Tommy Kelly, Star of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,' Dies at 90

Tommy Kelly - H 2016
United Artists/Photofest

Ann Gillis with Tommy Kelly in 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.'

Then a 12-year-old from the Bronx, he was picked by producer David O. Selznick to play the boy in the adaptation of Mark Twain's 1876 novel.

Tommy Kelly, who starred as the mischievous Missouri boy immortalized by Mark Twain in David O. Selznick’s 1938 film The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, has died. He was 90.

Kelly, who was done in Hollywood by the time he turned 25, died Jan. 26 of congestive heart failure at home in Greensboro, N.C., his son, Matt, told The Hollywood Reporter.

The famed producer Selznick handpicked the freckle-faced Kelly, then a 12-year-old student at a Catholic school in the Bronx, to play Tom in the United Artists film. Legend has it that 25,000 youngsters from around the country had auditioned.

Kelly then starred as the title character Billy Peck in Peck’s Bad Boy With the Circus (1938) and cried on camera as a youngster with a Confederate band in Selznick’s Gone With the Wind (1939). 


The son of a fireman, Kelly and his family relocated to Los Angeles in 1936 for the filming of Tom Sawyer. He later appeared in such films as Curtain Call (1940), Military Academy (1940), Irene (1940), Double Date (1941), Life Begins for Andy Hardy (1941), The Beginning or the End (1947), The West Point Story (1950) and The Magnificent Yankee (1950).

Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in Europe during World War II. After his Hollywood days, he earned a Ph.D. from Michigan State and was a high school teacher and counselor in Culver City and an administrator in the Orange County school system.

He then accepted an assignment as a Peace Corps administrator in Monrovia, Liberia, and served as superintendent of international schools in Liberia and Venezuela. He returned to the States and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington. 

Survivors include his wife of 67 years, Susie; children Ann, Matt (and wife Kathy), Eileen (and husband Wally), Kevin (and wife Patricia), Mark (and wife Gail) and Paul (and wife Teresa); 12 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. 

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