Portrait of Leslie Howard (1893-1943) by Reginald G.Eves
Leslie Howard was an English stage and film actor, director, and producer.
He began acting on the London stage in 1917 but his greatest theatrical success was in the United States on Broadway, in plays such as Aren’t We All? (1923), Outward Bound (1924), and The Green Hat (1925). He became an undisputed Broadway star in Her Cardboard Lover (1927). After his success as time traveller Peter Standish in Berkeley Square (1929), he launched his Hollywood career by repeating the Standish role in the 1933 film version of the play. The stage, however, continued to be an important part of his career. He frequently juggled acting, producing, and directing duties in the Broadway productions in which he starred.
In Hollywood Howard often played stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. He appeared in the film version of Outward Bound (1930), though in a different role than the one he portrayed on Broadway. He starred in the film version of Berkeley Square (1933), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. He played the title character in The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) and later Professor Henry Higgins in the film version Pygmalion (1938) which earned him another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
While co-starred with Bette Davis in The Petrified Forest (1936) he is supposed to have insisted that Humphrey Bogart appear as gangster Duke Mantee which became Bogart’s break-out role. Howard and Bogart had previously appeared in the play together on Broadway and became lifelong friends. Bogart and Lauren Bacall went on to name their daughter “Leslie Howard Bogart”.
Howard is perhaps best remembered for playing Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind (1939), but he was uncomfortable with Hollywood and returned to England. He starred in a number of Second World War films including 49th Parallel (1941), “Pimpernel” Smith (1941), and The First of the Few (1942, known in the U.S. as Spitfire), the latter two of which he also directed and co-produced.
During the war he was active in anti-Nazi propaganda and reputedly involved with British or Allied Intelligence, which may have led to his death in 1943 when an airliner on which he was a passenger was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, sparking conspiracy theories regarding his death. A long-standing hypothesis states that the Germans believed that Winston Churchill was on board the flight. Churchill, in his autobiography, expressed sorrow that a mistake about his activities might have cost Howard his life. The BBC television series “Churchill‘s Bodyguard” broadcast in 2006 suggested that German intelligence agents had learned of Churchill’s proposed departure and route. Churchill’s bodyguard, Detective Inspector Walter H. Thompson later wrote that Churchill, at times, seemed clairvoyant about threats to his safety, and, acting on a premonition, changed his departure to the following day.