The list of all the old Hollywood actors who were drunks and the list of all the old Hollywood actors, period, are quite nearly the same list. The booze flowed more freely in those halcyon days before all the drunken accidents, before Errol Flynn got the Warner Bros. studio lot bar shut down, and before the spoilsport of "medical science" told us about all the terrible things alcohol was doing to our bodies.
The Golden Age of Hollywood ran from the 1920s through the 1950s, when the studio system finally collapsed under its own weight from complications due to alcoholism (and anti-trust laws). During that fun, dangerous, inebriated time, their contract players were given free reign to do basically whatever they wanted - as long as it could be quietly swept under the rug by a studio fixer. The old actors drank a lot at swanky parties every night; they drank when they were on set, they drank when they drove, they drank basically anytime they weren't sleeping or showering. And also probably some times while they were showering too.
Our standards for alcoholism have shifted a few degrees toward the abstentious over the years and many folks that contemporary society would deem "alcoholic" the culture of the past would have just called "fun." There are, however, some true superstars that stand out even amongst the pantheon of the old Hollywood drunks; your gold medalists on the Olympic Drinking Team, if you will. This article, then, is a celebration of the wild, hedonistic lives those Golden Era stars lived - and a cautionary tale for all those that want to avoid fates like ending up on Skid Row, dying with their spines coated in crystallized alcohol, or even worse: sobriety.
Here's lookin' at you, kids.
If you listen to the accounts of various studio publicists, Humphrey Bogart got the distinctive scar above his lip from either a childhood fist fight, after being punched by a prisoner he was transporting as a sailor in the Navy, or after taking shrapnel during a battle while aboard the USS Leviathan. If you ask his post-Navy drinking buddies, on the other hand, they’ll tell you that Bogie got the scar during one of his many barroom brawls in the Prohibition Era speakeasies of New York.
During his early years as a Broadway actor, Bogart was known for drinking until he fell asleep at the bar and then taking exception with anyone that tried to rouse him. His late-night antics got him kicked off more than one production, but that didn’t stop him from finding enough success that he was eventually able to move the bar cart out West to Hollywood.
Bogart set up shop in the infamous Garden of Allah, a housing development known for its wild clientele and the 24-hour lounge that served them even when other bars wouldn’t. Bogart’s legendary crew of drinking buddies included director and frequent collaborator John Huston, his great love Lauren Bacall, and Frank Sinatra – in fact, it was Bogart that created the first iteration of the infamous Rat Pack.
Despite everything, Bogart claimed to have only gone on the wagon once: “That was the worst afternoon of my life.”
Credits (Film): Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Big Sleep The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, + more
Age: Died at 58 (1899-1957)
#11 on The Coolest Actors Ever
#28 on The Most Beloved US Veteranssee more on Humphrey Bogart
Known as a charismatic swashbuckler onscreen and an even more charismatic drunken womanizer off of it, Errol Flynn is known as one of the original Hollywood hellraisers. His exploits with women (and men) and alcohol (and drugs) are legendary; his Curriculum Alcoholicae includes, amongst other items:
- Getting rum-drunk with a pre-rebellion Fidel Castro. The movie star said of the young revolutionary, "He will rank in history with some of the greats."
- Having the bar on the Warner lot shut down by Mr. Warner himself because Flynn kept getting too drunk on set.
- Bringing a doctor's bag with him to work every day containing his "daily medicine" - two fifths of vodka. Usually a whiskey drinker, Flynn preferred Bloody Marys in the morning to hide the scent of the alcohol, and his other favorite trick was to inject the vodka into oranges and just snack on the boozy fruit throughout the day.
- Having a bachelor pad with fellow actor/cad David Niven in Malibu nicknamed "Cirrhosis-By-the-Sea" where the tales of drunken excess are matched only by those of sexual debauchery.
That nickname, however, would turn out to be sadly prophetic. At only 32 years old, the rapidly aging sex symbol was told by a doctor that if he didn't change his lifestyle he'd be dead in five years. He didn't change - if anything he just partied harder - but he did beat the doctor's projection by a full 13 years before succumbing to a heart attack at age 50 induced by acute cirrhosis of the liver.
He was buried with six bottles of whiskey in his coffin.
