Flynn was born in a suburb of Hobart, Tasmania, where his father, Theodore Thomson Flynn, was a lecturer (1909) and later professor (1911) of biology at the University of Tasmania. Flynn was born at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Battery Point. His mother was born Lily Mary Young, but dropped the first names Lily Mary shortly after she was married and changed her name to Marelle. Flynn described his mother's family as "seafaring folk" and this appears to be where his lifelong interest in boats and the sea originated. Despite Flynn's claims, the evidence indicates that he was not descended from any of the Bounty mutineers. Married at St. John's Church of England, Birchgrove, Sydney, on 23 January 1909, both of his parents were native-born Australians of Irish, English and Scottish descent.
After early schooling in Hobart, from 1923 to 1925 Flynn was educated at the South West London College, a private boarding school in Barnes, London, and in 1926 returned to Australia to attend Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore School) where he was the classmate of a future Australian prime minister, John Gorton. He concluded his formal education with being expelled from Shore for theft, and—according to his own account—having been caught in a romantic assignation with the school's laundress. After being dismissed from a job as a junior clerk with a Sydney shipping company for pilfering petty cash, he went to Papua New Guinea at the age of eighteen, seeking and failing to find his fortune in tobacco planting and metals mining. He spent the next five years oscillating between the New Guinea frontier territory and Sydney. In January 1931, he became engaged to Naomi Campbell-Dibbs, the youngest daughter of Mr and Mrs R Campbell-Dibbs of Temora and Bowral NSW, a relationship which ended before 1935.
In early 1933, Flynn appeared as an amateur actor in the Australian film In the Wake of the Bounty, in the lead role of Fletcher Christian. Later that year he returned to Britain to pursue a career in acting, and soon secured a job with the Northampton Repertory Company at the town's Royal Theatre (now part of Royal & Derngate), where he worked and received his training as a professional actor for seven months. Northampton is home to an art-house cinema named after him, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. He performed at the 1934 Malvern Festival and in Glasgow, and briefly in London's West End.
In 1934 Flynn was dismissed from Northampton Rep. after he threw a female stage manager down a stairwell. He returned to Warner Brothers' Teddington Studios in Middlesex where he had worked as an extra in the film I Adore You before going to Northampton. With his new-found acting skills he was cast as the lead in Murder at Monte Carlo (currently a lost film). During its filming he was signed by Warner Bros. and emigrated to the U.S. as a contract actor.
Flynn was an immediate sensation in his first starring Hollywood role, Captain Blood (1935). Typecast as a swashbuckler, he helped to re-invent the action-adventure genre with a succession of films over the next six years, most under the direction of Michael Curtiz: The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936),The Prince and the Pauper (1937), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938; his first Technicolor film), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Sea Hawk (1940).
In collaboration with Hollywood's best fight arrangers, Flynn became noted for fast-paced sword fights, beginning with The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and Captain Blood. He demonstrated an acting range beyond action-adventure roles in light contemporary social comedies, such as The Perfect Specimen (1937) and Four's a Crowd (1938), and melodrama The Sisters (1938). During this period Flynn published his first book, Beam Ends (1937), an autobiographical account of his sailing experiences around Australia as a youth. He also travelled to Spain, in 1937, as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War.
Flynn co-starred with Olivia de Havilland a total of eight times, and together they made the most successful on-screen romantic partnership in Hollywood in the late 1930s-early 1940s in Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Four's a Crowd (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Santa Fe Trail (1940) and They Died with Their Boots On (1941). While Flynn acknowledged his personal attraction to de Havilland, assertions by film historians that they were romantically involved during the filming of Robin Hood were denied by de Havilland. "Yes, we did fall in love and I believe that this is evident in the screen chemistry between us," she told an interviewer in 2009. "But his circumstances [Flynn's marriage to actress Lili Damita] at the time prevented the relationship going further. I have not talked about it a great deal but the relationship was not consummated. Chemistry was there though. It was there."
Flynn's relationship with Bette Davis, his co-star in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), was quarrelsome; Davis allegedly slapped him across the face far harder than necessary during one scene. Flynn attributed her anger to unrequited romantic interest, but according to others, Davis resented sharing equal billing with a man she considered incapable of playing any role beyond a dashing adventurer. "He himself openly said, 'I don't know really anything about acting'," she told an interviewer, "and I admire his honesty, because he's absolutely right." Years later, however, de Havilland recounted that during a private screening of Elizabeth and Essex, an astounded Davis exclaimed, "Damn it! The man could act!"
