Some of you may just know Drew Barrymore as a popular daytime talk show host, or as the actress who routinely pretends to fall in love with Adam Sandler in suspiciously exotic, vacation-friendly locations. But she’s also a member of one of the most famous acting dynasties of all time. For example, you might remember her great-uncle Lionel as the guy who nearly drives George Bailey to suicide, but also, admittedly, would have made Bedford Falls way more fun.

Perhaps the most famous Barrymore of all, though, was Drew’s grandfather John; star of stage and screen, nicknamed “The Great Profile” for his impressive screen presence. In 2020, Drew made headlines by confirming one of the most unhinged Hollywood legends of all-time, concerning the theft of her grandfather’s dead body, while simultaneously obliterating her taste buds on the YouTube show Hot Ones.

The story, recounted by host Sean Evans, involves swashbuckling movie star (and giant creep) Errol Flynn, best known for The Adventures of Robin Hood – or to ‘90s kids, the guy who tried to murder The Rocketeer. Supposedly, one evening Flynn, comedy legend W.C. Fields, and art critic Sadakichi Hartmann, all stole Barrymore’s fresh corpse from the morgue in order to “throw one last party.” Without hesitating, Drew confirmed the wacky/incredibly gross story. But the truth may be far more complicated …

First of all, the origin of this story seems to be Flynn’s posthumously-released 1959 autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways which, incidentally, makes a number of other questionable claims. According to Flynn, the perpetrator of this Weekend at Bernie’s-esque scheme was not him but rather director Raoul Walsh, who had an “offbeat sense of humor.” And the purpose of extracting Barrymore’s body wasn’t to party with the lifeless husk of their dead friend, but simply to freak the hell out of Flynn. 

As summarized in the book, Walsh had gathered with Flynn and some others at a pub, then excused himself only to secretly drive over to the funeral home where Barrymore’s body was housed. Walsh then, allegedly, offered the mortician a bribe of $100, along with the false claim that he was merely going to deliver it to Barrymore’s “crippled aunt” so she could have “a final look at her beloved nephew.” At which point he (and two other friends) loaded the body into his station wagon, drove it over to Flynn’s house, and propped the late actor up in his “favorite chair in front of the door.” When Flynn drunkenly stumbled in later that night, he turned on the lights and “let out a delirious scream” before running out of the house – at which point Walsh emerged revealing that it was all a “gag.”

Cooper Square Press

Here’s where things start to get a little hinky; Walsh also described this story in his autobiography, which came out in 1974 – but some key details are wildly different. In Walsh’s telling, they were never at a pub, but rather Flynn’s house. When Flynn excused himself to run an errand, Walsh headed over to the “Malloy Brothers” mortuary. He was able to convince Mr. Malloy, a former actor and acquaintance of the filmmaker, to allow him borrow Barrymore’s corpse in order to visit “an old friend of Jack’s.” Walsh drove the body back over to Flynn’s, and sat in on the couch, with the help of Flynn’s “Russian butler” who was told that Barrymore was merely drunk as hell, and could use a cup of coffee.

Doubleday

Which version of the story is true? Very possibly neither

According to Barrymore biographer John Kobler, his remains were taken to the Pierce Brothers Mortuary (not Malloy) and “nobody kidnapped the body.” Barrymore’s friend, journalist Gene Fowler, who was with him when he died, reportedly sat by the body all night, along with his son Will. The only visitor was a sex worker, “well known in the area,” who “knelt and prayed and continued on her way in silence.” 

Which admittedly, isn’t nearly as good of a story. Looking at evidence, unless Drew is party to some family secrets the public isn’t aware of, this sure seems like a concoction of Flynn and Walsh’s imaginations. So why has this possibly bogus anecdote endured through the years? Seemingly it’s because of movies

Remember how W.C. Fields was a key player in the story told on Hot Ones? Neither Flynn nor Walsh mention anything about Fields in their accounts, so how did he get thrown into the mix? Well, the 1976 biopic W.C. Fields and Me includes a scene in which Fields (who was real life friends with Barrymore) and several drinking buddies have absconded with Barrymore’s corpse. But in this version of events, the prank is no longer about scaring the crap out of Robin Hood, it’s just so they can all share one last toast with their friend.

Universal Pictures

It seems as though Fields’ presence was invented purely for the film, because this episode never even comes up in the memoir it’s based on. The incident was again re-told on camera in the 1985 TV movie adaptation of My Wicked Wicked Ways, which again swaps around certain details, piggybacking off of the W.C. Fields movie by having Walsh’s macabre gag be motivated by the sentimental urge to let Flynn have one final drink with Barrymore – who, and we can’t stress this enough, was a raging alcoholic who essentially drank himself to death.

CBS

CBS

As Drew mentioned in 2020, this story also inspired the ‘80s Hollywood satire S.O.B., directed by Blake Edwards of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Pink Panther fame. At the end of the film, three friends steal the dead body of their producer friend and, you guessed it, prop him up in a chair and get hammered with their embalmed comrade.

Paramount Pictures

Critics noted at the time that there were similarities between Edwards’ film and the “legendary practical joke” involving John Barrymore. And, strangely enough, it’s because of this dumb movie that we may actually know the answer to what really happened. One of the film’s co-stars was an actor named Robert Preston, who began his career in the 1930s and eventually starred in classics like The Music Man and How the West Was Won

While promoting S.O.B., Preston was asked about the Barrymore tale. He called the story “apocryphal” and, in what is perhaps the most believable account of these events on record, claimed that it was Flynn who wanted to “steal Barrymore's corpse and take him to Ciro's,” the legendary Sunset Boulevard nightclub. But the plan was halted by a guy named Buster Weill, Flynn’s stunt-double, who “physically stopped Barrymore's pals from carrying out that joke” as they “were on their way down to the funeral parlor.”

So in all likelihood, this all began as a terrible idea that Flynn was prevented from actually following through on – but since it was such a novel idea, he later re-appropriated his botched escapade as a supposedly true anecdote in order to spice-up his memoir, eventually ascribing the actual criminal part of the story to his friend so as not to look bad. And everybody just kept telling this story for decades, because – well, it’s a damn good story.

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Top Image: CBS Media Ventures/Warner Bros.

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