Time Bombs

Here’s a thing I’ve known all my life but never really thought about: Hollywood lost five of its greatest, most famous leading men one a year for five successive years. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Five legends gone. All died of “natural causes” but the eldest of the five was just 60. And the thing is, nobody seems to have flinched when Bogie, Ty, Errol, Clark, and Coop passed. It’s just the way things were in the 1950s and 60s, the era of big booze, chain smoking, and meat-and-potatoes diets.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

I’m going to guess it was difficult not to smoke around Humphrey Bogart, who here helps fourth wife Lauren Bacall light up.

Humphrey Bogart was the first to go in 1957 after years battling throat cancer. He had always been an unorthodox fellow with a cantankerous lifestyle that included long pouting sessions aboard his yacht Santana, a brawling third marriage to Mayo Methot, and a cradle-robbing fourth to Lauren Bacall. Bogie drank up a storm and smoked like, well we all know what he smoked like because we see it in many of his pictures, most famously Casablanca. Seeing the way Bogart aged on screen might have made it possible to take his passing in stride in January 1957 when he succumbed at age 57—the only one of our five matinee idols to have been born prior to 1900.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Tyrone Power becomes ill shooting this scene in Solomon and Sheba and dies within hours.

Tyrone Power died next at just 44 years of age. Ty’s personal life included passionate and highly publicized relationships with a pair of stunning-looking actresses, Annabella and Linda Christian. It’s also said that Ty’s sexuality was ambiguous, and many gay and bisexual actors in Hollywood lived a tortured existence to keep any such knowledge secret for fear of box office poisoning. I never researched Power so I don’t know about his personal demons, but I always liked his onscreen self in pictures like The Mark of Zorro, The Black Swan, Captain from Castille, and The Long Gray Line. Each of these and many others in his career called for strenuous physical work, and it was on a movie set fighting George Sanders in a duel with swords that Ty, who had served as a Marine pilot in the Pacific in WWII, collapsed and died in November 1958.

Then came the demise of Errol Flynn. Everybody who knew Errol expressed surprise when he dropped dead of a heart attack at age 50—surprise that he had managed to last so long! Imagine that your lifestyle included drinking a bottle of vodka, smoking three packs of unfiltered cigarettes, and injecting yourself with cocaine and other opiates every single day. That, my friends, is a tortured soul seeking release. It’s a wonder Flynn had any time at all for the two arts at which he excelled—the art of motion pictures and the art of seduction. I could write a book about Flynn’s unhappy existence. Oh wait, I did write one. No, I wrote two. So there went another leading man in October 1959.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Errol Flynn parties with 18-year-old Brigitte Bardot in Cannes in 1953.

Unlucky (or would he say lucky?) number four was Clark Gable, one-time King of Hollywood who had managed to keep his reputation as a heartthrob long past the dissipation of his looks from years of smoking, drinking, and grief over the loss of his love, Carole Lombard. Gable had eased from square-shouldered leading man in pictures like The Tall Men in 1955 to paunchy, self-deprecating comedian in Teacher’s Pet in 1958 and But Not for Me in 1959. He had always been so very careful to protect his brand that I find it endearing the way he poked fun at himself in these later pictures. Then came The Misfits in 1960 and location work in the Nevada desert that was tough not just due to heat but mostly because this pro’s pro was forced to endure the shenanigans of royally messed-up Marilyn Monroe. Sitting around patiently waiting for your co-star to show up and then waiting some more so she could get her lines right can be stressful, and it’s no coincidence that Gable went down at his ranch from a heart attack days after completing production. He lasted a number of days in the hospital and then had another attack that ended him in November 1960.

Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3 by Robert Matzen

Four aging Hollywood stars party. From left: Clark Gable, Van Heflin, Gary Cooper, and James Stewart (subject of my next book and sans toupee). Clark would be gone in less than a year, and Coop soon after.

Last was tall and quiet Gary Cooper, by all accounts one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people in all Hollywood. Coop hadn’t looked young since the early 1930s but somehow he managed to play young in pictures like Pride of the Yankees when he was already past 40. He followed his contemporaries into westerns and hit pay dirt with High Noon, his last iconic role, but continued to work actively in pictures he knew were average and tried to hang on via cosmetic surgery toward the end. He had been so active as a sportsman that he’d suffered multiple hernias and thought that explained the pain he was experiencing, but it turned out to be prostate cancer and it had spread through his body. Cancer claimed him in May 1961 at the age of 60, the only one of the five to make it to the big six-oh.

These Hollywood greats would have stared blankly as you preached the evils of beef, bacon, transfats, and gluten. Theirs was a time when you went about your business, enjoying the high life and consuming what you wanted right up until the day you dropped. Three went fast and two lingered, but I can’t imagine another reality where these guys endured into their seventies or eighties. They were all men of their age, and that age was passing. In their cases, passing fast.

13 comments

  1. As a young kid who went to the matinee every Saturday during the 50s and 60s, I do remember many comments and expressions of shock over the passing of Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. In that era, it was a “given” that these icons would live for many more years. The L.A. Herald Examiner’s cartoonist drew a memorial about Gable, seated in a king’s throne. And just the other evening I listened on uTube to one of several broadcasts from that era by the late Ken Murray, who filmed the Hollywood stars since the 1930s at play, just hanging out at places like Hearst’s San Simeon, walking outside the studios to the parking lot, at the race track etc. and ran this stuff on TV occasionally. This collection, which spans something like 35 years, is wonderful to watch and is a national treasure. Murray commented apparently shortly after the death of Cooper on his TV show, as he segued out and the lighting would go to dark, that the Hollywood heroes are disappearing and hoped that others would fill their places for the benefit of future generations and the American culture. So I disagree with you Robert a bit; I believe a great number of fans and citizens flinched when these icons passed.