In 1940, at the zenith of his career, Flynn was voted the fourth most popular star in the US and the seventh most popular in Britain. He was a member of the Hollywood Cricket Club with David Niven, and a talented tennis player on the California club circuit. His suave, debonair, devil-may-care attitude was characterised as "Errolesque" by author Benjamin S. Johnson in his treatise, An Errolesque Philosophy on Life.
Second World War
Flynn became a naturalised American citizen on 14 August 1942. As the United States had by then entered the Second World War, he attempted to enlist in the armed services, but failed the physical exam due to multiple heart problems (including at least one heart attack), recurrent malaria (contracted in New Guinea), chronic back pain (self-medicated with morphine and later, heroin), chronic tuberculosis and numerous venereal diseases. This created an image problem for both Flynn, the supposed paragon of male physical prowess, and for Warner Brothers, which continued to cast him in athletic roles, including such patriotic productions as Dive Bomber (1941), Desperate Journey(1942) and Objective, Burma! (1945).
Despite widespread criticism, Flynn's failure to join other Hollywood stars in military service was never explained by the studio, which had no desire to publicise the health problems of one of its most valuable assets.
In 1946, Flynn published an adventure novel, Showdown, and earned a reported $184,000 (equivalent to $2,230,000 in 2015). In 1947 he signed a 15-year contract with Warner Bros. for $225,000 per film. His income totaled $214,000 that year, and $200,000 in 1948.
After the Second World War, the taste of the American filmgoing audience changed from European-themed material and the English history-based escapist epics in which Flynn excelled, to more gritty, urban realism and film noir, reflecting modern American life. Flynn tried unsuccessfully to make the transition in Uncertain Glory (1944) and Cry Wolf (1947), and then increasingly passe Westerns such as Silver River (1948) and Montana (1950).
Flynn's behaviour became increasingly disruptive during filming; he was released from his contract in 1950 by Jack L. Warner as part of a stable-clearing of 1930s glamour-generation stars. His Hollywood career over at the age of 41, Flynn entered a steep financial and physical decline.
In the 1950s, after losing his savings from the Hollywood years in a series of financial disasters, including The Story of William Tell (1954), he became a parody of himself, sailing aimlessly around the Western Mediterranean aboard his yacht Zaca. Heavy alcohol abuse left him prematurely aged and overweight. He staved off financial ruin with roles in forgettable productions such as King's Rhapsody (1955) in the UK's failing film industry, Hello God (1951) and Crossed Swords (1954). He performed in such also-ran Hollywood films as Mara Maru (1952) and Istanbul (1957), and made occasional television appearances. As early as 1952 he had been seriously ill with hepatitis resulting in liver damage. In 1956 he presented and sometimes performed in the televisionanthology series The Errol Flynn Theatre that was filmed in Britain. He enjoyed a brief revival of popularity with The Sun Also Rises (1957); The Big Boodle (1957), filmed in Cuba; Too Much, Too Soon (1958); and The Roots of Heaven (1958). He met with Stanley Kubrick to discuss a role in Lolita, but nothing came of it. Flynn went to Cuba in late 1958 to film the self-produced B film Cuban Rebel Girls, where he met Fidel Castro and was initially an enthusiastic supporter of the Cuban Revolution. He wrote a series of newspaper and magazine articles for the New York Journal American and other publications documenting his time in Cuba with Castro. Many of these pieces were lost until 2009, when they were rediscovered in a collection at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for American History. He narrated a short film titled Cuban Story: The Truth About Fidel Castro Revolution (1959), his last known work as an actor.
Flynn developed a reputation for womanising, hard drinking and for a time in the 1940s, narcotics abuse. The expression "in like Flynn" is said to have been coined to refer to the supreme ease with which he reputedly seduced women, though there is dispute about its origin. Flynn was reportedly fond of the expression, and later claimed that he wanted to call his memoir In Like Me. (The publisher insisted on a more tasteful title, My Wicked, Wicked Ways.)
