Peter O'Toole to the Last Drop
The Actor on His Life, Half Empty or Totally Full
Martha Sherrill. Washington Post, April 24, 1993; D: 1, 7
He uttered one lovely turn of phrase after another. He quoted Shakespeare and Donne too. He was cheerful and grave. His face just existed, hanging there, glorious, the shroud of Turin taking over the dead air of the hotel room.
Another Gauloise was slowly cranked into the end of a black cigarette holder. He slid the tip into his fine mouth. A tiny bit of smoke escaped. In life, Peter O'Toole even at 60 seems much larger than on screen or stage. In life, he is grander, brighter, smoother, and with so much personality, tortured and refined and utterly engaging--with so much Peter O'Tooleness--that it leaks out through his pores, his every breath, out to his short dry gray hair, to his corduroy vest and jacket, to the pale green lace-up boating shoes at the end of his elegant stork legs. He has a feeling of hardly inhabiting his body and, at the same time, being much much too big for it.
Why aren't there more people like you?
"Mediocrity rules," he said, shrugging one of those wry, superb, one-inch shrugs. A sigh came next.
"You're one of the long line of people," he went on, "who ask me this as though I know the answer. I don't know the answer. Has something to do with the population. Conformity," he said.
Nobody wants to stand out?
"Tie a piece of wool on a sea gull's leg," he said. "I saw that done once. Tied a piece of red wool on a sea gull's leg and within about two minutes it was pecked to death by the other sea gulls."
You won't let that happen to you, will you?
"The bastards have tried."
Like Brando, the highs have been high and the lows fascinating. There he was in white robes in "Lawrence of Arabia," standing on top of the train. There he was too, as legions of stories go, stewed out of his mind on the London stage and unable even to stand straight up, leaning over a bit while he sprayed saliva well into the 10th row, but still brilliant, somehow, even brilliantly bad, world weary and booze weary, but out there and dangerous as he stole the show, dangling on the edge of control and reason, giving himself up totally with bravura performances, unguarded and raw.
"I wouldn't have missed one drop of alcohol that I drank," he told Us magazine in 1989. He quit long ago but it's still what everybody wants to know about him. Still drinking? He played a fabulous drunken movie idol in "My Favorite Year" in 1982, and then last year a drunken magazine columnist on the London stage in "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell," but he's been dry now for more than a decade, he says, taking only countless glasses of water or little green Tic Tacs to keep his mouth wet.
A sense of danger lingers though. Something patient and predatory about the smile. Something directionless and reckless too. He has called the first volume of his memoirs--just published in this country by Hyperion--"Loitering with Intent" for good reason. A couple of weeks ago, on a 10-city promotion tour, he appeared on David Letterman. He looked like he was about to lose it, like he might wander off, say something inappropriate. It was tense, watching him, and watching Dave not know what to do.
"I don't feel like talking about anything," he said last weekend. "I'll listen to you. Tell me about art."
He defies normal laws, subverts every interview. Last weekend, sitting in a suite at the Mayflower, one wobbly leg extravagantly thrown over the other, it was like a conversation with somebody you happened to sit next to on a plane. It came and went. He appeared more, and then less, interested. There were very long pauses. The look on his face--worldly-wise and amused--suggested a certain lack of interest in, well, things as usual. His replies seemed fresh, original, just made up, and came with a fragile raising of his hopeful and sorrowful Irish brow.
"Television, do you think that's a factor?" he asked, now continuing the conversation about why the world has grown so full of dull people, compared with him. "It's like living wallpaper."
Wouldn't have missed on drop . . . No regrets, no bitterness, nobody's fault. "Loitering with Intent" is much the same way. It's giddy, loose, gleeful, written with exclamations and enthusiasms and heart. Reviewers can gush over the language, call it Joycian and Dylan Thomasian, but it's the attitude and generous tone that are most unusual. It's a celebration of childhood, with memories of his parents as superb, joyful people--a racetrack bookie and a housewife--whose good company and companionship even made World War II in England pretty tolerable. It goes from pub to pub, racetrack to racetrack, with characters like "Bluey" and "Bob the Liar" and "Silky" and "Zulu" and "Jack Jack the Levantine." His woe seems saved for accounts of Hitler's life--one of O'Toole's lifelong obsessions--and for movies that moved him as a boy: "The appalling, tormented end of King Kong upset me greatly," he writes. "Gorgeous great monkey that he was."
