August 5, 1918– He was born as Alfred Sinclair Alderdice in Brooklyn. At some point in his stage career and after several other name changes, he landed on Tom Drake as his professional moniker. You may not have heard of him, but Drake made many films beginning in 1940 and continuing in to the mid-1970s. He also had many a guest shot on television series.
Drake was a deeply closeted gay guy and he was easily given to despair. He was never known to have had a serious romance, although he bedded both Rock Hudson and James Dean. As an adult he lived with a profound drinking problem and he lived a life of fear with having his gayness found out. Sound familiar?
1942 and 1943 were years of tremendous change at MGM. Most of the great Golden Age stars groomed by Head of Production, Irving Thalberg, during the 1930s had left the studio. Clark Gable, Robert Taylor, Mickey Rooney, Robert Montgomery, and James Stewart had joined the US Army, Air Force or Navy and were absent from Hollywood during WW II. Greta Garbo and Norma Shearer walked away from the business. Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Eleanor Powell, Myrna Loy, and Margaret Sullivan fulfilled their contracts and then signed with other studios, worked as independents, or moved to work on Broadway.
The greatest of stars were being replaced by young, fresh, wholesome “boy and girl next door” types: June Allyson, Van Johnson, Robert Walker, Esther Williams and Tom Drake. Drake was enormously popular with teenage filmgoers for a couple of years, but he was eventually overshadowed by the smoother Van Johnson.
Drake did appear in more than 40 films, doing good work in Mrs. Parkington (1944) and The Green Years (1946). He was put into Words And Music, the most expensive MGM production of 1948. Ironically, Drake was cast as the very heterosexual composer Richard Rodgers opposite Mickey Rooney’s Lorenz Hart, the lyricist who was gay in real life. He is actually good in the role, but the film is overproduced and purports to tell the life stories of the famous songwriting partners with a screenplay that is 100% fictional.
Words And Music does contain some of Rodgers’ and Hart’s great songs: My Heart Stood Still, The Lady Is A Tramp, and Where Or When taken from their best Broadway shows: Babes In Arms, Pal Joey, and On Your Toes. MGM stars perform the various musical numbers, including: Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne and Cyd Charisse. These great stars’ take on those songs make this film worth viewing, but the screenplay got the story all wrong.
Drake had his best role as John Truett, the boy next door, in Vincente Minnelli’s classic musical film Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) opposite his friend Judy Garland.
Drake returned to the stage in 1952, appearing briefly on Broadway and touring in the WW II comedy Stalag 17. Elizabeth Taylor, always helping out her gay friends, used her clout at MGM and had him cast as her brother in Raintree County (1957).
Later that year Drake went to England for a starring part in the film Dare With Disaster (also the title of a chapter in my memoirs). He remained in Europe, living most of the time in Rome. Drake returned to California with his alcohol problem totally out of control and smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. Yet by the mid-1960s, a determined Drake somehow managed to kick both habits. He continued his career by working in telelvision with the occasional film role too: The Sandpiper (1965) with his pal Elizabeth Taylor, The Singing Nun (1966) and The Red Tomahawk (1967).
Drake never seemed to live up to his early potential, but he continued into the 1970s doing small roles in prestige pictures, the occasional lead in a low-budget film, along with guest-spots on television series in almost every year between 1950 and 1980.
A classic example of how a talented actor could fall between the cracks of the studio contract system, Drake spent a few of his final years with a job as a used car salesman, but as his health slipped, and he had to give up working altogether. He was taken by pneumonia, alone and mostly forgotten, in a tiny apartment in Torrance, California in 1982.
An anecdote: Drake loved garlic. The garlic caused a problem while making a film with Donna Reed. Drake had consumed a dinner heavy with garlic the previous night and the first shot of the morning called for him to be romantic with Reed, dancing and singing softly in her ear. Reed strenuously objected to the strong odor that seemed to exude from Drake’s every pore. It made her physically ill. Production was suspended for the day and Drake was ordered not to ever eat garlic again until the film wrapped. Reed forgave Drake, joking about the incident. They remained friends the rest of their lives, even dining out on occasion.