Errol Leslie Flynn was an unlikely icon—thin lipped, beady eyed, and blessed with a mild case of rhinophyma (big-nose syndrome), much exacerbated by booze and age, not to mention an (at one time) impenetrably thick Australian accent.  On meeting the young Flynn, other children would take one look at him and burst into tears.  Despite its puerile shortcomings, however, his was an infectiously cheerful countenance which, with the diligent application of makeup and the signature moustache, eventually blossomed into one of Hollywood’s classic profiles.  At the height of his pinnacle years between 1935 and 1942, the once unprepossessing Flynn was a—perhaps the—great matinee idol, someone whom men wanted to emulate and women wanted to bed, as a fair number of them duly did.  It’s true that there was a sort of sameness to Flynn’s career in this period, his turn as the eponymous star of Captain Blood (1935) being endlessly recycled in ever more lurid variants and self-referential parodies.  But any doubts as to whether he could really act were ultimately settled in Flynn’s favor by his performance in the 1957 version of The Sun Also Rises, in which he doesn’t just play the part of a drunken ne’er-do-well; he embodies it.  Other than a deft impersonation of his friend John Barrymore in Too Much Too Soon and a perhaps ill-advised semidocumentary tribute to Fidel Castro under the title of Cuban Rebel Girls, it was his final professional role.  Flynn succumbed to a heart attack in 1959, at the age of 50, having already long since outstayed his welcome in Hollywood.  Flynn has become the caricature prototype for every semiplausible film rogue today—from Jack Nicholson down to Colin Farrell and beyond.  At the time he died most adult Americans had seen or at least heard of Flynn’s definitive Robin Hood (1938), or his flamboyant General Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1941), and thanks to his gossip-column persona (which tended to the priapic), millions of people around the world who never went near a cinema could instantly recognize his name and face.  It wasn’t a bad legacy.

Perhaps because Flynn himself cheerfully colluded in the process, which swung to its zenith in a posthumously published memoir entitled My Wicked, Wicked Ways, his story has attracted more than its share of romance, embellishment, and out-and-out fabrication over the years.  To dispose of some of the more persistent myths: Flynn was not illegitimate.  He was not descended on his mother’s side from Fletcher Christian of HMS Bounty fame.  He did not live rough or sleep on park benches for long periods of his adolescence.  As a young man, he did not have a particular affinity for boats or boating, later his passion, and was often seasick.  Many of his subsequent adventures in the New Guinea jungle, as retailed in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, were stories Flynn heard in the local watering holes.  As far as can be ascertained, he wasn’t bisexual, a thesis first aired in Charles Higham’s sensational 1980 biography.  He didn’t install a mirror on the ceiling of his bedroom in his Bel-Air mansion—it was actually in the guest room.  He wasn’t a Nazi spy (Higham again).  His last words weren’t “I’ve had a hell of a lot of fun and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” but the more pithy, “I shall return.”  His body wasn’t then propped up in the lobby of a nearby hotel so that friends and fans could see him.  And Flynn’s ashes weren’t scattered at sea, or blasted into space, but are interred in Forest Lawn Cemetery’s Garden of Everlasting Peace, in a plot next to Ida Lupino’s.

In the interests of balance, it should be added that, among other peccadilloes, Flynn did once remark that “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” a precept he enthusiastically pursued.  Thrice married, tried and acquitted in 1943 on charges of “unlawful intercourse” with two adolescent girls (giving rise to the line “In like Flynn,” among other popular locutions), he subsequently enjoyed a relationship with a 15-year-old acting student named Beverly Aadland, whom he was reportedly planning to marry at the time of his death.  Forty years before the Austin Powers franchise, he went a considerable way toward introducing the word “shag” in its more robust meaning into the American vernacular.  More shocking than even these lapses of taste, perhaps, Flynn, a devoted leftist, also came to extol the virtues of several of the rising genocidal monsters of the day, chief among them Castro, whom he considered a “great humanitarian” and a drinking partner.

