Did Sergeant York Have a Condition That He Would Only Approve a Film About His Life if Gary Cooper Played Him?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the Movie urban legends featured so far.

MOVIE URBAN 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 Alvin 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.

Read on to learn what his conditions are, and whether one of them was that he had to be played by Gary Cooper!

With his position softened, York told Warner Brothers that he would be willing to do the film, provided the following conditions were met (note that when he was first discussing doing the film with Warner Brothers, he insisted that it focus 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 his war exploits in 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, the studio planted the story that York would ONLY do the film if Cooper signed on (as we noted recently, this is far from the craziest rumor planted by a studio). 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 that he was under contract 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 Cooper doing 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.

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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