“Life as a child actor was not the way to grow up,” Darryl Hickman remembered. “My mother wanted to be a movie star. I was able to do what I guess she wasn’t able to do and fulfill her dream.”
In fact, his mother even named him after well-known studio head and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, known for The Longest Day, All About Eve, and The Grapes of Wrath.
“I think someone told him that. I met him on a couple of occasions, and he was very nice to me.”
Hickman began working as an actor at the age of six. He didn’t receive any formal acting training until later in life, but according to those in the business, that was to his benefit. Instruction would have gotten in the way of his natural instincts, and Hickman needed to be firing on all cylinders, especially working with the biggest names in Hollywood – John Ford, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, and more.
“I did three films with Shirley Temple, who I had a big crush on,” he said. Years later, he’d find out she had one on him too.
Despite his abnormal childhood, Hickman enjoyed the opportunities that his young career afforded him, which included spending time with Elizabeth Taylor and her National Velvet horse, playing catch with Cornel Wilde on the set of Leave Her to Heaven, and getting to play several different characters.
“When I was under contract, I was the resident juvenile actor, and they would put me in movies when they needed me. I really enjoyed making films as a kid,” he said. “It was Fox where I really started to be an actor because John Ford hired me to play Henry Fonda’s baby brother in The Grapes of Wrath. I knew I was watching a great actor.”
Another monumental film in his career was Keeper of the Flame, thanks to the combined talents he witnessed firsthand in director George Cukor and star Spencer Tracy.
“I had terribly difficult scenes to play with Spencer Tracy, and I didn’t know how to do it. George Cukor taught me the craft of acting in that film. He explained to me what I needed to do, and in doing that, he put that craft into me.”
Besides learning from the greats in front of the camera, Hickman also had the chance to learn about the business in a way that most don’t get to.
“Every crew that I worked with sort of took me under their wing. So by the time I was ten or eleven years old, I knew almost as much as most actors ever do about the technical side of filmmaking. And they were more than willing to tell me and help me.”
However, not every experience was an easy one. In fact, one in particular helped shape him and his future. That movie was Leave Her to Heaven.
“It ends up being in my memory the most difficult experience I ever had as a child actor,” he said.
“I was very athletic, and it was difficult to pretend that I was crippled.”
To prep for the role, he learned to walk with braces and visited children in the hospital who, like his character, were suffering from the effects of polio. The part was demanding, and it felt even harder when director John Stahl treated him poorly.
“The first day of shooting at Bass Lake, we kept rehearsing the scene over and over again. Now up to this time I had made 30 or 40 movies, and I never had any trouble,” he said. “I could not please John Stahl, and he kept apologizing to Gene Tierney for my inadequacies and why we had to keep doing it over again.”
In tears, Hickman went to his mother, who was on the set, and told her to pack, since he was sure that he was going to be fired. The opposite happened though.
When Zanuck saw Hickman’s scene, he sent a telegram, saying: “Drowning scene best piece of film I’ve seen in years. Congratulations.”
After that, Stahl treated Darryl kindly. Nevertheless, the experience had left a mark, becoming a rite of passage for the young actor.
“Leave Her to Heaven sticks out so strongly in my childhood as a turning point in a way, and it’s maybe when I started to grow up and stop feeling dependent on some authoritarian figure to help me. I had to take the responsibility as an actor for my own work. I couldn’t let the director take away my integrity as an artist.”
As he matured, Hickman took the opportunity to expand his expertise, taking up writing, then directing and producing, and finally, teaching. He studied Method acting, mime, and theater and developed his own technique for acting, which he now shares with others.
“I think I really wanted to find a better way because I had made all the mistakes,” he said. “We have the capacity to create in a higher way. That’s what we call art.”