Flynn was born on June 20, 1909, in Hobart, Tasmania, of Anglo-Irish descent.  The son of a distinguished marine biologist, he attended the Sydney Church of England grammar school and a number of Australia’s other leading educational facilities, and was expelled from most.  A subsequent clerical position at a local office ended in some acrimony when it was learned that Flynn had pilfered the firm’s petty cash to bet—and lose—at the racetrack.  Hearing of a gold strike in the area, he eventually purchased a boat and set sail for New Guinea, an experience he described in the first of his three books, Beam Ends.  Once installed in Papua, Flynn embarked on a picturesque but commercially unsatisfactory career as a mining engineer and sometime tobacco farmer.  Checking the truth of his escapades is a time-consuming business, which seems to have defeated most of his biographers, but it’s widely agreed both that he enjoyed a drink and that he dispatched a semiregular column for the Sydney Bulletin.  As with his conversation, Flynn’s journalism was apt to start with a joke, a quick bark of laughter, and then grow into something profoundly more serious.  He was outraged by the working conditions of most New Guineans and went on to become a lifelong friend of organized labor and of the environment.  (Concerning the latter he was something of a celebrity pioneer.)  Back in Australia, and broke, he accepted a part in the minimally budgeted feature film In the Wake of the Bounty.  He gives an arresting, if necessarily unpolished, performance, all staring eyes and jutting chin.  In January 1934, burdened by mounting debts, Flynn left for the United Kingdom and landed a somewhat improbable berth with the Northampton Repertory Players, a provincial company intermingling Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Wilde with Agatha Christie whodunits and pantomime adaptations of Disney’s early Silly Symphonies cartoons.  A Warner Brothers scout noticed Flynn during the filming of the otherwise forgotten (and now lost) Murder at Monte Carlo and shipped him to America as a contract actor.  The scout’s cable back to announce his discovery read in part: “Strong, Ronald Colman type.  Opinionated.  May need voice lessons.”

In time, the Warners’ front office was to add certain technical reservations of its own about its young protégé.  During Flynn’s early days in Hollywood, studio executives wanted to smooth out his cleft chin, lighten his raven hair to brown, and rearrange his nose.  But the feisty Aussie told them that he would prefer it if they were to take him the way he was or not at all.  (I sanitize somewhat.)  It was a prophetic moment for the man who not only came to set the standard for cinematic swashbuckling, but who, every step of the way, lived life on his own expansive terms.  Captain Blood was the first and best of the relatively small number of films in which Flynn’s self-image found common ground with a coherent and commercially viable script.  It led to the inevitable typecasting, although there is enough in Flynn’s performances in the insightful and exciting World War I flying yarn The Dawn Patrol (1938) and in the definitive boxing biopic Gentleman Jim (1942) to suggest that there was an actor of some substance struggling to get out.  His knack for emotional reticence offsets the athleticism of the roles and was something of a rarity at a time when many of his peers still favored a silent-movie-derived repertoire of theatrically raised eyebrows and gaping mouths.

Flynn presented a somewhat less heroic image on the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, to which his contribution was to serve on a variety of USO tours.  A combination of a defective heart, emphysema, and a bad back, for which he self-medicated, was to blame—although for a significant part of the movie-going public he would remain, unfairly but unshakably, like John Wayne, a consummate example of the kind of celluloid he-man conspicuous by his absence when the real shooting began.  It didn’t help that, in October 1942, in the very week when U.S. forces were engaged in the climactic stages of the Guadalcanal campaign, Flynn found himself under arrest for the statutory rape of two underage girls.

