Dean Stockwell Remembers: 3 Stories About Errol Flynn

It’s Errol Flynn’s birthday today. Here’s an old post I wrote.

In 1950, Dean Stockwell appeared in Kim with Errol Flynn. Stockwell was 12 or 13 when they filmed it, and nearing the end of his run as a child-actor. In Kim, Stockwell is on the brink of adolescence. He has described how he, unlike other normal kids, YEARNED for acne and awkwardness, because that would then mean he wouldn’t have to be a “child actor” anymore. He didn’t particularly enjoy any of it.

Errol Flynn, naturally, was a huge star. The rapport between Stockwell and Flynn seems quite genuine in Kim, and you really believe that these two – one a kid, one a grown man – are buddies. (More on Dean Stockwell, and Kim, here, in a piece I am really proud of.)

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Stockwell had enough talent, even as a young child, to go toe to toe with anybody. He practically steals Anchors Aweigh away from Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra. He DOES steal Gentleman’s Agreement away from Gregory Peck (who is terrible in the picture), and, along with John Garfield, manages to make the sanctimonious-liberal storyline actually seem real. Peck, overcome with his own self-righteousness, barely seems to notice that the kid playing his son is walking away with the picture with one hand tied behind his back (or one finger cupped over his nose, as the case may be).

Stockwell had that THING that I always talk about: the natural gift that some actors have to listen/talk/react in the middle of an imaginary moment. Freely able to play make-believe. As a child actor, Stockwell never seems “precocious”, one of those show-pony show-biz kids. Stockwell always just seems like a little boy, alive on screen. Natural, unselfconscious, confident.

Some background that will be relevant for the Errol Flynn stories: Stockwell’s dad had never really been around when he was a kid, and his parents got divorced when he was quite little. He was raised by his mother, and he grew up on the MGM lot where he was under contract.

Child star Dick Moore (or “Dickie Moore”) wrote a book about what it was like for children actors of that era called Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (but don’t have sex or take the car). I’ve owned the book since I was a teenager myself because I always wished I had grown up in that era, in the heyday of child movie stars. Shirley Temple, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Margaret O’Brien, etc. etc. I used to write short stories about a harassed child star, racing from tap class to voice lessons to rehearsals on giant sound stages. Dickie Moore tracks down all of his old child-star friends and asks about their experiences as child actors. Some (like Rooney) were like, “It was delightful!” and some, like Stockwell, were like, “Yeah, uhm, it was NOT so delightful.”

The book is honest about the pressures the kids were under, and yet it’s not a diatribe against employing children either. Everyone has a different story. Stockwell has been quite honest about how horrible his education was and how he had to teach himself how to read (and comprehend) when he was in his 20s, because his early education had been so spotty. He attended the famed Little Red Schoolhouse on the MGM lot. His classmates were, among others, Elizabeth Taylor, Roddy McDowall – who, ironically, coincidentally, appeared in a key episode of Quantum Leap years later, appearing as Stockwell’s counterpart).

Stockwell says, in an interview in Twinkle Twinkle Little Star:

When we graduated from MGM, we had to do a magazine layout of a graduation party: Rusty Tamblyn, me, Claude Jarman, Jr., Elizabeth Taylor, and Jane Powell. They wanted a photo with all of us outside in front of the schoolhouse. Elizabeth was so happy she threw her books in the air, and Miss McDonald [the principal] came running out, screaming at the photographers, “Don’t have her throw her books like that.”

Mary McDonald intimidated me. She didn’t have the most beautiful visage in the world. She didn’t teach me shit. But in retrospect, I love her because I feel she was intent upon educating us. In some way – a way she didn’t realize consciously – she sensed that she was dealing with kids that were out of place in time and ties and culture. I tend to revere her.

We are now returning to Errol Flynn and what he meant to Dean Stockwell. Stockwell was a little child, an alien from normal boyhood: he had adult responsibilities, he was carrying movies, he made tons of money, and spent most of his time wishing he was playing football and going to a regular school. He had no father figure in his life, and was, for the most part, surrounded by women at all times.

In walks swashbuckling Errol Flynn.

In a recent interview, Stockwell was asked, “So who taught you about sex?” He replied, “I did a movie with Errol Flynn when I was 13. I got quite an education.”

From Stockwell’s point of view, Errol Flynn was essential. People who employ children as actors do not often remember that these young show-ponies are, after all, children.

Stockwell talks about Errol Flynn and what it meant to Stockwell to work with him and be in his presence at this particular adolescent moment in his life:

I’m not saying I’d recommend him for the rest of society. It just so happened that at that time of my life – I was twelve or something – he was what he was: a truly profound, nonsuperficial sex symbol. He was the fucking male.

