William Paul Petersen was born in Glendale, California. His parents, and his two grandfathers, were all employed at Lockheed. Though not a show business family, his dad had been an elephant handler for the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the thirties. Paul was the middle child of three. He and his older sister Pamela had taken dancing, singing, and piano lessons for four years before he auditioned for the show. His much younger sister Patti would also become a child actor, appearing on The Donna Reed Show in the sixties with her older brother.
Paul had started appearing in recitals from age five; his first television part came on a local amateur variety show called Rocket To Stardom. Paul heard about the auditions through his dance instructor Sally Sargeant, and both he and his older sister tried out for the show, doing tap routines. Paul also sang I Got Plenty o' Nuthin'.
||Paul has described his experiences (as he remembers them) on the Mickey Mouse Club in his 1977 book Walt, Mickey, and Me. There really wasn't much to tell; he did one Circus Day show, one Guest Star Day show, went to a pool party at someone's house, and that was about it. Paul says he lasted three weeks, being hired June 13, 1955.
Though he remembers being at Disneyland on opening day, he apparently thought it was after he had already been dismissed, and didn't recall being in the lineup. With his long post-MMC career, Paul may have found it difficult to remember exactly when he worked at the Disney Studio. Filming for the show began in May 1955, at which time all the auditioning had been completed. It seems likely Paul started much earlier than he thought. He probably was called in for the standard two week tryout in May, then signed a formal one-year contract dated in June. All told, he likely worked at the studio for six to eight weeks.
After Paul's dismissal for punching the casting director (how many actors have longed to do this?), he went right into other television shows, doing The Ford Television Theatre and The George Sanders Mystery Theater. He also made four films from 1956-58, including Houseboat with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren. He then landed his best known role, as Jeff Stone, on The Donna Reed Show, which he played from 1958 up to 1966. He was a major teen idol for most of this time, appearing in all the fan magazines, and even cutting a few single recordings, one of which was declared the worst record of 1963.
His clean-cut image worked against him in the later sixties, and his work as an actor gradually dried up. A life-long racing aficionado, he owned a variety of expensive sports cars, all of which he lost, along with much of his wealth, in a personal meltdown in 1970. His first marriage, to actress Brenda Benet, also collapsed at this point, and Paul moved from Los Angeles to the East Coast to start over. He entered college, married Hallie Littman, and received degrees in English and History. He wrote action novels to support himself, churning out at least sixteen books altogether. But after fathering two children with his second wife, he again suffered a personal crisis that ended his second marriage and brought him back to the west coast.
Around 1990 he channeled his tremendous energy into an organization for advocating the welfare of children in the entertainment industry. Called A Minor Consideration, it served as a gadfly, forcing the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) to take a more proactive stance on issues dealing with child entertainers. He has since married a third time, to Rana Jo Platz, and maintains a personal web site where you can read about his lifelong passion for auto racing.