Tommy Kelly, Who Played a Hollywood Tom Sawyer, Dies at 90


Tommy Kelly and Ann Gillis in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (1938).

United Artists, via Photofest

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.

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Tommy Kelly in ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’

The 12-year-old was selected after a nationwide talent search that spanned nine months and thousands of boys.