This sorry episode, though ultimately acquitting Flynn of any legal wrongdoing, effectively cast him into a professional limbo.  The two separate events, conflated into one vividly reported trial, featured, on the one hand, a cast involving a 17-year-old Hollywood drugstore waitress, a late-night party at Flynn’s mansion, and what was described in court as “several tons of caviar and gallons of champagne”; and, on the other, a 15-year-old schoolgirl (perhaps unwisely portrayed by Flynn in the media as having “sensational upholstery”) and a weekend trip, similarly well catered, on board the actor’s yacht Sirocco.  Flynn’s defense team were to pursue the familiar tactic of impugning the alleged victims’ moral probity, and with some success.  One of the two young women, it emerged, had engaged in a then-illegal sex act with another partner, while the other had seen fit once to remove her clothes and lie down next to one of the corpses at a Los Angeles mortuary.  On February 6, 1943, the jury found Flynn not guilty on all counts.  Immediately after the verdict, Warner Brothers hosted a boisterous celebration in the press room of the Los Angeles Hall of Justice, two floors immediately above the courtroom.  Flynn did not attend the party held in his honor.  He was, however, elsewhere on the premises, socializing on a more exclusive basis with an 18-year-old redhead named Nora Eddington, who was the daughter of the sheriff of Los Angeles County, and who worked behind the building’s cigar counter.  The couple were married in Acapulco six months later and had two children.

Flynn’s later work inclined toward self-parody, although there was, perhaps, a certain poignancy to his being called upon to act the parts of a relentless succession of drunkards and has-beens.  This particular form of typecasting found its apogee in Flynn’s role as the permanently sozzled Mike Campbell in The Sun Also Rises.  Around him are ranged Tyrone Power as the maimed and impressively acidic ironist Jake Barnes, Ava Gardner’s definitively nymphomaniac Brett Ashley, and an impossibly suave Robert Evans (later head of production at Paramount) as Pedro the bullfighter.  Even in this august company, Flynn steals the show.  The burned-out but essentially unbowed Campbell is the only one really to engage our sympathy as he sinks deeper and deeper into a hole of his own making, and he does so with a now flagrantly unfashionable lack of self-pity.  It’s a tribute to Flynn’s ability to convey the vulnerable as well as the heroic, and a master class in the art of expressing inner decline.

In October 1959, Flynn and a teenage girlfriend flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, where to raise urgently needed funds he planned to sell his yacht to a local businessman.  When the 50-year-old actor later complained of feeling ill, the businessman took him to the home of a nearby friend and doctor.  Not untypically, a party ensued.  Feeling ill again, Flynn announced, “I shall return,” and retired to one of the doctor’s bedrooms to rest.  At some stage in the next half-hour he suffered a fatal heart attack.  The Vancouver coroner was subsequently to make public reference to the state of the deceased’s liver, which showed “dysfunction due to excessive fatty degeneration” more typical of a man in his 70’s.  Both of Flynn’s parents survived him.  The mother of his final companion wrote a book about the affair, which was later made into a well-received play.  Mother and daughter went on to sue Flynn’s estate for five million dollars, claiming the minor had been led into a “frenzied life of wild parties, subject to immoral debauchery and sex orgies, [and] taught to lead a lewd, wanton, and wayward way of life.”  The suit was eventually dismissed.  As if in ghastly expiation for Flynn’s alleged draft-dodging, his only son, Sean, went missing in 1970 while reporting on the war in Cambodia and was officially declared dead in 1984; his remains have never been discovered.

Flynn’s funeral was boycotted by his first two wives.  His third spouse, Patrice Wymore, did attend, as did various of his legitimate children.  There were no representatives of Warner Brothers or the other major studios on hand, they having apparently remembered other, more pressing engagements, although the actor Dennis Morgan, of Christmas in Connecticut, sang Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem.”  Flynn was then laid to rest with six bottles of his favorite whiskey.  The mourners were reminded that he had once remarked that “Anyone who leaves this earth with more than $1.05 is a jerk.”  Some months later, Flynn provided another epitaph for himself in his posthumously published autobiography.  In it he wrote that “I am sour on women but cannot do without them,” before concluding, “Believe me . . . You can love every instant of living and still want to be dead.”