The young actor was excited to learn he had been cast alongside a Hollywood legend. He was still trying to find his place in the entertainment world. Appearing next to one of the biggest stars in the industry could be just the thing to make his career take off.
It didn’t take long for the newcomer to realize that the only thing bigger than the leading man’s celebrity was his ego. He wasn’t content to be the biggest star in the movie; he wanted to be the only star. Within days after the start of the film’s production, the Hollywood legend’s reputation as a scene stealer was on full display.
The young actor quickly lost his admiration for the leading man. Time after time, he saw his parts in the movie minimized to make room for the star’s ever-growing need for screen time. The younger man tried to show respect and not let it bother him, but resentment steadily grew with every flagrant act of oneupmanship.
The movie was a western. It was loosely based on history and had plenty of dramatic scenes to go around. The legend seemed intent on making himself the center of all of them. After putting up with this for one more long, aggravating day, the younger star reached his breaking point.
It was three o’clock in the morning. The actors and crew were exhausted, but they still had to film the campfire scene. The script called for an elderly Native American woman to share prophesies to amused cavalry officers.
The young actor had a line to say in the scene. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to threaten the delicate ego of the star. The legend took the director aside for a quick conversation. When rehearsals resumed, the younger star suddenly found that he had been repositioned behind other actors who had lesser roles but more height. The intent was obvious. With the way the scene was re-staged, the younger actor wouldn’t be seen by the camera when it came time to deliver his line.
Quietly fuming, the displaced actor took his new position for rehearsal. When it was time to deliver his line, he flubbed it. The next time, he flubbed it again. This caught the attention of other members of the cast. The young man could always be counted on to be well prepared for each scene. He was developing a reputation as a “one-take wonder” who never missed a line. Perhaps the late hours were taking a toll.
The young man appeared to be embarrassed as he shuffled his feet, kicking self-consciously at the dirt. If the film’s star took any satisfaction in the younger man’s discomfort, he didn’t say anything. The director called for everyone to take their positions to make another attempt at the scene. To everyone’s relief, the actor said his lines perfectly. The director called for the cameras to roll. The crew recorded the scene, and everyone could retire for a couple of hours of sleep before beginning again.
What no one seemed to notice until later was that the younger actor was doing more than just shuffling his feet and kicking the dirt in embarrassment. As the young actor recalled, “As the rehearsal went on, I kept quietly scraping a pile of loose earth together with my feet. I didn’t make use of it in the rehearsal, but when the cameras rolled. I quietly stepped up on my newly created gopher mound. When the time came for my own line in the scene it, dropped like the gentle rain from heaven on the heads of the men in front.”
History does not record the thoughts of the star who tried to push his co-star out of the camera’s eye. In retrospect, it seems so trivial that he would have felt so threatened by anyone sharing his limelight. He was, after all, the great Errol Flynn, whose face and name were known around the world. His place as one of the greatest stars of all time was already secure.
Perhaps Flynn was afraid his co-star would outshine him. The co-star did go on to become a big name in Hollywood, but not to the level that would threaten Errol Flynn’s reputation in the entertainment industry. He got good reviews for that role in The Santa Fe Trail, but he was destined to play another role that would eclipse any part played by any actor in any movie ever made.
Forty years after the young, promising actor climbed atop a gopher mound would climb the steps of Capitol Hill, place his hand on a Bible, and be seen by people all over the world. The young man’s name was Ronald Reagan.
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