So full of nicknames and working -class street slang and impressions and fabulous dark and happy Irishness, it descends at times into something of a Lewis Carroll "Jabberwocky" incomprehensibility--to an American's ears.
About riding on his father's shoulders, boldly placed on Page 1:
His tall frame would wave about pretending to unhorse me, tumbling past the ever-present fag in his gob, chucking threats reminding me that although he was temporarily blind he was still not deaf and that was the clang of a square-wheeled tram he could hear approaching rapidly, and my time had come to be tossed into its mangling clatter. Oh, no, Daddy!
As young Peter gets older, he quits school at 13, becomes a copy boy at a provincial newspaper, then joins the navy and goes to sea, ("vomiting over every square yard of it," he said). Even so, his accounts of these years don't seem so awful.
"What can I say?" he said, when told his perspective seems so generous, so un-American and without complaint. "It was a journey. I had no compass," he says of his life. "It was a leaky old vessel, it seemed to me, and I wasn't quite sure where I was going. And no matter how grim or whatever--the Navy wasn't always funny, and yet a lot of it was funny and that's what I remember, and that's what sort of lives with me."
And the war?
"And you can imagine, the bombs and all that, they weren't a chuckle a minute, and yet, does one remember that? I remember the comradeship. I remember the great love and care from my mother and father, and my poor little sister looked very hurt then, but you know, she's all right now, and I'm all right. We've lived, we've survived.
"This whole sense of looking for agonies I find very strange, but there again I'm me, I'm not anybody else."
Actor, Drinker, Personality
O'Toole had already begun Volume 2 of the trilogy, about his acting life--the thing that brought him fame and seven Academy Award nominations and so many famous drinking partners. His classmates at the Royal Academy of Performing Arts were Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Richard Harris. He was already a major stage star in England, doing John Osborne and Shakespeare plays, by the time he appeared in "Lawrence of Arabia" at 28.And he got the role, oddly enough, when Finney and Brando had both turned it down, and when director David Lean finally insisted on O'Toole, even though a pint bottle of Scotch had dropped out of the actor's suit jacket during the audition.
More good roles and more drinking ensued. He was Henry II in "Becket" in 1964 with Burton, and they were both--by all accounts--drunk for the entire filming. O'Toole played Henry again in "The Lion in Winter" in 1968 with Katharine Hepburn, and the producer of the movie, Joseph E. Levine, unsuccessfully tried to sue O'Toole a few years later for a portion of his salary, charging that his drunkenness drove the picture over budget and caused Hepburn to nearly quit.
But memory can change everything. In Hepburn's book, "Me," the only references to O'Toole are happy ones. She writes about giving him "a good swat on the head" while they were filming "the Lion in Winter," because he was hogging the make-up man one day. While she was busy shooting the next scene, O'Toole turned up with his head "wrapped completely in bandages and he was walking with crutches and moaning. You can see," she writes, "we had fun."
"We got on very well," said O'Toole last week. His jolly memory at work again. "She's a lovely woman. She's a crazy, gorgeous woman."
he played the devoted schoolteacher Mr. Chips in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and a lovely schizophrenic in "The Ruling Class." he was the adventurer in "Lord Jim" and a movie director in "The Stunt Man" and a tutor in Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor."
But he was also in "Caligula" and "Zulu Dawn" and such a bad production of "Macbeth" at the Old Vic that, despite all his efforts--or perhaps due entirely to them--it was sold out because people came in droves to see how bad it really was. The Times in London called it "gruesome" and "heroically ludicrous." The Observer said: "Chances are he likes the play, but O'Toole's performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it." And then, the Sunday Times: "Don't trust those reviews. The spectacle is far worse than has hitherto been made out, a milestone in the history of coarse acting."
