‘50s child star Beverly Washburn recalls filming Disney’s ‘Old Yeller’: ‘It destroyed’ grown men

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EXCLUSIVE: Beverly Washburn has always had a gift for crying on cue – and now she’s sharing the stories behind those tears.

The former child star is gearing up to present “Beverly Washburn’s Hollywood,” a lecture where she’ll share TV and movie clips, along with stories from her time appearing in more than 500 classic TV shows and films. Washburn hopes to kick off the event sometime this year. The actress previously released a memoir titled “Reel Tears: The Beverly Washburn Story,” which details her Hollywood upbringing.

Fox News spoke to the 77-year-old about starring in Disney’s “Old Yeller,” the cult classic “Spider Baby,” as well as her favorite co-stars from Hollywood’s golden era.  

Beverly Washburn embarked on a decades-long career when she was just 4 years old.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Fox News: As a child star, you were famous for your ability to cry on cue. How did you manage that?
Beverly Washburn: I don’t know *laughs*. It’s funny because it seems like almost every role that I ever did, I had to cry. I guess I’ve always been a little bit overly sensitive so it was easy for me to cry. And you just immerse yourself in the situation and what the character was feeling, so I couldn’t help but cry. I pretended that whatever I was filming was actually happening to me and it brought on the tears. 

I just became known as the child actor who cried and made everyone else cry, too! And they were real tears, too. Back then if they needed you to cry for a scene, they would blow something weird in your eyes that would cause you to tear up. Fortunately for me, I never experienced that. 

Fox News: How did you manage to survive the trauma that is “Old Yeller”?
Washburn: *Laughs* I never really understood how they showed that movie in grammar school so many times. I always thought it was so traumatic for children to see. I’ve always been an animal lover, so I was thrilled to get the part because we got to work with a real dog. His name was Spike and he was a rescue who was taken out of a shelter. He could do all these amazing tricks and was so great. He was really easy to work with. But even now, grown men approach me at conventions and tell me how they can’t watch that film anymore because it destroyed them!

Beverly Washburn said she’s still friends with ‘Old Yeller’ co-star Tommy Kirk.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Fox News: What was your relationship like with co-star Tommy Kirk?
Washburn: We’re still great friends. He and I are the only two living people from that movie. We get together periodically. He’s a bachelor and I’m a widow. We don’t date, he’s gay. *laughs* But he and I are like best friends. He’ll come to dinner many times.

I remember at one convention, I spoke about our friendship and this little girl in the front row raised her hand. She said, “That boy you’re talking about, he shot Old Yeller?” I said, “Yes.” And she goes, “Well, how can you still be friends?!” *laughs* So I had to explain to her that he really didn’t shoot him. But I’ve heard it all. 

Fox News: What was your experience like with Walt Disney?
Washburn: Somebody once told me, “What’s up with Walt Disney? Did he not like animals? Look at Bambi!” The truth was he was an animal lover and very nice. He would come on the set and watch us film. He was very quiet and never interfered. He was always a gentleman. His philosophy was everybody had a job to do and he let them do it. He would never tell somebody how to do their job. So he would come on set and just watch, smile and say hello to everybody.

Beverly Washburn said she was eager to work with animals before taking on ‘Old Yeller.’
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Fox News: You also worked with Kirk Douglas. What was that like?
Washburn: He was so nice to me. I didn’t realize who Kirk Douglas was because when you’re 8 years old, you don’t have that same concept. But I remember my parents were so thrilled that I got to work with him and I loved it. It wasn’t until I became an adult and realized how blessed I was to work with someone like Kirk Douglas. 

Beverly Washburn and Kirk Douglas worked together in 1953’s ‘The Juggler.’
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Many years later I did “The Streets of San Francisco” and his son Michael Douglas was in it. That was also another wonderful experience. He was so kind and got a kick out of me telling him that I worked with his dad as a child. He wa very sweet, calm and just a dear. I’m grateful I had the chance to work with father and son. 

Fox News: Who was your favorite actor or actress to work with and why?
Washburn: I know it sounds cliché, but I’ve been so blessed that it’s hard to pinpoint my favorites. But I can tell you my top three: Jack Benny, Loretta Young and Lou Costello. I had a personal relationship with them and stayed in touch up until they died. Loretta Young was like a second mother. She was just genuine and so down to earth. She had a show called “Letters to Loretta,’ which was based on actual letters that fans would write to her. And the screenplay writers wrote stories around them. After a while, it became known as “The Loretta Young Show.”

Beverly Washburn said one of her favorite actors to work with was Lou Costello.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

I did three or four episodes and we stayed in touch after that. And years later, she was doing another show where she was playing a widow with seven children. She called me personally at home and asked me to be one of her children in the series. And it was such a thrill for me. It was a short-lived series, but we stayed in touch until she died. I remember she would do these really sweet things. My husband was sadly dying from cancer and whenever I would go to the mailbox, there was always something from her. I remember one time there was a crystal dove. She would invite us to dinner and we spoke every Sunday. 

