David Holt, 76; Ex-Child Actor Known for Supporting Roles

Times Staff Writer

David Holt, a former child actor once touted by Paramount Pictures as the "male Shirley Temple" but who is best remembered for supporting roles such as the bratty Sidney Sawyer in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," has died. He was 76.

Holt, who also played Elizabeth Taylor's older brother in "Courage of Lassie" and later had a career as a jazz musician and songwriter, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home in San Juan Capistrano.

Born in Jacksonville, Fla., on Aug. 14, 1927, Holt was a 5-year-old dance school student in 1933 when an audition was arranged for him with humorist Will Rogers. Afterward, Rogers told Holt and his mother that if they were ever in Hollywood to look him up and he would get the boy in pictures.

After that promise, Holt's father quit his job with the Ford Motor Co. and the family drove west. But when they arrived in Hollywood, Rogers refused to see them, said film historian Michael Fitzgerald, a friend of Holt's.

With jobs at a premium during the Depression, Holt's father was unable to find work and the family was forced for a time to eat in soup kitchens. "His father dug ditches and literally did anything, because they were destitute," Fitzgerald said.

Fortunately, the 6-year-old David quickly landed a part of sorts -- as a body double for Cheetah in "Tarzan the Fearless," starring Buster Crabbe. Clad in a chimpanzee costume, he climbed a tree and, Fitzgerald said, "did whatever the chimp didn't want to do."

Holt and his mother made the rounds of casting calls in the same car with the mothers of two other fledgling young performers: Shirley Temple and Jane Withers. Temple famously struck it big at Fox Studios, and for a time it looked as if Holt would follow suit.

His first important role -- as a boy whose mother dies in "You Belong To Me," a 1934 Paramount tear-jerker -- prompted executives to sign him to a long-term contract.

With typical Hollywood hyperbole, Holt was promoted as "the finest child actor ever to appear on the screen and is said to threaten Shirley Temple's throne as the 'wonder kid of the screen.' "

On loan to MGM, Holt landed what would have been a star-making role, the title role in "David Copperfield."

He worked on the 1935 film for two weeks, in scenes with W.C. Fields as Micawber. But when British child actor Freddie Bartholomew became available, Fitzgerald said, Holt was replaced because producer David O. Selznick "feared an adverse reaction to having an American child play such a famous British child role."

Veteran Paramount producer A.C. Lyles, a Holt family friend, told The Times this week that Selznick had thought that Holt "was a big, huge find. He was a handsome young kid, and he was very good." And although Holt never became a big name like Temple, Lyles said, "He was a well-known young actor and they used him a lot."

Fitzgerald said Holt's role as Sidney Sawyer in Selznick's production of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1938) haunted him for years: Schoolchildren wanted to fight the boy who had played the annoying Sidney. But, Fitzgerald said, they quickly discovered that Holt was as good a "pugilist" as he was an actor.

Holt, who appeared in "The Big Broadcast of 1936," played one of the children in the 1939 classic "Beau Geste," and he was one of the original six Jivin' Jacks (of the dancing Jivin' Jacks and Jills) in Universal's "What's Cookin'?" (1942).

He also had roles in "The Human Comedy" (1943) and "Pride of the Yankees" (1942) -- as the teenage version of the crippled boy for whom Lou Gehrig (Gary Cooper) hit a home run.

Holt continued working in films and television until the mid-1950s. As a composer, he wrote numerous jazz albums, many featuring Pete Jolley. An early Christmas song, "The Christmas Blues," which he co-wrote with Sammy Cahn, was heard on the soundtrack of the 1997 film "L.A. Confidential."

Holt's younger sister, Betty, was briefly under contract to Paramount in the mid-1930s. A younger brother, Ricky, played Olivia De Havilland's infant son in "Gone With the Wind." In recent years, Holt had been working on his autobiography, "The Holts of Hollywood."

In addition to his brother and sister, he is survived by his children, Lamont Wilson, Janna Ryer, Hayley Martin and Tina Cardiel; and seven grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at South Coast Christian Assembly Church, 31501 Avenida Los Cerritos, San Juan Capistrano.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Saturday November 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction David Holt obituary -- The obituary in Friday's California section on former child actor David Holt misspelled the name of jazz pianist Pete Jolly as Jolley.
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