Funny (and, to me, moving) stories below.

Dean Stockwell:

Flynn was a maniac practical joker. I had a horror looming up, one of those crying scenes – a real toughy – with Paul Lukas. He’s a dying lama. The scene is a master shot inside a tent in India and I’m there with the lama and Flynn comes through the tent flaps and gives me food for the lama in a rice bowl, and I’m supposed to be – as the character Kim – on the job and I can’t let the lama eat maggots. So I check the bowl. Flynn has a line and leaves. Then I have this big crying scene with the lama.

So we rehearse and do a take. I’m talking to the lama and in comes Flynn and hands me the bowl, piled high with fresh camel dung, still steaming. Now I’m supposed to look at it and say, “Is this okay for the lama to eat?” And he’s supposed to say, “Yes, of course. I promise it’s good.”

I looked at the mess and said my line and he backed out. I played the rest of the scene and it cost Flynn five hundred dollars. He had bet everyone on the crew that he would break me up.

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Dean Stockwell again:

I had a hell of a good time shooting that picture [Kim].

Errol Flynn came onto the set one morning a little blurry-eyed, and told me about picking up a girl the night before, a waitress. He really liked waitresses and working girls – secretaries.

So he took this waitress to his place. Next morning, he said, “You know what she did? As I’m fucking her, she said, ‘Oh, fuck me, Errol Flynn! Fuck me, Errol Flynn!’ I mean, that really tells you where it’s at. ‘Fuck me, Errol Flynn.’ Not ‘Fuck me, Errol.’”

Can you imagine what poor Mrs. Stockwell’s reaction would have been if she had known that this was the kind of story Flynn was regaling her young son? But Stockwell ate it up.

Stockwell had grown up in the hothouse atmosphere of the studio which had a vested interest in keeping the kids innocent (sometimes to a fault: most of the girls interviewed in Dick Moore’s book – Jane Withers, Margaret O’Brien, many others – say that they hadn’t even been warned about menstruation. It was as though the studio thought they could stave off eventual adolescence by not letting the girls know about what was coming. Many of these young girls randomly began bleeding one day and had the appropriate response of: AHHHH, WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME!). The studios were particularly intent on shielding their little child stars from the realities of adolescence.

Errol Flynn bonded with Stockwell as a colleague and friend and (perhaps unconsciously) helped Stockwell separate himself from the childhood-atmosphere of the Little Red Schoolhouse and look forward to being an adult.

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Dean Stockwell:

Okay, so I’m going to play this little Indian kid in Rudyard Kipling’s tale of Kim and Errol Flynn is going to play the other guy. While they’re building the sets, I come onto the sound stage with my mother and the studio teacher, the perfect Norman Rockwell portrait of middle America – sixty-three years old, sweet, giving, a long-suffering spinster with the rimless glasses and high lace collar. She was terrific with her rosy cheeks. Didn’t even have to blue her hair; she had her own natural white hair. She and my mother were flanking me.

Errol Flynn came up to me. Somebody said, “This is Dean Stockwell.” Of course, he’s bigger than me, and with this gleam in his eye, he looked down at me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Hi. Have you had your first fuck yet?”

There was a moment, it lasted an eternity, where both my mother and the teacher were going “Brrrr,” like pigeons with a gnat up their ass, blushing and doing everything but bleeding on either side of me. Flynn is still staring at me, waiting for me to answer him, but I didn’t know what the word meant. I’m just looking at this guy, thinking, I finally found a friend, a father.

Obviously, he knew I hadn’t had my first fuck yet, or he figured that out right after he asked me. Still, he gave me one of the special lapel buttons he’d had made. It had beautiful hand-carved wings. In the center were three F’s, interlocked. It was “Flynn’s Flying Fucker” club, and the part that went into your lapel had a huge erect cock and balls to hold it in. I had it hidden in my top drawer for four years. My mother finally found it. She didn’t tell me until two years after she threw it out.

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Dean Stockwell:

“There were uglies and there were beauties. For me, Errol Flynn was the best… He was the ultimate father figure for me.”

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29 Responses to Dean Stockwell Remembers: 3 Stories About Errol Flynn

  1. george says:

    Sheila,

    Errol Flynn, father figure? I dunno. Helluva great uncle, de-fin-ite-ly.

    I have a recollection of Flynn in The Prince and the Pauper and he seemed to have a rapport with the Mauch twins who played Tom Canty and the Prince. Wonder if they had any stories to tell about the swashbuckler?

    Great stories – and insight into the studios and their relationship with their child stars of which I imagine there would be few or none if it weren’t for that studio system.

