John Drew Barrymore, 72; Troubled Heir to the Throne of the Royal Family of Acting

Times Staff Writer

John Drew Barrymore, whose name and ancestry were far better known than his own credits in the acting profession that made his family famous, has died. He was 72.

Barrymore, the father of actress Drew Barrymore, died Monday in Los Angeles of undisclosed causes.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 5, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 05, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Barrymore survivors -- An obituary of John Drew Barrymore in Wednesday’s California section omitted two of his children from the list of survivors. He is also survived by daughters Jessica and Blyth Barrymore.

“He was a cool cat. Please smile when you think of him,” the actress said in a statement released by her publicist.


In her memoir, “Little Girl Lost,” however, the actress who battled alcoholism as a teenager offered a blunter appraisal of her absent father, who had a long list of brushes with the law prompted by alcohol, drug abuse and violence. “The little bit of relationship that there was,” she wrote, “was very abusive and just chaotic.”

Born in Los Angeles on June 4, 1932, he was the son of legendary actor John Barrymore, nicknamed “the Profile,” and his third wife, actress Dolores Costello, and the nephew of Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. Named John Blythe Barrymore Jr., he was only 18 months old when his parents separated and rarely saw his celebrated father.

Following his education in private schools, he made his screen debut at age 18, credited as John Barrymore Jr., in two films, “The Sundowners” and “High Lonesome.” He made five more films under that name without living up to the expectations attached to the family.

By the mid-1950s, Barrymore had landed in jail several times on charges of speeding, drunk driving and violent quarrels with his first wife, actress Cara Williams. He was suspended for a year by Actors Equity.

Hoping to improve his image, in 1958 he changed his name to John Drew Barrymore, substituting one family name, Drew, for the other of Blythe.

He employed the new billing in the films “High School Confidential!” and “Never Love a Stranger,” but the new name did not seem to help. So he went to Italy for six years and played leading roles in a dozen low-budget, equally low-quality films.


Wherever he lived, he continued to exhibit a volatile temper. In 1962, after a series of street brawls in Rome, he told Associated Press: “I’m not a nice, clean-cut American kid at all. I’m just a human being. Those things just happen.”

After his return to Los Angeles in 1964, he went to jail again, this time for possession of marijuana.

Barrymore continued acting sporadically, but the most productive period of his career had ended. None of his work attracted a fraction of the praise accorded his father, aunt, uncle or his young daughter.

Inheriting a treasure trove of family photos, journals, movie stills and letters when his mother died in 1979, Barrymore urged a friend, Carol Stein Hoffman, to turn the archives into a coffee table book. Her effort, “The Barrymores: Hollywood’s First Family,” was published in 2001.

Besides his daughter, who is the child of his third marriage, Barrymore is survived by his son, John Barrymore III, from his first marriage.