His lifestyle caught up with him in 1942 when two under-age girls, Betty Hansen and Peggy Satterlee, accused him of statutory rape at the Bel Air home of Flynn's friend Frederick McEvoy, and on board Flynn's yacht, respectively. The scandal received immense press attention. Many of Flynn's fans, assuming that his screen persona was a reflection of his actual personality, refused to accept that the charges were true. Some founded organisations to publicly protest the accusation. (One such group, the American Boys' Club for the Defense of Errol Flynn—ABCDEF—accumulated a substantial membership that included William F. Buckley, Jr.)
The trial took place in late January and early February 1943; Flynn's attorney, Jerry Giesler, impugned the women's character and morals, and accused them of numerous indiscretions, including affairs with married men and abortions. Flynn was acquitted, but the trial's widespread coverage and lurid overtones permanently damaged his carefully cultivated screen image as an idealised romantic lead player.
Marriages and family
Flynn was married three times: to actress Lili Damita from 1935 until 1942 (one son, Sean Flynn, 31 May 1941-disappeared MIA 1971); to Nora Eddington from 1943-49 (two daughters, Deirdre, born 1945 and Rory, born 1947); and to actress Patrice Wymore from 1950 until his death (one daughter, Arnella Roma, 1953–98). In Hollywood, he tended to refer to himself as Irish rather than Australian (his father Theodore Thomson Flynn had been a biologist and a professor at the Queen's University of Belfast in Northern Ireland during the latter part of his career). After quitting Hollywood, Flynn lived with Wymore in Port Antonio, Jamaica in the early 1950s. He was largely responsible for developing tourism to this area and for a while owned the Titchfield Hotel which was decorated by the artist Olga Lehmann. He popularised trips down rivers on bamboo rafts.
Flynn was a longtime friend of the painter Boris Smirnoff, who painted his portrait several times, as well as those of wives Lili Damita and Patrice Wymore, and celebrity friends such as Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, Norma Shearer and Barbara Stanwyck.
The gossips took note of his close friendships with Lupe Vélez, Marlene Dietrich, Dolores del Río and Carole Lombard. Lombard is said to have resisted his advances. She had already met and fallen in love with Clark Gable, but she liked Flynn and invited him to her extravagant soirees.
His only son, Sean (born 31 May 1941), was an actor and war correspondent. He and his colleague Dana Stone disappeared in Cambodia in 1970, during the Vietnam War, while both were working as freelance photojournalists forTime magazine. Neither man's remains has ever been found; it is generally assumed that they were killed by Khmer Rouge guerrillas. After a decade-long search financed by his mother, Sean was officially declared dead in 1984. In 2010 a British team uncovered the remains of a Western hostage in the Cambodian jungle, but DNA comparisons with samples from the Flynn family were negative. Sean's life is recounted in the book Inherited Risk: Errol and Sean Flynn in Hollywood and Vietnam.
Flynn's daughter Rory has one son, Sean Rio Flynn, named after her half-brother. He is an actor. Rory Flynn wrote a book about her father, The Baron of Mulholland: A Daughter Remembers Errol Flynn
By 1959, Flynn's financial difficulties had become so serious that he flew to Vancouver, British Columbia on 9 October to negotiate the lease of his yacht Zaca to the businessman George Caldough. As Caldough was driving Flynn and the young actress Beverly Aadland, who had accompanied him on the trip, to the airport on 14 October for a Los Angeles-bound flight, Flynn began complaining of severe pain in his back and legs. Caldough transported him to the residence of a doctor, Grant Gould, who noted that Flynn had considerable difficulty negotiating the building's stairway. Gould, assuming that the pain was due to degenerative disc disease and spinalosteoarthritis, administered 50 milligrams of demerol intravenously. As Flynn's discomfort diminished, he "reminisced at great length about his past experiences" to those present. He refused a drink when offered it. Gould then performed a leg massage in the apartment's bedroom and advised Flynn to rest there before resuming his journey. Flynn responded that he felt "ever so much better". After 20 minutes Aadland checked on Flynn and discovered him unresponsive. Despite immediate emergency medical treatment from Gould and a swift transferral by ambulance to Vancouver General Hospital, he did not regain consciousness and was pronounced dead that evening. The coroner's report noted the cause of death as a heart attack, with a significant incidental finding of cirrhosis of the liver.
Both of Flynn's parents survived him, as did his former wives and estranged third wife, Patrice Wymore, and his four children. He is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.