Billy Chapin, who as a child actor held his own against Robert Mitchum’s murderous preacher in Charles Laughton’s brilliant The Night of the Hunter, died Friday following a lengthy illness. His death was announced by his sister Lauren Chapin, the former child actress who costarred in TV’s classic family sitcom Father Knows Best.
“It is with a saddened heart that I say ‘Good Bye’ to my precious brother Billy Chapin, wonderful Star of Movies, Television and Radio,” Lauren Chapin posted on Facebook. “He passed away last night after a long illness but now is in the arms of his Savior.”
In addition to Hunter, Billy Chapin (born William McClellan Chapin) starred in The Kid From Left Field and Tension At Table Rock, among many other films. His many TV credits include Leave It To Beaver and The Millionaire.
Chapin was born in Los Angeles on December 28, 1943, and with the support of his mother Marquerite Alice Barringer, became a child actor along with his sister Lauren (who played little Kathy “Kitten” Anderson on Father) and Michael (who had many roles in TV westerns and an uncredited appearance as one of young George Bailey’s friends in It’s a Wonderful Life).
“Billy was a wonderful brother to both Michael and me,” Lauren wrote. “And he made us proud of all the great films he was in: Night of the Hunter, A Man Called Peter, Kid From Left Field, Tension at TableRock, No Business Like Show Business just to name a few! He will be greatly missed.”
Billy Chapin appeared on Broadway in 1951 in Three Wishes for Jamie, which earned him the N.Y. Drama Critics Award as the most promising young actor of the year. The following year Chapin starred in a TV presentation of Paul Osborn’s play On Borrowed Time, and then made his feature film debut in 1953’s baseball film The Kid from Left Field, opposite Dan Dailey, Anne Bancroft and Lloyd Bridges.
But Chapin, personally chosen by director Laughton, will be remembered for his stoic, haunted performance as John Harper in 1955’s chilling Night of the Hunter, with the little boy and his sister Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce) hunted across the countryside by Mitchum’s hymn-singing swindler with “love” and “hate” tattooed on his fists. In the film, Mitchum murders John’s mother (Shelley Winters), dumps her in a lake and then follows the money-toting runaway kids through river, field and finally to a small-town foster home run by the kindly, shotgun-wielding matron (Lillian Gish).
The United States Library of Congress selected Hunter in 1992 for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Billy Chapin’s acting career ended after his childhood successes in the ’50s. In her autobiography, Lauren Chapin wrote about the alcohol and drug problems both she and Billy overcame in young adulthood.