    Happy Birthday Errol Flynn – my boyhood favorite hands down.

  2. MFS says:

    Your past posts about Dean Stockwell were on my mind last weekend: Stockwell is featured in the season of “Battlestar Galactica” that we’re currently watching.

  3. sheila says:

    George – yes, a randy world-weary uncle!

    I love Kim, mainly for the rapport between those two. Stockwell actually is in it more than Flynn is (that’s my memory of it anyway), and Flynn is just great with his talented young co-star.

  4. sheila says:

    MFS – How wonderful it is to see you here. I noticed you’ve opened comments on your site! How is that going for you?? I loved your Bloomsday post – I remember seeing Fionnula Flanagan read Molly at Symphony Space here in New York, and she was absolutely mind-blowing.

    Stockwell is so great in Battlestar Galactica. He has had such a COOL career.

  5. Kent says:

    Great stories Sheila! Love Flynn reflected through Stockwell reflected through you – a complete picture! When I was a kid, I used to nab “dirty” books from my grandparents house. They were never porn, but often were very sexy. Great reading for someone too young, like Stockwell, to know what the word fuck meant… much less have had a first. Often literature (The Decaneron), more frequently thrilling Hollywood trash (Hedy Lamarr’s Ecstacy and Me) the standout was My Wicked Wicked Ways. It was HILARIOUS and not even very “dirty”. But they had it in the naughty pile (thank god or I would have missed it) simply because it was written by Flynn! I mean, that REALLY did tell me where it was at!

  6. sheila says:

    Kent – ha! Yes, I got a lot of knowledge way too soon from actor autobiographies! I love My Wicked Wicked Ways. I should read it again – it’s been years. I love Errol Flynn. There’s something really infectious about him. He’s another one who makes what he does look so so easy. It is hard to realize that that means he actually had a GIFT.

    • Kent says:

      Indeed he did, and like John Barrymore, it was his nature to downplay it… seemingly throw it away. Flynn is endlessly fascinating… another very great artist and cavalier who has absolutely no counterpart today. Can you imagine the labels and trouble that would be thrown at him over consorting with a Beverly Aadland in so called “modern society”?! …and then… AND THEN… flying her to Havana to meet Castro and make a movie about gun running and the overthrow of Batista and the mob… using REAL gun runners and mobsters!! GOTTA love him! God love him!

      • nightfly says:

        Nowadays, anyone who might be like that is portrayed like a compete heel when they do the slightest untoward thing, even if it isn’t very untoward. Forget Flynn – you can’t even have old-school carousers like Richard Harris.

  7. sheila says:

    I’m sure you’ve seen the mini-tribute that TCM has put together to Flynn that it plays on occasion in between movies. His wife said a beautiful thing about his gift as an actor, and I’m paraphrasing – but it was something like, “He had this way of making an ordinary walk down a country road into a grand adventure.”

    That kind of thing cannot be taught. It is a lost art.

    Seriously: no counterpart, in his work or in his life.

  8. Paul H. says:

    In that first photo, Errol has a Christian Bale thing going on – but with a twinkle in his eye.

  9. sheila says:

    Paul – yeah, I can see that!

  10. Ed Brown says:

    I just saw him this morning in Dawn Patrol. What a talent! For some reason Australia produces some of the best actors around. I guess it’s all those wide open spaces that bring out the openness in its people.

  11. John McElwee says:

    Wonderful anecdotes! I’ve always wished Dean Stockwell would address himself to my all-time favorite of his, “The Happy Years,” where he gives a GREAT performance. I’d like to think making that one was an agreeable experience, even if William Wellman could be an exacting director.

  12. sheila says:

    Hi, John! I just looked through some of my stuff on Stockwell and I don’t see any comments he made about the filming of that (I believe it was in the same year as Kim, correct?)

    I wonder how Wellman was with child actors – how he treated them – I haven’t heard any anecdotes, have you?. They used to call Stockwell “One-Take Stockwell” because he preferred to do everything in one take, and usually nailed it in that first take. He was a total natural. It’s still fun to watch him because of that. No showboating, nothing phony ever.

  13. nightfly says:

    I’m rolling through the original Twilight Zone series on Netflix, and a couple of days ago, there was Dean Stockwell – no mistaking the eyebrows! – as a green army leiutenant taking over a weary platoon from a wearier Albert Salmi. Episode is called “A Quality of Mercy” and he does some really great work. (Also has an amazingly-young Leonard Nimoy, who only gets a line or two.)

    The best thing was how completely Stockwell transforms his character when the trademark twist comes along. He was really good, and what could have been a very pat episode succeeds mainly through his performance.