Credits (Film): The Adventures of Robin Hood, Cinema Paradiso, Captain Blood, The Lady from Shanghai They Died with Their Boots On, + more
Age: Died at 50 (1909-1959)
Also Rankedsee more on Errol Flynn
Sometimes it's difficult to tell which of the stories surrounding the classic stars are real and which are the products of exaggeration, studio spin, mythologization by overeager fans (or themselves), or just straight-up lies passed around by bitter enemies.
Clara Bow, in particular, was a victim of the latter, and many of the more sordid stories that surround her name are patently untrue. There was an almost wholly fabricated article that appeared in a newspaper called the Coastal Times that accused her of, amongst other things, bisexuality, sex with prostitutes, and bestiality. Later, in his notorious book Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger claimed (equally as accurately) that Bow regularly sexually serviced the entire USC football team after their games. There was no Snopes at the time, however, and the public was eager to believe these salacious rumors.
On the other hand, there was a reason these stories stuck so well: some of the things they printed actually were true, and the wild life that the original "It Girl" really did live made the crazier accusations seem that much more plausible. Bow helped establish the modern image of the flapper; she liked to party. She was seen at bars, she slept with men (some of them married), and she flaunted it all on screen.
Among the more credible tales about Bow's behavior is the time that Paramount President B.P. Schulberg invited her to a party celebrating a recently appointed judge. She arrived at the party already drunk and proceeded to introduce herself to the judge by aggressively frenching him in front of his wife, then nasty-dancing with him until she was unceremoniously escorted off the premises by studio personnel. So yeah - Bow could throw down with the best of them, no exaggeration needed.
Credits (Film): Wings, Red Hair, The Saturday Night Kid, Paramount on Parade Ladies of the Mob, + more
Age: Died at 60 (1905-1965)
Also Rankedsee more on Clara Bow
"I have never imbibed while sleeping, and I drink nothing stronger than gin before breakfast."
William Claude Dukenfield was born above a bar in pre-prohibition times, and when the great experiment started, the young drunkard hoarded literally thousands of bottles of whiskey and gin in his attic. Even after prohibition ended, he continued to keep a sizeable stash of emergency alcohol in his home, which he explained to Harpo Marx like so: "Never can be sure prohibition won't be back, my boy!"
The classic W.C. Fields drinking story is that while on set he carried a vacuum flask filled with gin martinis that he would refer to as his "lemonade" (or in other tellings, his "pineapple juice"). One time, however, some practical joker switched out his contents with actual lemonade, prompting the furious cry "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"
Credits (Film): The Bank Dick, David Copperfield, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, It's a Gift Alice in Wonderland, + more
Age: Died at 66 (1880-1946)see more on W. C. Fields
Spencer Tracy was not what anyone would have called a '"fun drunk." The two-time Oscar-winner (and nine-time nominee) was known for being mean and violent when he was under the influence - and he was under the influence a lot. Tracy was frequently involved in bar fights, arrested by the police, and even once woke up in a padded cell in a Chicago asylum. He hated to fly and would take the train instead, packing his suitcase with bottles and drinking his way across the country.
Tracy wasn't technically drunk all the time; he would go on long sober kicks where he tried to stay away from booze entirely. Once he was off the wagon, however, Tracy was off. He would hole himself up in hotel rooms for weeks on end, often just sitting in the bathtub and doing nothing but drinking, not even getting up to use the toilet.
Tracy's drinking became so problematic that Fox issued him an ultimatum: quit drinking or you're fired. In response, Tracy walked out of the office to the bar across the street. Therein he proceeded to get himself completely smashed, then returned to the office - and completely smashed that too.
Tracy was picked up by MGM after that, who at least knew what they were getting. The studio kept a team on retainer known as "The Tracy Squad" that was employed strictly to take care of the depressive binge drinker. Every bar in a 25-mile radius was given their number and, when called, an ambulance would show up and a doctor and several security guards would grab Tracy and whisk him away to go sober up somewhere out of the public view.
Credits (Film): Amélie, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad Mad World, + more
Age: Died at 67 (1900-1967)
Also Rankedsee more on Spencer Tracy
For every sullen alcoholic sourpuss like Spencer Tracy there are always whimsical, fun-loving drunks like Peter O'Toole to balance things out.