I remember one time, she said, “Why don’t you and your husband come and stay with me?” She was in Palm Springs at the time. I thought it was just wonderful, but my husband wasn’t really feeling well. I always thought we would have time, but then she passed away. It was a lesson learned. In life, especially as you get older, you can’t put things off because you don’t know how many chances you’ll get. You only get one life to live and it’s hard to live with regrets. That’s one regret I have.

Beverly Washburn befriended numerous old Hollywood stars on set.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Fox News: What about Jack Benny?
Washburn: I remember I did a skit with him and of course, I was too young to get any of the jokes. I just learned my dialogue. If you watch that skit today, you’ll notice that he kind of stuttered a little bit. He later told me that it was because he was so nervous. This was live and we had rehearsed it, but never with an audience. And it was his fear that he would be in front of the audience and suddenly forget his lines, which would throw me off. He was very nervous because it was a one-shot deal. But fortunately, it all went smoothly. I worked with him several times after that. He kind of took me under his wing. He was probably one of the most generous people I’ve ever known in my life.

Beverly Washburn said Jack Benny became a family friend.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

I remember when my dad was in the hospital, Jack Benny actually sent over his personal physician to look after him at his own expense. And he didn’t do this for publicity or to be told he’s wonderful. In fact, nobody knew except my family. It just came from his heart. And he gave me this beautiful St. Christopher that’s engraved. I’ll treasure that until I die. He was also so down-to-earth and funny. He was patient with me and just an amazing man. I was fortunate to have someone like him in my life.

Fox News: And there’s Lou Costello.
Washburn: I was so thrilled to meet him because I was a huge fan of Abbott and Costello. I played an orphan in “The Tobias Jones Story” from “Wagon Train.” He was so much fun to work with. He later was kind enough to mention my name in a book because he had never done a serious role before. He said, “There was a little girl that I worked with by the name of Beverly Washburn and I couldn’t have done it without her.” That just touched my heart so much. I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of terrific, kind people.

Fox News: How did you escape the so-called child star curse we often hear about?
Washburn: I was fortunate. First of all, it had to do with my upbringing. My parents were always supportive and kind. They made sure I was always having fun. And they made sure that I did my chores at home *laughs*. They made sure it never got to my head. They taught me that this profession didn’t make me any better than anyone else. And if I ever wanted to stop, I could. I was never forced. And if I didn’t get a part at an audition, they were just as supportive and encouraging. 

Beverly Washburn said her upbringing made it easy to survive in Hollywood. She would appear in more than 500 classic TV shows and films.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

And a lot of child actors, unfortunately, get pigeonholed into one role and then it’s harder to find other parts because they’re just known for one character. I was lucky because my parents made sure I did all kinds of parts to keep things interesting and fun for me. 

Fox News: You later did “Spider Baby,” which is now a cult classic.
Washburn: *Laughs* That film had a very tiny budget… When I learned that Lon Chaney Jr. was also doing it, I just thought “This would be fun.”… But the script was so bizarre, quirky and unlike anything I’ve ever done. [Co-star] Jill Banner was wonderful. She sadly was killed in an automobile accident not too long after the film. But she was just terrific and we had so much fun. I think we filmed the entire thing in 13 days and then it just sat there… I was never privy to what exactly happened, but there was some kind of litigation and the film was never released. 

Beverly Washburn was able to take on more challenging roles over the years.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

I remember Lon Chaney Jr. loved doing his part and he was wonderful, too. Sadly he never got to see it. It’s so unfortunate because he and Jill were just so terrific. But it was Quentin Tarantino, a friend of [director] Jack Hill, who was instrumental in getting it released. He saw “Spider Baby” and absolutely loved it. And all of a sudden, it came out and developed a huge popularity. I still get fan mail for that film. 

Beverly Washburn said she’s still surprised that 1967’s ‘Spider Baby’ became a cult classic.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Jack Hill was a very nice man, very quiet and soft-spoken. He didn’t say too much. I remember we did a convention a couple of years together and there was a huge turnout. Afterward, we participated in this Q&A for a podcast or local TV show. The moderator turned to Jack and went, “‘Spider Baby’ is just an odd, quirky film… I’m curious, how did it come about?” Jack, in his very quiet voice, said, “Well, I was smoking a lot of weed back then.” *Laughs* And I just thought, “That explains it!” 

Beverly Washburn today.
(Photo courtesy of Beverly Washburn)

Fox News: What’s life like for you today?
Washburn: I still keep as busy as possible. But I’m just in awe of my life when I look back on it. You don’t appreciate it as a child because you’re just doing a part. But I have so many wonderful memories. I’m grateful, really. And I’m thankful I can share them with people today. 

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