Athletic, dashing, and heroic onscreen, and a notorious bon vivant in his personal life, Errol Flynn ranked among Hollywood's most popular and highly paid stars from the mid-'30s through the early '40s, and his costume adventures thrilled audiences around the world. Unfortunately, a combination of hard-living, bad financial investments, and scandal brought Flynn's career to a tragic end in 1959.
He was born on the isle of Tasmania, the son of distinguished Australian marine biologist/zoologist Prof. Theodore Thomson Flynn. In school, Flynn was more drawn to athletics than academics and he was expelled from a number of exclusive Australian and British schools. At age 15, he found work as a shipping clerk in Sydney, and the following year he sailed to New Guinea to work in the government service, but the daily grind proved not to the adventuresome Flynn's taste, so he took off to prospect for gold. In 1930, Flynn returned to Sydney and purchased a boat, and he and three friends embarked upon a seven-month voyage to New Guinea. Upon arrival, Flynn became the overseer of a tobacco plantation and also wrote a column for the Sydney Bulletin.
Flynn's introduction to acting came via an Australian film producer who happened to see photographs of the extraordinarily good-looking young man and had him cast as Fletcher Christian in the low-budget docudrama In the Wake of the Bounty (1933). After a year of stage repertory acting to hone his dramatic skills, Flynn headed to London for film work. Attaining a contract at Warner Bros. in 1935, Flynn languished in tiny parts until star Robert Donat suddenly dropped out of the big-budget swashbuckler Captain Blood (1935). The studio took a chance on Flynn, and the result was overnight stardom. It was also during this year that Flynn married actress Lili Damita. Although he'd make stabs at modern-dress dramas and light comedies, Flynn was most effective in period costume films, leading his men "into the Valley of Death" in Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), trading swordplay and sarcasm with Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and even making the West safe for women and children in Dodge City (1939). At his romantic best onscreen, Flynn was king of the rouges, egotistically strutting before such damsels as Olivia de Havilland and Alexis Smith, arrogantly taunting them and secretly thrilling them with his sharp, often cynical wit and his muscular legs. But despite such rapscallion behavior, the ladies and his cohorts loved Flynn because, undisguised in his arresting blue eyes, they could see that he was a man of honor, passion, sincerity, and even a little vulnerability. Thus, an Errol Flynn adventure caused female fans to swoon and male fans to imagine themselves in his place.
By the early '40s, Flynn ranked among Warner Bros.' most popular and lucrative stars. It should come as no surprise that the actor, with his potent charisma and obvious zest for life onscreen, was no less a colorful character, albeit a less heroic one, offscreen. His antics with booze, young women, and brawling kept studio executives nervous, PR men busy, and fans titillated for years. In 1942, Flynn was brought up on statutory rape charges involving two teenage girls, but was acquitted. Such allegations could easily have destroyed a lesser star's career, but not in Flynn's case. Instead of finding his career in ruins, he found himself more popular than ever -- particularly with female fans. In fact, the matter inspired a new catch phrase: "In like Flynn." That same year, he divorced Damita. (The couple's son, actor Sean Flynn, a dead ringer for his father, worked as a photojournalist and war correspondent in Southeast Asia where he disappeared in 1970 and was presumed dead.)
But while Flynn's pictures continued to score at the box office, the actor, himself, was declining; already demoralized by his inability to fight in World War II due to a variety of health problems -- including recurring malaria, tuberculosis, and a bad heart -- Flynn's drinking and carousing increased, and, although he remained a loyal and good friend to his cronies, the actor's overall behavior became erratic. By the time he starred in The Adventures of Don Juan (1949) -- a role he could have done blindfolded ten years earlier -- Flynn was suffering from short-term memory loss and seemed unsure of himself. He divorced his second wife, Nora Eddington, in 1949 and the following year married actress Patrice Wymore. In 1952, Flynn appeared to have regained his former prowess (but for several injuries during production) in Against All Flags, but the success was short-lived. As his box-office appeal lessened and his debts grew larger, the increasingly bitter Flynn left for Europe to make a few films, including The Master of Ballantrae (1953) and Crossed Swords (1954). The latter was poorly received stateside, something Flynn blamed on the distributor's (United Artists) lack of promotion. The final blow for Flynn came when he lost his entire fortune on an ill-fated, never-completed attempt to film the story of William Tell. To cope with his pain and losses, Flynn took to the sea, sailing about for long periods in his 120-foot ocean-going sailboat, the Zaca.
Returning to Hollywood in 1956, Flynn made a final bid to recapture his earlier glory, offering excellent performances in The Sun Also Rises (1957), The Roots of Heaven (1958), and Too Much, Too Soon (1958). Ironically, in the latter film, Flynn played another self-destructive matinee idol, John Barrymore. Strapped for cash during this period, Flynn penned his memoirs, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, which were published after his death in 1959. It was Flynn's third book; the first two were Beam Ends (1937), a description of his voyage to New Guinea in the Scirocco, and Showdown (1946), a novel. His final film was the grade-Z Cuban Rebel Girls (1958), in which he appeared with his girlfriend at the time, 17-year-old Beverly Aadland. Four months after turning 50, Flynn's years of hard living caught up with him and he died of heart failure. According to the coroner's report, his body was so afflicted by various ailments that it looked as if it belonged to a much older man. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi