This is the thirty-second in a series of examinations of legends from movies and the people who make them and whether they are true or false.
Click here to view an archive of the previous movie urban legends.
MOVIE LEGEND: Sergeant Alvin York had as a condition that he would authorize a film based on his life that Gary Cooper had to play him.
Sergeant Alivin York was probably the most famous American soldier from World War I, as he single-handedly killed over 20 German soldiers while capturing 132 (128 troops plus 4 officers).
York was a Born Again Christian who initially resisted being involved in the War due to his pacifism. He was ultimately convinced that war could be “moral” and “Christian,” so for the rest of the war he dropped any
protests he might have once had.
But he was still a pretty modest fellow, even after winning the Medal of Honor.
So when Hollywood came a-calling during the early days of movies to make a movie out of his story, he consistently turned them down.
He did so for more than two decades, until something changed – the world was once again at war.
With the United States’ participation in World War II seemingly looming over the horizon, York softened his initial “no” position.
This time around, he would tell Warner Brothers that he would be willing to do the film, provided a certain amount of conditions were met (note that when he was first discussing doing the film with Warner Brothers, he was insisting on it focusing on his POST-War life as an educational reformer, but as the news from Europe got bleaker and bleaker, York understandably allowed them to play up the war aspects of the film).
First of all, he wanted no fabricated heroics in the film. Just an attempt to recreate the events of his life in
as accurate of a fashion as possible. That was fair enough, as his real life story was more fanciful than many fabricated war stories!
Secondly, his wife was not to be played by a “glamour girl”. Well, while undeniably pretty, Joan Leslie likely did not count as a “glamour girl,” so that part was fine, too.
Those were his only conditions, but history tends to repeat a third – that he would only authorize the film if he was played by Gary Cooper.
Cooper, at the time, was already one of the biggest male box office stars.
But he was also already well respected for the sort of quiet dignity he tended to bring to his roles, and I would presume that would be what York would say drew him to having Cooper portray him on film (it is true that York DID want Cooper to play him).
Cooper, for his part, thought that that task of playing someone like York was too daunting, and initially turned down the role.
It was here that the story of York’s demands were invented.
First of all, the producer of the film, Jesse Lasky, who had spent a great deal of time trying to bring York’s story to the screen (so he was not about to let anything screw it up), sent Cooper a telegram and signed York’s name to it, purporting that York was sending him the telegram.
The telegram read:
I have just agreed to let the motion picture producer Jesse L. Lasky film the story of my life. I have great admiration for you as an actor and as a man, and I would be honored, sir, to see you on the screen as myself.
Even after receiving the telegram, Cooper did not want to do the film. The fact that York was still alive was a major factor, as Cooper felt it restricted what he could do with the role.
It was around this time that, as part of their pestering, they planted the story that York would ONLY do the film if Cooper signed on. That certainly did not hurt, leverage-wise.
Eventually, Lasky and the film’s director, the great Howard Hawks, pestered Cooper constantly until he finally agree to do the film (provided that MGM, the studio he was signed with, allowed him to do the film – they worked out a trade with Warner Brothers – one film for MGM by Bette Davis in exchange for York for Warners).
So the film was made, with Cooper winning the Best Actor Academy Award and the film becoming the highest grossing film of 1941.
York might have driven a hard bargain, but it turned out to be a winning one for all involved! York, in particular, made over $150,000 from the film, which helped his educational work immensely.
MOVIE LEGEND: While still a fugitive from a chain gang, Robert E. Burns sneaked into California to work on the film adaptation of his book, I Am a Fugitive From a Georgia Chain Gang.
Robert E. Burns was living a hobo’s lifestyle when he was roped into committing a robbery of a grocer in Atlanta, Georgia in 1922. Burns actually tried to leave, but was caught trying to hitch a ride on a train by the train’s conductor and kicked off. With nowhere else to go (and, according to him, being forced at gunpoint to comply – that seems a bit hard to believe), he worked with the other two men.
Burns and two other men robbed the grocer and got away with a whopping $5.80. They were arrested minutes later.
Burns was sentenced to six to ten years of hard labor in a Georgia Chain Gang.
After a few months, Burns escaped to Chicago.
He recreated his life there, becoming a prominent member of the community in Chicago. Many years passed before a jilted ex-wife spilled the beans to the media, and soon the Georgia authorities were looking for Burns to be extradited back to Georgia.
He ultimately agreed to return, but only if he would serve a month of “easy” time.
Naturally, as soon as he returned in July of 1929, he was instead sent back to hard labor for over a year.
Granted, Burns eventually was made a trustee due to good behavior, so his time in prison the second time around was not nearly as bad as the first time around. Still, he was not pleased with the idea that he might have to serve the entire original term (which most of the nation agreed was excessive).
So once again, he escaped from the chain gang – this time using his privileges as a trustee to sneak a ride in the back of a watermelon truck.
He ended up in New Jersey, where his story “I Escaped From a Georgia Chain Gang” was serialized in True Detective Magazine in 1931 and became a massive sensation.
Naturally, Georgia once again asked for him to be extradited. This time around, though, the state of New Jersey refused. Burns was effectively a free man – so long as he stayed in New Jersey.
Well, first his story was turned into a book.
Then that book was turned into a movie starring Paul Muni in 1932.
But get this – Burns, who was only “safe” when he was in New Jersey, actually decided to travel to California to work on the film!!
Using a fake name, Burns traveled across the country and showed up on set and was given various jobs (that was really how he would end up spending most of the rest of his life – working odd jobs and writing about his experiences).
The film was a massive success, only the name was changed to drop “Georgia” from the title.
The film still ended up getting sued by the wardens depicted in the film (the studio ended up settling for a fairly large sum).
MOVIE LEGEND: Just months after being filmed for a scene in the Will Ferrell comedy, Semi-Pro, a bear killed its trainer.
In 2008, the Will Ferrell comedy, Semi-Pro, was released.
The movie was about an American Basketball Association team in Flint, Michigan, owned by Will Ferrell’s character (who is also the coach AND plays for the team) that is not doing very well with the fans. When the ABA announces that they are closing up shop and only four teams will be allowed to merge into the NBA, Ferrell’s character, Jackie Moon, comes up with various outlandish stunts to raise attendance so that his Flint Tropics team might have a shot at making the NBA.
One of these ridiculous stunts is that he, Jackie Moon, will wrestle a bear.
Here is the trained grizzly bear named Rocky that Ferrell’s character was to wrestle…
In the film, one of Rocky’s two trainers, Randy Miller, (two cousins, Randy and Stephan Miller, who both worked for Randy Miller’s animal training company, “Predators in Action”) stood in for Ferrell in the scenes where the bear fights with Ferrell’s character…
The film was released in February of 2008.
In April of 2008, Stephan Miller was dead, killed by Rocky the Bear!
In just a normal training exercise, the seven and a half foot tall, seven hundred pound bear just reached over and snapped its jaws around Millar’s neck, opening up his throat and delivering a fatal blow to the 39-year-old man.
In an interview given around the release of the film, Randy Miller noted that “If one of these animals gets a hold of your throat, you’re finished.”
And that’s exactly what happened to his cousin.
Miller’s company is one of the most acclaimed animal training companies around, and they were fully up to code and everything – you just can’t fully predict how wild animals are going to react.
Hearing that news, though, you can only imagine what Ferrell must have been thinking, knowing that just weeks earlier he was filming a scene with the bear (although not directly interacting with it like Randy Miller was).
Months later, officials still were undecided about whether to euthanize the bear. Honestly, I can’t find out if they ultimately did so.
Does anyone know one way or the other?
Okay, that’s it for this week!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org