  14. sheila says:

    Nightfly – Yes! I love him in that Twilight Zone episode!! Good call!

    It’s really interesting to see him in his guest spots on TV shows, if you can find them. He was really good in an episode of Columbo too.

  15. Dwight says:

    I enjoyed most of Kim, mainly because of Stockwell and Flynn. There was obvious chemistry between the two. Stockwell pulls off a difficult role, and Flynn…well, they rewrote the character from Kipling’s novel to be a Flynn-like character. To his credit, not everyone can play themself as well as he did.

  16. Freddie McEvoy says:

    There’s a pathetic quality to this whole topic, Stockwell, the fatherless kid getting life lessons from Errol, the souless adult. Flynn may well be a psychopath, as many people believe, but there is no question that his very rough child encouraged the psychopathic acting out. He had an unhappy and violent mother, who beat him almost daily at times, for years. His father was somewhat loving but distant and often absent, and had no business raising children. Fact: people abused or neglected or beaten during childhood, go thru life insecure and damaged, and often end up treating themselves as badly as they were treated in their youth. Intense therapy is the only possible fix. Fact: these wounded folk carry the pain and shame and fear of those early days and early trauma for the rest of their life, and to escape these feelings, they seek pleasure or distractions to make life palletable. Errol chose drugs alcohol and sexual gratification. He was addicted to all three. He was also addicted to excitement and derring do in his private life, anything to keep him stimulated so he not have to FEEL the feelings that plagued him from early childhood, fear, shame, sadness, hopelessness. The end.

  17. sheila says:

    Freddie – Why don’t you come on down off the soapbox and actually listen to what Dean Stockwell had to say about how Errol Flynn treated him, and the role he played in his life for that time. It’s a far better story! Much more positive and Stockwell turned out okay.

    Methinks you missed the whole point!

  18. jimmy wayne says:

    exactly! “intense therapy” does not work with true psychopaths anyway (something you’re “born with” and not due so much to life experiences), and i don’t think flynn was a psychopath…self-centered for sure and thoughtless at times, but not a psychopath…i love both flynn and stockwell as actors…enjoyed dean’s recollections.

  19. maria morton says:

    I’ve been trying to find some reference to the filming of Kim, and Errol Flynns time in India.
    My grandmother recalled seeing him looking bored by his attractive companion and as an avid writer and pretty good artist she sent him over her Dinner Menu ( I seem to recall the Taj Mahal Hotel?) with an aptly titled caricature entitled “please sign and cheer me up”. He obviously got the joke, duly signed it and sent it back with one of his winning smiles. Good job Nanna didnt know what he was probably really thinking!

  20. David says:

    I think we should take these recollections about Errol Flynn by “Dean Stockwell” with a very large pinch of salt. These days, a lot of film stars reminiscing about their early days in the film business tend to add a lot of effin’ and blindin’ to their reminiscences in order to shock their audience, because they think that the audience wouldn’t want to hear about anything unless it was full of four letter words. Modern comedians are the same (and I use the word comedians very loosely). They and their scriptwriters haven’t the talent to do real comedy, so their performance is vulgar in the extreme and the audience only laugh at the material because they believe it’s expected of them.

    I was a child in the 1940s and 1950s and I can tell you now that no one in those days used the “F” word in public, even if they did it in private. It was a different world back then and surely, if Errol Flynn, upon being introduced to Dean by Dean’s mother had said something as crude and insulting as that, she would, in those days, have been so shocked that she would have marched Dean off the set and out of the studio, telling the boy “You’re not making any film with an insulting low life like him. He’s not fit to clean your shoes”.

    There’s no doubt that Dean Stockwell, between 1945 and 1949, was a wonderful, very talented child actor and star who gave some extraordinary performances in films such as “The Boy With Green Hair” and “Down To The Sea In Ships”. But by the early 1950s, something very odd happened. A few years ago, I was watching the 1951 film “Cattle Drive” (made when Dean was 15) on television with a friend. “That’s not Dean Stockwell”, he remarked. “Well, his name’s on the film”, I said. “Well”, he said, “his name may be on it, but that’s not him. I admit there’s a vague likeness, but Dean Stockwell could act, he could really act, and this guy can’t act at all and his screen presence is non existent. In fact, he’s bloody hopeless. I wonder who he was and where they got him from”. “It’s funny you should say that”, I told him, “but when I went to see “Dean Stockwell” in the 1957 release “Gun For a Coward”, I had a hard time believing it was him as well, because the talent he had as a child star just wasn’t there. Same with the “Dean Stockwell” in “Compulsion” and “Sons and Lovers” and, even much later, “The Dunwich Horror”. As far as I was concerned, the only similarity between Dean Stockwell the celebrated child star and this modern “Dean Stockwell” was the name”.

