Peter O’Toole was nominated for eight Oscars – among them his portrayal of Alan Swann in My Favorite Year. The 1982 film is based on Mel Brooks’ recollection of Errol Flynn’s appearance on Sid Caeser’s Your Show of Shows in the early 1950s. As a young writer, Brooks was tasked with reigning in the fallen star so he’d be kept sober long enough to learn his lines and deliver the live rendition. Of course it can be asked, how much did O’Toole really have to act to bring drunken debonair to life. Either way, the problematics both legends exhibited were often no laughing matter and can’t help but weigh on our consciences as we enjoy.
But before we decide, a little background. There isn’t complete certainty that Errol Flynn actually appeared on Your Show of Shows. Before video tape, Brooks’ words must suffice - even though Flynn’s decline did relegate him to early Television.
No matter, the film definitely captures the moment and the Wild West beginnings of network TV. Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is among those trying to make their mark and the babysitting of Alan Swann is yet another stumbling block in his hopes for ascent amidst the chaos. The delivery of his Jewish induced neurotic background provides a crucial aspect of the comedy. This especially as we visit Brooklyn and feel as though the dialogue dished by the actors was typical of any given Saturday night.
On set, O’Toole’s star power stood alone. In compliment, old pros like Bill Macy (Maude), Adolph Green (Broadway) and Gloria Stuart (The Three Musketeers) were professional enough to give Swann plenty of room to execute flamboyance around the backdrop they provided.
Otherwise, the next biggest name was Joe Bologna. Taking on the Sid Caeser role, his portrayal is a perfect cowboy-up of the time that doesn’t shrink in O’Toole’s shadow and shows how the early pioneers forged a home for this emerging media.
Mel Brooks, for his part, sticks with the film’s party line. The depiction, claimed Brooks “is pretty damn close. My company made it, and I made sure that we were telling the truth. I was locked in the Waldorf Towers with Errol Flynn and two red-headed, Cuban sisters. For three days I was trying to get them out of there and he was trying to get me drunk and in there. It was the craziest weekend of my life. I was 20 years old and just starting with Your Show of Shows. He was a tough guy to corral and get to rehearsals. Max Liebman assigned me to him and said, ‘Get him into rehearsal! Make him learn his lines! Work with him on the sketch!’ Errol Flynn was a raving maniac. All he wanted was booze and to fool around. He did learn the sketch. Actually, I whispered into his ear when he was asleep. I’d say all the lines and unconsciously, I knew it would get through to his head,” Brooks told Jeffrey K. Howard in an interview for Film Score Monthly in 1997.
No matter, Flynn’s unraveling was encased in the charismatic good looks that put women at his mercy and left his unquenchable sexual appetite rarely unfed. The Devil aside his Tasmanian birth and several questionable business ventures, he glided into your heart in films like Robin Hood and Captain Blood, and for amorous effect, Olivia De Havilland stood in eight times for so many ladies left yearning.
On the other hand, once catching the eye of an British producer and landing at Warner Brothers, he did all he could to keep those wanting at a minimum. The one time Spanish Civil War journalist articulated the piracy that had long heisted any semblance of a heart. “The Christian concept of monogamy is to me nothing more than a travesty of human nature. It doesn't work, never will," Flynn declared.
His own marriage as backdrop, there was no shortage of those on the boulevard to join him. David Niven among them, Flynn’s Yacht and favorite flat, "Cirrhosis-by-the-Sea," played host to numerous orgies and cocaine/alcohol fueled parties. There was even a two way ceiling mirror that allowed this cadre of Caligula’s to get on top – so to speak.
Not to worry, Peter O’Toole definitely stacked up. “I got drunk in Paris and woke up in Corsica,” he once said.
Good looks a given, blue eyes that could almost dim the sky were his gateway, according to Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince’s book, Peter O'Toole: Hellraiser, Sexual Outlaw, Irish Rebel. Claiming O’Toole slept with over a thousand woman, these include an eight year affair with Princess Margaret and sporadic dalliances with Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister.
Of course, acting royalty wasn’t safe either. Audrey Hepburn supposedly miscarried his child, and a ten year affair with Elizabeth Taylor paid no heed to her husband Richard Burton, who doubled as O’Toole’s long time drinking buddy.
As could be expected among so much proclivity, the exotic also found a home in O’Toole’s oasis. He once slept with transgender model Ashley April and had a thing for antiquities to enhance the experience. So much so, he smuggled an ancient pair earrings out of Greece in his foreskin.
