RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES. (FROM NOVEMBER 2009)
By Nick Thomas
Best known for his
swashbuckling roles in films such as The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain
Blood, and The Sea Hawk, or as the dashing hero in war adventures and westerns,
Errol Flynn appeared in some 50 movies during his short 16 year career in
Hollywood. This year is the centenary of Flynn’s birth in Tasmania, the southern island
state of Australia. So you can bet Errol Flynn fans are whooping it up big,
down under. In fact, a chunk of June and July was set aside in the city of
Hobart, Flynn’s home town, to celebrate Tasmania’s most famous Hollywood son.
Special guests at the celebrations were Flynn’s daughter, Rory, and grandson
Rory Flynn was just 12 when her father died which, as it turns out, was exactly
50 years ago this year too. She recently wrote about memories of her dad in
“The Baron of Mulholland: A daughter Remembers Errol Flynn.” Rory inherited
just a handful of items from her father, as most of Flynn’s estate went to his
third wife. But earlier this year, Rory visited Tasmania and gave all her Flynn
memorabilia, including love letters from her dad to her mom, to the Tasmanian
museum for display.
Since any discussion of the Flynn clan is complicated by three marriages, let’s
sort that out first: Errol married three times. First to French actress Lili
Damita (one son, Sean, a photojournalist who went missing during the Vietnam
war, and was never found); second to Nora Eddington (two daughters, Deirdre and
Rory who had one son, also named Sean); third to actress Patrice Wymore (separated
from Flynn but never divorced, and lived on Flynn’s old plantation in Jamaica;
one daughter Arnella who died in 1998 who had one son, Luke). So the Errol
Flynn lineage lies with two grandsons, Sean and Luke.
CR: How did you get involved in the centenary festivities?
There’s a big fan club down there, the Errol Flynn Society of Tasmania. They
started organizing this a couple of years ago and asked me to come down.
CR: Nice to see that Errol Flynn was recognized by the Aussies!
It’s great that Tasmania - and Australia - are honoring their native son this
year, because Hollywood isn’t. They’re much more involved in their current
stars, whereas Europe and other parts of the world are very considerate towards
the older stars.
CR: What did it mean to you to visit Tasmania?
Well, I actually feel like I’ve brought my dad home. That’s where his roots are
and they love him and honor him there. I think the people there understand that
my father was an extraordinary man. I have also learned more about my roots. My
grandfather was a very interesting man and is still well-known down there.
There’s a street named after him, he was the curator of the museum for 6 years,
and he was a professor of biology. They say my grandmother was a direct
descendant of midshipman Edward Young, of the HMS Bounty. So I feel like I’ve
come home too.
CR: What are some of your earliest memories of your father?
When I was around five, I used to lie on a bearskin rug in his den and I would
fall asleep to the sound of his writing - the scratching of his pen. He was
always writing. He was writing his autobiography from a very early age, and
other books, documentaries and newspaper articles. I grew up with him until I
was about 7, then after my parents separated I would see him several times a
year. Those visits became huge. He was really big about spending quality time
with us when he could.
CR: Did you know how sick he was towards the end of his life?
No, my mom didn’t tell us about it. We know now that shortly before he died, he
told my mother that he was only given a year to live, but he only made it three
more months. His liver was shot, he had tuberculosis, malaria, terrible back
problems - and there he was, still swashbuckling all over the place to the end.
CR: What do you think made your dad stand out as an actor?
I think he bridged the gap between actors playing the tough American cowboy
type who were simple and direct, and the European actors with sophisticated
dialogue, like Leslie Howard. My dad was able to be that action hero, and still
hold an intelligent conversation. No one had really done that before.
CR: In his 20s, Flynn sailed up the east coast of Australia to New Guinea where he
had all sorts of real-life adventures, as recounted in his book, “Beam Ends.”
Did that period of his life influence his acting?
Absolutely. This early period formed who he was.He was who he was by the time he got to
Hollywood - he was that “Tasmanian Devil” and he brought that to his films.
CR: We all know women loved him. But men thought he was pretty cool too. Why?
I think one of the things that intrigued men was that he did what he damn well
pleased! He was able to do that because he was a fully formed, independent,
Aussie-spirited man before he started acting. He brought an independence and a
life of adventures to Hollywood. Most actors come to Hollywood “naked,” they
just don’t have those experiences. Dad always did what he wanted, when he
wanted. And when he didn’t like something, he took off on his boat. There
wasn’t a man alive who didn’t envy that!
