Errol Flynn Slept Here Robert Matzen

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.