Nonetheless, his wife Siân Philipps couldn’t see through the piercing blues. Despite being cautioned by friends that he would “trample of over her,” they were married in 1959 and took her place beside his binges. “I realised that an appreciation of Guinness was pretty essential in my new life,” she told the Daily Mail’s Robert Sellers for his book, Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography.
Of course, he was more a solo act. “At a Lawrence of Arabia cast dinner in 1962, O’Toole became so drunk and offensive – fighting with guests, throwing champagne, fondling bottoms – that his friend and co-star Alec Guinness later wrote: "O'Toole could have been killed – shot, strapped or strangled – and I'm beginning to think it's a pity he wasn't," wrote GQ in Peter O’Toole: Secrets of a Sexual Outlaw revealed.
The dulled senses once resulted in an unforgettable night with Omar Sharif during the filming of Lawrence Arabia. The co-stars couldn’t understand why the women at a Cairo brothel held little compliance on a night where O’Toole spent nine month’s pay. ‘We misbehaved ourselves appallingly,’ Sharif admitted later of the nunnery that they mistakenly stumbled into.
Celebrating the happy drunk fine for us, long disappearances with onset actresses were actually the easy part for Philipps. He expected life to revolve around him with no nagging of his excesses, and if their careers intersected, the self-centeredness took full flower. A reporter once asking Siân how she managed career and home life, he resentful interjected, “I have a career, she has jobs.”
The distance led her to her own affair, which she eventually revealed. In the resulting divorce, O’Toole bought her out of the home, installed his new lover, and cut off her bank accounts and health insurance. Also agreeing to raise the children in their home, she was too beaten down to contest in court. “O’Toole prided himself on his resolutely unforgiving nature,” Siân told Sellers.
Her mother even took O’Toole’s side as she helped raised the children. “I’ll look after Malinche as though she were my own daughter,’ she said of O’Toole’s new live in.
No one knew the magnetism he wielded better than Siân – acknowledging her love to the point of distraction. ‘He did, and does, fascinate me,” she once said.
Olivia De Havilland would certainly be in agreement. Sharing a mutual love, she refused to play and understood the life he would bring.
His wife, Lili Damita, did not but after Flynn started disappearing on month long boat trips, she divorced on grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Flynn’s slide picking up momentum, his drinking, brawling and womanizing culminated with being arraigned for “mistreatment” of Betty Hansen, a 17-year-old starlet.
But before his thumb prints were even dry, the bottom really began to drop out on the high seas. 17-year-old Peggy La Rue Satterlee alleged sexual assault on Flynn’s boat when she was only 15.
The tabloids certainly getting their fill, this was a time when no protections were in place to put the defendants on trial, which included a second underage girl. The defense claimed Satterlee had had an “indiscretion with another man,” and previously lied about her age to secure roles.
The truth no match for the reluctant charm of Robin Hood, nine housewives supposedly browbeat the three male dissenters. Citing the girls’ changing stories and previous history with various men, the polished skills of a crafty lawyer held the day for Flynn.
Thus, he rode his victory into a 4-F status for WWII, which was predicated on youthful bouts of malaria and chronic back pain, but alcoholism and multifaceted venereal diseases sufficed for the real paperwork.
He then married 20 year-old Nora Eddington, who had been working at the courthouse during Flynn’s trial. But his career became a mirror of his bad behavior. “The mystery and cunning that transforms handsome into sexy had seeped away, puddling on the floor of that courtroom, wrote celebrity gossip columnist Anne Helen Petersen in hairpin.com
All that was left was a second rate career on television. “Characterized by slurred speech and a bloated face,” says Petersen, this foretold an end devoid of the manly youthfulness he projected. Kindly, heart failure is listed as the official cause but a distended colon, shredded liver, or crippling depression could all apply.
In contrast, O’Toole never breached the limits of the law and stayed on track as an actor until the end. Nonetheless, we suspend disbelief and only wish the courage Flynn articulated in 1932 could be ours. “I believe I'm going to front the essentials of life to see if I can learn what it has to teach and, above all, not to discover when I come to die that I have not lived," he wrote.
That they did, but My Favorite Year makes sure to show at what cost. Among the revelry, charm and all those captivated by it, the joyful impishness of Swann can’t stack up to the estranged daughter he can only observe from a far.
But the film must end on an upswing and Swann thrills as he always has. “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star,” he delivers the film’s signature line, and can we really be faulted for opting for the ascent over the fall – especially since muddling through real life isn’t nearly as fun.