If you were a producer casting “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” that enduring study of small-town, Middle American life, where would you be least likely to look for your star?
The Bronx, perhaps.
Yet that, in 1937, is precisely where David O. Selznick — after a nationwide talent search that spanned nine months and thousands of boys — found the lead for his Hollywood film, released the next year, in the person of 12-year-old Tommy Kelly.
For his improbable turn as one of the nation’s best-loved literary characters, Tommy became a newspaper sensation — a stickball-playing Cinderella plucked from his modest East Bronx surroundings in the thick of the Depression and thrust onto the silver screen.
Mr. Kelly, who died on Jan. 26, at 90, was never especially keen on Hollywood: As he told the press, his only real ambition was to be an outfielder for the New York Giants. He appeared in a string of other films through 1950, but spent his adult life, happily, as a teacher and an educational administrator.
With his freckled face, tousled hair and devil-may-care grin, young Tommy certainly looked the part of Mark Twain’s hero, if he did not strictly sound it. Oh, he said “gosh” and “golly,” all right, as his many interviews attest. But he also confided to the press, when asked about his young co-star, Ann Gillis, who played Becky Thatcher: “You can’t trust dames. Girls are squealers. Look what happened to Dillinger.”
In Hollywood, Tommy spent an hour a day with a speech coach to de-Runyonize his diction.
The result, according to the critics, was remarkable.
“There should be an Academy Award for the man who mined Master Kelly,” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s reviewer wrote. “The lad is a miracle of casting, superlatively real and un-actorish, a youngster whose freckled, fresh face reflects all of Tom’s lovable qualities and who reminds us pleasantly, as Samuel Clemens hoped he would, of what we once were ourselves.”
The fourth of five children of Michael Kelly and the former Nora McDonald, Thomas Francis Kelly was born in the Bronx on April 6, 1925. Twelve years later, Oscar Serlin, a Broadway producer whom Mr. Selznick had conscripted as a local talent scout, visited St. Raymond, the Bronx parochial school where Tommy attended sixth grade.
Spotting Tommy, Mr. Serlin asked him if he could act.
“Not at all,” the boy replied.
“Not at all” was precisely what Mr. Selznick — who sought a lack of affectation conspicuously absent from child stars of the day — wanted. With a group of other boys, Tommy was dispatched to the principal’s study for a cold reading.
“So this Mr. Serlin wanted us to read something for him, and they didn’t have any books in the study but theological books with complicated words and not for a kid to read,” Tommy told a reporter afterward. “But we read a paragraph from one of the books and I pronounced the words by syllables even if I didn’t know what they meant.”
A few days later, he was taken to Paramount’s studios on Long Island for a screen test. The film was sent to Hollywood, where Mr. Selznick, who was reported to have tested 25,000 boys for the role, found his Tom.
Before long, a telegram arrived at the Kellys’ apartment on St. Raymond Avenue, summoning Tommy to Hollywood “in a Pullman car and everything,” he recalled. At the time, his father had been receiving assistance through the Works Progress Administration for two years.
By all accounts, Tommy enjoyed his work on the film, which was directed by Norman Taurog and also starred May Robson, Walter Brennan and Margaret Hamilton. But he was suitably unimpressed with the other back-lot children.
“Gee, they don’t know how to play stickball or anything,” he told The New York Times in 1938. “And at first they called me a sissy because I wore knee pants — until I punched one kid in the face. Give me the Bronx any day!”
For his work, Tommy was paid at least $100 a week — more than $1,600 today. His family relocated to California, and his father was placed on the studio payroll as an on-set security man.
Young Mr. Kelly’s other screen appearances include the title role in “Peck’s Bad Boy With the Circus” (1938) and small parts in “Gone With the Wind” (1939), “Irene” (1940), “Life Begins for Andy Hardy” (1941) and “The West Point Story” (1950).
After serving with the Army in Europe during World War II, Mr. Kelly earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Loyola University of Los Angeles (now Loyola Marymount University), followed by a master’s degree in educational administration from the University of Southern California and a doctorate in education from Michigan State University.
He taught high school English in Culver City, Calif., and was later an administrator for the Orange County, Calif., school system.
In the late 1960s, Mr. Kelly spent several years on the staff of the Peace Corps, overseeing educational volunteers in Liberia. He later directed international schools in Liberia and Venezuela and afterward helped administer overseas educational programs for the United States Department of Agriculture.
Mr. Kelly’s death, at his home in Greensboro, N.C., was confirmed by his family. His survivors include his wife, the former Susie Burch, whom he married in 1948; four sons, Kevin, Matt, Mark and Paul; two daughters, Eileen Yoshimoto and Ann Wiley; 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
In a newspaper interview shortly after he was cast as Tom, young Mr. Kelly appraised his newfound career with all the pragmatism of his 12 years.
“I don’t mind being an actor,” he said. “It’s a lot easier than arithmetic.”