The serious dramatic actor was, reportedly, too much fun to be around off-set. As a youth, he lived aboard a barge that reportedly sank because there were too many people on it during a party he threw. Instead of a wedding reception, he and his wife Sian had a ridiculous pub crawl, and then when she was giving birth to their first child, a drunken Peter finally showed up with a chorus of inebriated actors in tow and proceeded to serenade the entire hospital.
The former Lawrence of Arabia seemed to have a habit of starting to drink, blacking out, and waking up in strange places. Like Mexico. Or in a stranger's apartment with Michael Caine. Or on the Isle of Corsica. He loved drinking so much that one night, when a pub he was drinking at threatened to close its doors on him, O'Toole just bought the pub on the spot instead. He did return the next day to destroy the check, but the legend is that he and that pub owner remained close until the owner's death. Then when O'Toole tried to attend the services for his longtime friend, he showed up totally wasted... to the wrong funeral.
The most famous Peter O'Toole drinking story is the time that he cut off the tip of his finger and used the brandy he was drinking to sterilize it. He then reattached the finger himself... and drank the brandy. Weeks later when, for some strange reason, his finger was still hurting, he unwrapped it to find that not only had it not somehow magically reattached itself, he had also put it on backward.
O'Toole beat the odds and, despite his lifestyle, lived a relatively healthy, consistently prolific life. He was nominated for eight Academy Awards over the course of his career, the final nod coming for 2006's Venus at the ripe old age of 74.
Credits (Film): Lawrence of Arabia, Ratatouille, Prometheus, Troy Stardust, + more
Age: Died at 81 (1932-2013)
Also Rankedsee more on Peter O'Toole
To say that anyone was drunk all the time is obviously hyperbole, but perhaps the man that's come the closest to that lofty ideal is Richard Burton. Burton started drinking at age of 12 and continued, unabated by doctor's advice or personal tumult, until his death at age 58 with a body as riddled with alcohol damage as any ever seen by medical science.
Burton is best known for his Shakespearian turns on stage and screen, his work with Peter O'Toole, and films like Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with his on again/off again wife Elizabeth Taylor. When they were together, Richard would start drinking when he woke up at 7 a.m., continue through the day until unconsciousness, then repeat.
His routine was to start with a case of beer and work on that through the morning. Once he had that polished off, he would switch to hard liquor. Taylor, by comparison, was a relative teetotaler - she didn't start drinking with her husband until 10 a.m. As part of their requirements for appearing together in 1964's The Night of the Iguana, the two demanded a private bar at the top of the staircase that led to the set. And another one at the bottom. Because lord knows stairs are hard once you've had a few.
By the end, Burton's kidneys had swelled to "abnormal proportions" and his spine was coated top to bottom in crystallized alcohol.
Credits (Film): The Longest Day, Cleopatra, Where Eagles Dare, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Exorcist II: The Heretic, + more
Age: Died at 59 (1925-1984)
Also Rankedsee more on Richard Burton
Barbara Payton came to Hollywood a beautiful 20-year-old aspiring actress and model, rapidly reached those lofty goals, then fell from grace just as quickly into an alcohol- and drug-induced haze that ended her life before she could turn 40.
When Payton first entered Hollywood in the late 1940s, the town was still in the middle of the great Gilded Age and young Barbara was soon swept into the hedonistic whirlwind that was the parties, bars, and casting couches of the era. Barbara was dubbed "Queen of the Night Clubs" by the columnist Harrison Carroll and was seen carousing with Howard Hughes, Bob Hope, and mobster Mickey Cohen. She made appearances in several big pictures including Trapped, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, and Only the Valiant, but before long, her party lifestyle became more important to her than her work and her life became a series of destructive behaviors and bad relationships, most notably a love triangle between her, Franchot Tone, and Tom Neal.
Payton's life quickly spiraled out of control and she wound up a bloated, battered husk of her former self, living in a Skid Row apartment and turning tricks for bar money. She wrote "I always have a little too much rosé wine in me" in her memoir I Am Not Ashamed, an honest, funny, and heartbreaking book where she details the heights she rose to and the depths of her fall. She died of complications from alcohol-induced heart and kidney disease at only 39 years old.
Credits (Film): Bride of the Gorilla, 4 for Texas, Four Sided Triangle, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye Only the Valiant, + more
Age: Died at 40 (1927-1967)see more on Barbara Payton