    1. I’m sure you are right Christopher, that it seems to me, due to the distance of time, that people didn’t flinch. Imagine being a fan of Cooper and Gable and learning of their passing when it must have seemed like just a heartbeat ago that they were young and vital. Very good points by you.

      1. It’s worth noting that in those years films and television and radio commanded the attention of the citizenry in ways that have not been duplicated since. Everybody, it seems went to the movies at least on a weekly basis. Once the lights went out in the theater, there were the newsreels, then the warm up cartoons, coming attractions, then the B feature, followed by the main feature etc. As Hollywood was becoming a mature industry, television emerged in the years after the War to overtake it to a considerable extent. During that period, of course, there were fewer things for young people to do to simply occupy themselves; so for me growing up in Southern California there was the above mentioned media, going to Disneyland, the library, and, not to be overlooked, attending drag races and cruising the boulevards. I also got into Boy Scouts to escape the smog of the city. You could cruise Hollywood Boulevard OVER AND OVER AGAIN on a Friday night in the late 60s and not have the traffic problems that have now become the norm. So there was considerably more fixation on those icons who were front and center in the culture; that has dissipated considerably since then, which I’m certain you’re aware of. Makes me feel ancient thinking about it!

  2. Robert, I’d like to add Ronald Colman as a sixth screen legend to also leave us during that same five year time period, Colman passing away in May, 1958. His name may not have quite the same cache today as Bogart or Gable but I’m sure that film fans at the time were saddened by his departure, even if he had only made two films during the ’50s (he was still doing some radio and TV work).

    For that matter, there was also Robert Donat (less than a month after Colman in 1958) though I suppose that his star didn’t shine quite as brightly as the others, in spite of Goodbye Mr. Chips, because of the relative sparcity of film work due to illness and indecision on his part.

    I’ve always assumed that Tyrone Power’s death on that Spanish film set must have been a particular shock to both his family and the world. It’s particularly tragic in his case, not only because of his age, but due to the fact that he appeared to be in the midst of a career comeback, not only commercially but artistically. (His performance in Abandon Ship is quite outstanding). And his final released film, Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, would have added genuine status to his film resume. And then, suddenly, blaring headlines that he’s gone.

    Gable and Cooper had always been somewhat competitive with one another, I understand. Aside from both being box office kings, there had also been Carole Lombard in both their lives, as well (Cooper’s obviously more briefly, but that must have burned Clark to some degree). Gable was just a week older than Coop and would predecease him by just six months. I have to wonder if nobody flinched, as you stated, Robert, when these film giants went. Surely there must have been a real feeling that the old Hollywood guard was leaving the scene, particularly when the last two departed so close to one another.

    1. Great call, Tom, about Colman and Donat, two others who had been so instrumental to box office in the 1930s. I always thought Ronald Colman was suave and elegant, but at 67 it’s hard to call his passing a big surprise. Robert Donat, on the other hand, going at just 53 was different, following all those health problems that had cost him Captain Blood among other roles. I guess that makes him the Wally Pipp of Hollywood, the guy who couldn’t make it on a particular day and therefore created room for a legend to be born–in this case, Errol Flynn.

  3. It’s interesting, Robert, that, of the five male film icons you named in this week’s column, four of them were still top billed in major “A” productions at the time of their deaths. Power, in fact, had been in a couple of noticeable recent hits at the box office, and Gable was still big enough to get billing over Monroe in his final, rather sad, film.

    The one exception to this was, of course, poor Errol Flynn. If there was only one major “A” male Hollywood star of the ’30s and ’40s who was truly washed up at the end of his career it was Flynn, in spite of that brief talk of a comeback two years prior his death. His spectacular self destructive lifestyle had reduced him to accepting supporting character parts that were alcoholic variations on playing himself. To be fair, he was effective in those roles. Then he couldn’t even get those kinds of parts and was reduced at the end, in his mad scramble for money, to so dire an amateur production as Cuban Rebel Girls (gad!) as his final wretched film appearance. What a tragic fall from the legendary heights of Robin Hood!

  4. I don´t understand why people nowadays are always pittying how Errol Flynn ended: I agree with Mr Matzen on this one: for people that knew him at that time it seemed that he was going downhill at a very fast pace, must have not been all that surprising.

    It is always sad to see great potential wasted, but of course Flynn was responsible for his choices in life, and he could have overcome his demons sooner or later. Instead. they claimed him.

  5. Priscila, I didn’t say that it was surprising that Flynn died young, Far from it. However, I find it sad and tragic that there was something obviously hurting within him that stopped him from getting off that road to self destruction. The enigma of Flynn that so many have asked about him, why did he do it?

    1. I agree – His heart was weak to begin with so a heart attack was probably inevitable. Flynn was just so well liked -he has been gone for 50+ years and we still tell tales about him! I suspect he may have been depressed and not living his real life -what a pit to be in. From comments made by others he seems to have been very private about some areas of his life – so well meaning friends may not have been able to make a difference. Very powerful photo of Gable, Cooper, Van Heflin and Jimmy Stewart -thanks for that.

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