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Actor & Patriot

By Karen Costanzi

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Leslie Howard Tobacco Card1930's Leslie Howard WB-Vitagraph Publicity PhotoMainly remembered for his sensitive portrayal of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, Leslie Howard was a man who lived his beliefs.  He was born Leslie Howard Stainer in London on April 3, 1893 in London and died in early June 1943 in the Bay of Biscayne, Spain.   

His role in Gone with the Wind followed a distinguished career as a stage and movie actor.  He was well known for his roles in plays and movies on both sides of the Atlantic.  In 1938, Mr. Howard received an Oscar® for his role in Pygmalion, which he also directed.  Other movies included Outward Bound - 1930, Berkeley Square - 1933, Of Human Bondage - 1934, and The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Petrified Forest in 1935His many roles were often that of a disillusioned intellectual, such as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion and Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.  He was in 36 films in his short career.

During his career, Mr. Howard was perceived as being very competitive.  One story that persists is that he was known to count his lines and that if any costars had more lines than he did, he would demand that some of their lines be cut.  But he was also perceived as being very loyal.  This loyalty led to a co-starring role for a little-known actor, Humphrey Bogart, in the film version of The Petrified Forest.  Bogart had originated the role on stage, but the producers of the film wanted to use their star “gangster,” Edward G. Robinson.  Bogart and Howard remained friends until his death.

But one attribute was very sure--Mr. Howard was extremely patriotic.  He joined the British Army during World War I, but was mustered out due to shell shock.  At this time he was advised to take up acting as therapy.  He didn’t pursue an acting career at that time, but worked as a clerk to Leslie Howard graces the cover of True Story Magazine with Norma Shearersupport his young family.  It has been said that his depressed and somber attitude as Ashley Wilkes reflected his own feelings about the war with Germany.  Soon after Gone With the Wind was completed, he devoted most of his time working as a civilian on behalf of the war effort.  He directed and starred in “industrial” films—propaganda pictures made to promote enlistment as well as those to keep up morale on the home front. These included Common Heritage in 1940, The Forty-Ninth Parallel in 1941, and In Which We Serve in 1942. He also wrote articles and made radio broadcasts.

Leslie Howard’s death was a source of intrigue.  He died when the British Overseas Airways plane he was on was shot down by German fighters over the Bay of Biscayne. The legend persisted for some time that Mr. Howard probably knew that the plane would never make it to Lisbon; it had been sent as a decoy and Churchill was said to be on it.  However, a double was on Howard’s plane, while Churchill was on another one. While this story is the stuff that heroes are made of, his son Ronald stated in a biography, “In Search of My Father,” that he doubted the story of the decoy. 

Whether portraying a disillusioned Southern gentleman in Gone With the Wind or a comically prim hero in The Scarlet Pimpernel, Leslie Howard was an actor with high standards and a patriot who devoted his many talents to supporting his country’s efforts in WWII.
Karen Costanzi is an actor and writer living in Colorado.  Watch for profiles such as this in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter

Benson, Kit and Morgan. “Find a Grave.”  September 21, 1998. Accessed 1/20/03. The Internet Obituary Network.  Accessed 1/20/03. Accessed 3/20/03.