Home > News & Advice > News Obituaries > In Like Errol Flynn

In Like Errol Flynn

by Legacy Staff

We look back at Australian bad boy Errol Flynn, whose life was at least as interesting as any character he ever played.

When Russell Crowe was cast as the lead in Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” some questioned whether Crowe’s bearish physique might be better suited to Little John or Friar Tuck. Our image of Robin Hood as a lean, lithe archer capable of leaping onto moving horses, fencing atop a narrow castle stairwell or swinging from improbably long draperies owes much to Errol Flynn (1909 – 1959), a fellow Australian bad boy who had a life at least as interesting as any character he played on screen.

Flynn was born in Tasmania, where his father worked as a biology professor. Though Flynn often claimed he was the descendant of a mutineer from the HMS Bounty, there’s little evidence to suggest the notion is anything but an attempt to explain his lifelong love of the sea. (In addition to appearing in ocean-themed movies like “Captain Blood” and “The Sea Hawk,” Flynn would spend much time in his waning years aboard his yacht.)


During his early life, Flynn showed evidence of both the fiery temperament and seductive charm that would later endear him to movie audiences and Hollywood tabloids alike. He was expelled from school for fighting and, on one occasion, engaging in dalliances with the daughter of the school laundress. Brimming with restless energy, he had already tried his hand at gold prospecting, copper mining, and running a tobacco plantation before he drifted into acting in 1933, appearing in the Australian film “In the Wake of the Bounty.”

Flynn then moved to Britain and joined a repertory company, but was there only six months before he caught the attention of Hollywood scouts and signed a contract with Warner Brothers. They gave him some decent roles in minor pictures, but Flynn didn’t hit his stride until landing the lead in the sea epic “Captain Blood.”

The high-seas adventure was Warner’s reaction to MGM’s successful “Mutiny on the Bounty” — which, coincidentally, was inspired by the same material that had launched Flynn’s career in Australia. Flynn backed into the lead in “Captain Blood” only after the preferred actor, Robert Donat, had withdrawn due to health problems. Flynn’s then-wife, Lili Damita — a good pal of studio boss Jack Warner’s wife — is widely thought to have used her influence to score the mostly unknown Flynn such a plum part.

“Captain Blood” was a big hit critically and commercially. In addition to establishing Flynn as a swashbuckling adventure hero and the “talkie” generation’s answer to silent star Douglas Fairbanks, the film also launched the pairing of Flynn with Olivia de Havilland. They would go on to make eight films together between 1935 and 1941, and remain one of the classic onscreen duos of golden age Hollywood. Tabloids of the time and later biographers tried to link them romantically, but de Havilland has steadfastly maintained their relationship was strictly platonic. Not that she wasn’t attracted to him — but he was married.

The inconvenience of marriage didn’t give Flynn much pause, and he quickly gained a rakish reputation, as recounted in his self-mythologizing, ghostwritten autobiography “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” (a book one contemporary critic describes as one of “the most compelling and appalling autobiographies written by a Hollywood star, or anyone else for that matter.”) During the 1940s, the ranch-style colonial mansion he built on eight acres atop Mulholland Drive — in those days, a Hollywood Hills location considered remote — served as both his retreat and party headquarters. Built with secret passageways, two-way mirrors, and peepholes, it was there he entertained leading ladies like Anne Sheridan, Linda Christian, Hedy Lamarr, and Ida Lupino. Mulholland Farm was also the setting of one the most notorious alleged pranks ever played in Hollywood, when director Raoul Walsh reputedly stole the body of John Barrymore while it was awaiting burial and propped up the corpse for Flynn to discover after returning home from a late night of drinking.

Another incident at the house would threaten to capsize Flynn’s career at its height.

In November 1942, Betty Hansen came forward to accuse Flynn of raping her at a party at his mansion when she was underage. She was joined by Peggy Satterlee, who claimed to have experienced similar treatment aboard Flynn’s yacht the previous year. The charges were heard at a single trial in 1943, and Flynn was acquitted on all counts by a jury that included nine women. He also spent much of the trial’s downtime flirting with 18-year-old court clerk Nora Eddington, who would shortly thereafter become his second wife (Damita had divorced him after seven years of marriage).

Comedian Fatty Arbuckle had undergone a similarly sensational acquittal some 20 years previously and had become blacklisted by Hollywood as a result. Flynn’s career suffered no such fate — with some even positing that the trial helped cement his reputation as Tinseltown’s leading ladies man. Flynn would later weather accusations of being unpatriotic for not enlisting in the war while choosing to play soldiers onscreen (in fact, Flynn had been rejected by the military for health reasons), and for being a Communist sympathizer due to his friendship with Fidel Castro and support of the Cuban Revolution.

Increasingly frustrated with roles he viewed as one dimensional, Flynn bankrolled a version of William Tell where he was to play the titular star (it would have been the first movie ever completed in CinemaScope). But eight weeks into shooting, the other backers pulled out, leaving the film incomplete and Flynn in financial ruin.

By the 1950s, his reckless lifestyle had caught up with him. “I’ve a zest for living,” he once admitted, “but twice an urge to die.” Alcohol and drug abuse had left his once handsome face bloated, and directors couldn’t count on him to make it to the set on time or remember his lines. He achieved a couple of critical successes portraying other middle-aged dissolutes (in “Too Much, Too Soon” and “The Sun Also Rises”), but spent much of his time in Europe, at his home in Jamaica or sailing around on his yacht.

He was in Vancouver, Canada in October 1959, trying to sell the boat, when he died of a heart-attack after a week-long binge. He was 50. In an autobiography ghostwritten by Earl Conrad and published within weeks of Flynn’s death, its ruminative subject summed up his life thusly: “I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I wouldn’t change any of it, not for a minute.”

Originally published October 2009

More Stories