    So, if the modern Dean Stockwell isn’t the real, former child star Dean Stockwell, then who is he and what happened to the original Dean Stockwell? Well, maybe he gave up acting when he was 13, or maybe he died, but he was such a big star and money maker that they hired someone to impersonate him in order to keep the money rolling in. This is just a theory of mine and I can’t prove any of it. But what if it’s true?!!!

  21. sheila says:

    I will take your entire Dean Stockwell theory with a huge grain of salt.

  22. David says:

    Well, that’s your privilege, but I stand by what I wrote.

  23. Jason says:

    I think that David may have a point here, as unlikely as it sounds. A 20 year old tends to look like an older, but still recognizable version of himself when he was a 12 year old. I have seen 12 years old Dean Stockwell in “Down To The Sea In Ships” and 20 years old Dean Stockwell in “Gun For a Coward” and in my opinion, they are not the same person. There is no facial resemblance whatsoever. Don’t you think that’s more than a little odd? If David is right, then we’ll probably never know what happened, as the adults in the film business who arranged the alleged deception some 62 years ago are most probably long dead by now.

  24. David says:

    You say ridiculous because you don’t want to even consider that some imposter may well have been bluffing his way through, pretending to be the real Dean Stockwell for over sixty years. To give him credit where credit is due, that must have taken some doing and some cheek to carry it off and, of course, after a while, he may have thought he might as well carry on with it as acting beats working for a living. But his acting style as an adult was so far removed from that of Dean Stockwell in his 1945 to 1950 films that it must have been noticed by many that this wasn’t the same guy.

    His “performance” in “Gun For a Coward” (1956) was so bad, he even made Fred MacMurray look good. The original Dean Stockwell was a unique one off who had his own acting style. The new Dean Stockwell, who couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, decided to copy the method acting of the recently deceased James Dean and hope for the best, with disastrous results. In fact, none of this guy’s adult roles have had one iota of the acting quality of the child actor Dean Stockwell. In fact, all in all, he has given some dreadful performances in some really dreadful films. As he’s 76 now and probably not long for this world, maybe he’ll come clean about it all on his death bed.

    So, I ask again, if this is the case, what happened to the real Dean Stockwell, who’s last film was “Kim”? Well, we do know that he incurred the wrath of the very powerful Howard Hughes, who took over RKO as “The Boy With Green Hair” was being filmed in early 1948. Hughes, an ultra right-winger, hated the pacifist message of the film and tried to sabotage it. He ordered 12 years old Dean Stockwell into his office and told him that he was changing the script and that now, when the ghost war orphans told him that war is very bad for everyone, but most especially for children and there must be no more wars, Dean was to say “and that’s why America has got to have the biggest army and the biggest air force and the biggest navy in the world!” But young Dean was so in sympathy with the film’s pacifist message, that he dared to stand up to Hughes and say: “No, sir, I won’t ever do that!” Hughes was furious and screamed and ranted and raged at the youngster, but Dean stood his ground and refused to do it! Maybe Hughes arranged for Dean to be got rid of eventually to get his own back on the boy. Who knows? But one thing is for sure. Something happened back then that maybe one day, we’ll find out the truth about.

  25. sheila says:

    // But his acting style as an adult was so far removed from that of Dean Stockwell in his 1945 to 1950 films that it must have been noticed by many that this wasn’t the same guy. //

    Not at all true.

    But you seem to enjoy the conspiracy theory, so have at it!

  26. Duff says:

    Wonderful simply wonderful ! I came here while looking for the F me Errol story that I heard as a joke from someone I worked with in television. You have enriched the story with this real and easily believable anecdote. Funny how some people can’t accept a story simply because they were never actors or involved in the insane hurdy gurdy that is entertainment. I am also surprised that someone thinks that Dean was such an important persona that elaborate plots were used to cover his death/disappearance from films, rather than the simple explanation that “most” people change as they grow both physically and emotionally, not to mention he might have adopted some different style from coaches, classes, or his own ideas. The fact that there is a still from Kim above that bears an uncanny resemblance to actor I know from Twilight Zone through Quantum Leap is strange, then again “Paul is Dead, we faked the moon landing, and so forth…” so why not Dean he deserves some mystery all great people can’t possibly be ordinary humans, and Zombies are REAL ! I saw it on the internet/TV so it has to be true . Sorry if this pops anybody’s fantasy… I mean REALITY, Muhahahaha!