Meet Minnesota’s Terry Kilburn: Hollywood’s 1st Tiny Tim

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — It is one of the most popular Christmas stories, dating back more than a century.

But there is a Minnesota connection that not many know.

The actor who played Tiny Tim in Hollywood’s first film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” calls Minneapolis home.

Terry Kilburn is now 90 years old. It was his small voice that led to a lasting change in one of Christmas’ scariest characters.

“I was generally cast as kind of a sweet kid,” Kilburn said.

But when you meet Kilburn, it is easy to see how he could melt the heart of Scrooge.

“Now we never dreamed that in 2016 people would be watching a movie that was shot in June of 1938,” Kilburn said.

By 1938, Kilburn had already been acting for a few years. He started in the movies in his birth city of London at the age of 8, when Kilburn’s father worked as a ticket taker for the local bus line.

“There was a lot of publicity about ‘Busman’s Son Becomes Hollywood Star [laughs]!'” Kilburn said. “So by the time I did ‘Christmas Carol,’ I was kind of a veteran.”

Kilburn was 11 when he was cast as Tiny Tim. He wore a leg brace and carried a crutch. But in the book, Charles Dickens never said what exactly was wrong with the character.

“It’s a mystery to me, too. I really don’t know,” Kilburn said.

What Kilburn does know is how hard it can be to watch the movie to this day. His director’s persistent words still play out in his head.

“When they would do a close up of me he would say, ‘OK Terry, let’s see those eyes looking at the Christmas goose.’ When I see it now I get a little embarrassed,” he said.

Then there is the story about the pain he caused his movie dad, Bob Cratchet — the man who carried Kilburn in so many scenes. He would go on to act with him for a second time later in life.

“He said, ‘Terry, I’m glad to work with you again but I’ve got to tell, you are responsible for all my back problems,'” he said.

After his acting days, Kilburn went on to direct. He ran a regional theater in Michigan before retiring and pursing his other passion: painting. He did it all alongside his partner of more than 50 years, Charles Nolte, an accomplished actor and Minnesotan. Nolte eventually came home to be a theater professor at the University of Minnesota.

“They say ‘Minnesota nice’ and they make fun of that, but it’s true,” Kilburn said. “People are nice, very nice here.”

It is why he has no problem calling this his home, and no trouble if it is only four words that he is remembered for saying.

“God bless us, everyone!” Kilburn said.

He still receives fan mail from around the world for his role as Tiny Tim. They tell him how they have grown up with the movie, and how it became a family tradition.

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