My Favorite Year: A Mirror for Errol Flynn & Peter O’Toole’s Hellraising

In 1982, Peter O'Toole embodied Mel Brooks' impression of Errol Flynn. In fact, these two movie star legends' lives were often a mirror.

Peter O’Toole was nominated for eight Oscars – among them was his portrayal of Alan Swann in My Favorite Year. This 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 that 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 do in order to bring the drunken debonair to life?

Intriguingly, there is no complete certainty about whether Errol Flynn actually appeared on Your Show of Showssince it was broadcast in the age before videotape. Thus Brooks’ words must suffice. Yet either way, the problematic situations both legends exhibited were often no laughing matter, and their legends cannot help but weigh on our consciences as we enjoy the peformances of both stars, particularly when their identities merged as one for a brief, hilarious moment..

My Favorite Year definitely captures the moment and the Wild West beginnings of network television. Within this universe, Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is among those trying to make his mark and babysitting O’Toole’s Alan Swann is yet another stumbling block in his hopes for ascent amidst the chaos. The delivery of Stone’s Jewish induced neurotic background provides a crucial aspect of the comedy, especially as we visit Brooklyn and feel as though the dialogue dished by the actors was typical of any given Saturday night.

In this context, O’Toole’s own booze-soaked notoriety seemed to inform and reflect the onscreen satire and romance of Errol Flynn’s own infamy. These were both men known to enjoy a drink or liaison a little too often, and they are both men whose legacy intermingles the extravagant with the illicit. And with My Favorite Year, both men find their legacies seemingly joined, with Flynn and his fictional counterpart in one Alan Swann apparently being the bigger and more star-studded trainwreck.

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Mel Brooks, for his part, sticks with the film’s party line. While chatting with Jeffrey K. Howard in a 1997 Film Score Monthly interview, Brooks said:

 “[The film] 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.”

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 Tasmanian-born devil glided through life and into so many hearts with films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Captain Blood (1935), 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 a British producer and landing at Warner Bros., he did all he could to keep those wanting at a minimum. After all, this one-time Spanish Civil War journalist turned movie star carried such daring philosophical musings as, “The Christian concept of monogamy is to me nothing more than a travesty of human nature. It doesn’t work, never will.”

During his own early marriages, there was no shortage of fellow travelers to join him. According to the most salacious gossip, even David Niven was among them, and 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 Caligulas to get on top – so to speak.

Not to worry, Peter O’Toole definitely stacked up in his own right. “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, and according to Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince’s dubious (and often discredited) book, Peter O’Toole: Hellraiser, Sexual Outlaw, Irish Rebel, 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. 

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Nonetheless, his wife Siân Phillips 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 realized 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 of 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 is fine for us, but long disappearances with onset actresses were actually the easy part for Phillips. 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 resentfully 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.

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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.

By contrast, Olivia De Havilland would certainly be in agreement. Sharing a mutual love, she refused to play out any attractions with Errol Flynn decades earlier, obviously sure of what kind of life that affair would bring.

Flynn’s first wife Lili Damita did not realize this until after Flynn started disappearing on month long boat trips; she divorced on grounds of cruel and unusual punishment. Flynn’s amoral slide into self-destruction picked up momentum alongside his drinking, his brawling, and his womanizing, which 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. Seventeen-year-old Peggy Larue Satterlee alleged sexual assault on Flynn’s boat when she was only 15.

The tabloids, certainly getting their fill, utilized this time when no protections were in place to put the defendants on trial in the media, which included a second underage girl. Flynn’s defense claimed Satterlee had had an “indiscretion with another man” and previously lied about her age to secure roles.

Sadly, the truth was no match for the reluctant charm of Robin Hood, and nine housewives supposedly browbeat the three male dissenters amongst the jury into an acquittal, citing the girls’ changing stories and previous history with various men. Thus the polished skills of crafty lawyer Jerry Giesler—who also got Busby Buckley off for drunkenly plowing his car into two other vehicles, which left two people dead and five seriously injured—held the day for Flynn.

Flynn 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.

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Eventually, all that was left was a second rate career on television. “Characterized by slurred speech and a bloated face,” says Petersen, this foretold a demise 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 both 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 in 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?