in Joseph Losey's Film Noir The Big Night (1951) and as a member of the Oaklahoma National Guard in the Second World War film Thunderbirds (1952).

However as well as a career in acting, Barrymore had inherited his father's temperament and began to descend into alcoholism and later drug use. He eloped to Las Vegas to marry the actress Cara Williams with whom he fathered a son, John Blyth Barrymore (who had a brief acting career), and would be subsequently jailed for spousal abuse and drink driving, leading to a suspension by Actor's Equity. Inbetween this, he did still find television work available, appearing on a number of the popular series of one-off television plays including Climax! and Playhouse 90 and he gave one of his very best performances in Fritz Lang's late Film Noir While the City Sleeps (1956). In 1958 Williams filed for divorce and the couple were officially parted the following year. Looking to regain his image, Barrymore changed his billing name to John Drew Barrymore and did secure two parts, alongside a very young Steve McQueen in Never Love a Stranger (1958) and in Jack Arnold's teenage picture High School Confidential! (1958) but his reputation was tarnished and unable to find real work in Hollywood he travelled to Europe where the Italian film industry had finally recovered from the destruction of the Second World War and was desperately seeking American actors for leading roles to help their films sell internationally.

He quickly found a niche in the historical adventure films which the Italian film industry was reeling out in the early 1960s, appearing first in the Russian set Les nuits de Raspoutine (1960) and I cosacchi (1960) before playing the sly and scheming Ulysses in La guerra di Troia (1961) opposite fellow American Steve Reeves in the most genuinely epic of the lengthy series of 'sword and sandal' movies (known as the Peplum) that Italian studios produced after the global success of Reeves' earlier Le Fatiche di Ercole (1957). He played a wonderfully snake-like villain in Il conquistatore di Corinto (1961) and later a similar part in the horror themed Roma contro Roma (1964).

Barrymore's change of name had not however changed his attitudes and he was arrested in Rome for fighting, stating in an interview at the time, "I'm not a nice, clean-cut American kid at all. I'm just a human being. Those things just happen." He also married again, briefly, fathering a daughter. He travelled to Denmark in 1963 to film The Keeler Affair (1963) based on the Profumo Affair that had rocked British politics that same year, before returning to the US in 1964 where he was quickly in trouble again, being jailed for possessing cannabis. Film parts eluded Barrymore, but he did find occasional work on television, however when he no-showed his part as a dimensional traveller in The Alternative Factor, an episode of the original Star Trek (1966) series, he was suspended from the actor's guild for six months and soon disappeared from the acting scene entirely, spending time meditating in India and in isolation in the California desert.

On his return to Hollywood he gained a part thanks to his friend, David Carradine, in his Kung Fu (1972-5) television series, appearing in the murder mystery themed episode A Dream Within a Dream (1974). However, he was again convicted of cannabis possession and made just one more filmic appearance, in a brief uncredited role in Baby Blue Marine (1976). A turbulent relationship with Ildiko Jaid Mako saw the birth a daughter in 1975, the future actress Drew Barrymore. Her relationship with her father was particularly unsettled and after gaining notoriety for her drug use and wild lifestyle, she went into rehab at fifteen and wrote an autobiography entitled Little Girl Lost describing growing up with him as 'chaotic, and violent and scary' and telling how he would practice violent kung-fu moves on her at a very young age, in later years appearing only to beg for money from her mother. In 1991 Drew filed for emancipation and cut herself off completely. In his later years, Barrymore became a complete recluse as his mental and physical health declined, despite the seperation however, Drew paid his medical bills until he died of cancer in November 2004 which his daughter announced with a press statement 'He was a cool cat. Please smile when you think of him.'

DVD Reviews: Films starring John Drew Barrymore

Big Night (1951)

Optimum UK Region 2 DVD
A young John Barrymore Jr in one of his first roles in a well written Film Noir from director Joseph Losey.
Of interest to genre fans.
Conqueror of Corinth (1962)

Spanish Filmax Region 2 DVD
A superb performance from John Drew Barrymore is the highlight of this rather unremarkable historical Peplum.
Of interest to genre fans.
Roma Contro Roma (1964)

Blackhorse UK Region 2 DVD
A bizarre, horror themed Peplum is let down by a poor storyline and inadequate budget.
A curio, but not recommended.
The Trojan Horse (1961)

New Entertainment World Region 2 DVD
One of the biggest historical epics, boasting some solid direction and a fine central Steve Reeves performance.



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All text in this page written by Timothy Young - March 2010.
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