The “Gone With the Wind” Actor Who Was Shot Down by Nazis
Buckle up. This story has more plot twists than a Hollywood blockbuster. Speaking of blockbusters, English actor Leslie Howard was in plenty of them, including the 1939 epic, Gone With the Wind, in which he played Scarlett O’Hara’s crush, Ashley Wilkes, as shown in these colorized photos.
This Golden Age of Hollywood leading man, however, traded in his acting career to return to England and devote himself to the war effort. This is where things took a turn. A civilian airplane with Howard and a handful of others on board was shot down by the Nazis and crashed into the ocean, never to be seen again. Was Leslie Howard targeted by the Nazis? Was he a spy? Were the Nazis out to get one of the other passengers? Well, we don’t know the answers to these questions, but there are some theories.
A Brief Background on Leslie Howard
Leslie Howard’s father was a Hungarian Jew, and his mother was a British Christian. As a young man, and after a brief stint in World War I, he dropped his Jewish-sounding given name, Steiner, and began to use his middle name as his last name when he entered show business. Howard started as a stage actor but found greater success when he moved to New York City and performed on Broadway. Hollywood came calling. In 1934, he starred in The Scarlet Pimpernel. He took the role of Henry Higgins in the 1938 film adaptation of Pygmalion. The next year, he was cast as the Southern gentleman, Ashley Wilkes in Gone With the Wind.
By this point, Leslie Howard was a bona fide movie star, but he was dissatisfied with the entertainment industry. And war was brewing in Europe. Even worse, there were reports that the German Nazis were systematically exterminating Jewish people. Howard felt compelled to help stop the Nazis. The problem was, he had a studio contract.
In 1939, Howard used his savings to buy himself out of his contract. Breaking his contract meant that he would have to sacrifice his royalties for Gone With the Wind.