CR: His boat, “The Zaca,” had a long history including being requisitioned by the
US Navy during World War II. As I understand it, after he died your dad’s
lawyer got the Zaca, and it was later stripped down and left in a bad state
sitting at a dock for years. What happened to it?
It is now restored and a tourist attraction in the South of France.
(See “In the Wake of the Zaca” by clicking here)
CR: Shortly before she died, your mother gave you the letters Errol had written to
her - the ones you gave to the museum. What did you learn about your father
reading those letters for the first time?
I realized what a romantic man he was. He definitely romanced my mother through
words in his letters, and kept her intrigued with his adventures. For me to see
my parents in any situation where they were in love, I grasp at it, because I
never really got to see them like that.
CR: It’s been said that the Mulholland Drive house your dad lived in was later
occupied by his ghost. What do you think?
Haunted? I don't think so, besides, it doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve lived, for
the last 23 years, just down the road from the Mulholland house. I jog past the
estate every few days and I watched them tear it down in horror, for it should
have been preserved. My father designed and built it and it was a part of
Rory and her son Sean. (Photo copyright Rory Flynn)
CR: So if your father had lived, where would his career have taken him?
If he hadn’t died at 50, I think he could have made it in the world of
independent films. And he loved to write. He would have been a fantastic
writer, written novels, and produced his own films.He started one project, William Tell, but it
didn’t get off the ground and I think all footage of it has been lost, although
a few stills exist and are in the Boston Archives, but I’m not sure about the
CR: Flynn has a sister, Rosemary. Where they close?
She and Errol were 10 years apart and did not grow up together for my
grandparents separated for a few years and my grandmother raised Rosemary
in Sydney...Errol and she were not close. She died in '99 with no children.
CR: Did you ever want to act?
Not really. I’ve been modeling most of my life. I did take a couple of acting
classes at one time. In fact, Sean Penn and Anjelica Huston were in my acting
class. But you have to want to make acting your world and I realized it wasn’t
mine. Now I’m a photographer. I went back to school and took courses in
photography and basically hustled my way into being a still photographer.
CR: The grandsons, Sean and Luke, followed their famous grandfather into the
entertainment world. What projects are they working on these days?
Sean is 19, and has been acting since he was 7 years old and most recently was
in the TV show “Zoey 101.” But now he really wants to be a singer/song-writer,
so he’s definitely involved in the arts. Luke is a blonde version of my father
- he looks a lot like him. He’s 33 now and very independent. He lives in New
York and is modeling all the time, and on the cover of everything! He has the
rights to my dad’s book, “Beam Ends,” and has been working on a script for a
film about it.
CR: Your grandfather was a biology professor. Was he proud of his son’s career in
I don’t know, I think he was somewhat.I
didn’t get to see my grandparents often. My grandfather was an intellectual and
my father had something of that in him, as well as the adventurer. Errol did
have a larger problem with his mother, but had a huge regard and respect for
his father.He took care of them as best
he could in his last years. But my dad still did what he wanted, and that was
the “Flynn” in him.
CR: During his career, it seems he became tired of the swashbuckler roles and
wanted to tackle more serious films.
Yes, he wanted to get out of type and was looking for some really meaty roles.
I have letters from my father after he did Captain Blood where he says he
really wanted to go back on stage because he thought of himself as a serious
actor. I think he was basically “abused” as an actor by keeping him typecast as
a swashbuckler. But on the other hand, he did do some amazing films such as Too
Much, Too Soon, Objective Burma!, and That Forsyte Woman, in which he was
outstanding. And he should have got an Academy Award for The Sun Also Rises.
CR: Why do you think he didn’t get the Oscar for that?
Because he went to Cuba and met Castro. Of course, at that time, Castro was the
freedom fighter trying to save Cuba and give it back to the people. But Hollywood
was iffy about that, and didn’t like their actors being involved politically
back then. So political things happened to my dad that he just had to live
CR: Perhaps Hollywood will see fit to officially recognize Errol Flynn's film
achievements somehow, some day.
Well, they don’t give posthumous Oscars, except for films made the year before
the person died, like Heath Ledger recently. But I think they will honor him
one day when they realize how great he really was.
Order Rory's book, The Baron of Mulholland from her web site: www.inlikeflynn.com
See Cinema Retro issue #16: Tony Earnshaw unveils the fascinating story behind Errol Flynn's aborted William Tell film, and presents never-before-published photos from the production as well as an interview with the film's director, the late Jack Cardiff. To order see our back issues section or click here to order from Ebay.