Being an actor, being terribly superstitious, O'Toole believed the play--for centuries considered to have brought disaster and bad luck on thousands of actors and directors and stage managers--responsible for the breakup of his 16 year marriage to actress Sian Phillips, and the death of a close friend.
The day after the opening night reviews, he invited reporters to his house in suburban Hampstead, and they found him there, in his memorabilia-crowded "green room," wearing a long green dressing gown and hands still caked with stage blood from the night before. He had one thing to say about the critics: "Arseholes!"
Finding the Works
A few knocks at the door, and O'Toole's lunch arrived in the Mayflower suite. A room service waiter walked in very deliberately, very carefully placing a tray--plate of fruit, bowl of plain yogurt, coffee--in front of the movie star with the sort of quickness and caution you'd reserve for feeding a dangerous zoo animal. O'Toole sat still for nearly one minute, in silence.
"When I was young," he said, "people were expected to be able to do many things. The people I was brought up with. Think of Noel Coward. Think of, oh practically anybody: They wrote, they acted, they played golf. I've got mates who do everything. Jazz musicians. Now, people try to get satisfaction out of one tiny little green pea and I want the whole market garden and an orchard!"
His life isn't exactly "quiet" now, he says. But "more peaceful than it used to be because I'm 60--amongst other things." He lives in London, has been appearing in Keith Waterhouse plays, rides horses in the country, enjoys cricket and reading and "being with chums. Nothing extraordinary," he said. Doesn't like to travel much either, anymore. This summer, he'll stay put and scribble away, writing longhand, trying to finish the next installment of the trilogy.
"I've already started it," he said. "So it's rolling. And it's the same voice. Different attitude, but it would be. Strange process, isn't it?"
Finding his voice on paper didn't happen right off. Being yourself is sometimes a little harder for an actor, it seems, than other people. "I found myself running around in circles trying to begin the damn thing," he said. "That was the killer. Beginning it."
You kept putting it off?
"Not so much as getting it wrong," he said. "I knew the facts. Those immutable great things. Chronological statistics do give--what?--depth, shade, but they don't paint, do they? And then I came to a painting I found that I trusted completely. It took time. But I began to trust completely what I call my pictures, seen from this remove. Layer after layer of crap that adheres to one! I keep journals, letters and things. And a long time after starting, a long time, months, one day a voice came. A voice that said: fair . . . Fair for me. Fair for the reader. Fair for what happened. In one's own voice. I can't be too rational about it, it just happened."
Sometimes the works "just flew out" and "just dropped off the end of the pen." And there were days of "plod, plod, plod." But writing can be something of a performance art.
"Yes! You weep and laugh and chuckle and do all those things same as I did when I'm studying a play. Exactly the same. Only instead of taking the words in I'm putting the words out. It's not that major really. Still words. Magic things. The loom of language."
Does he love writing as much as he loves acting?
"Love?" There was a long, long pause here. His eyebrows sighed. "Looooove. That's a verb isn't it? And we know about love. It ain't all that cozy, is it? Yes it's a love affair with all that implies."
The Ups and Downs
He is always described as a phoenix. he is always rising from some occasion, from some failure, from some brief vanishing. He is always coming back into our consciousness, back into our limelight, back onto the screens. Before the raves for his new book, the last we heard of him was in 1987--when he got an amazing collection of bitingly bad reviews for his Broadway debut in "Pygmalion" with Amanda Plummer. "Yes, I keep on coming back, having never gone away," O'Toole said.
So many feature writers passed his way in the '60s and 70s, passed along one brilliant description of his face and wardrobe after another--the drama critic Kenneth Tynan in Playboy, the "New Journalism" legendary Gay Talese in Esquire--back when celebrity profiling was still considered a dignified profession. They'd go on about the nuns who taught him, how his tongue was split in half playing rugby when he was a boy, the nose job he got before "Lawrence," his drinking amore drinking, the mysterious stomach surgery (there is a scar, at any rate) that now keeps him from drinking, his famous movie flops and stage flops--both sober and not sober, how he never carries a watch or a wallet or a lighter (he appeared to have all three last weekend), how his wife Sian Phillips left him for a younger man, how he fought for custody of his illegitimate son Lorcun [sic] He's a bit like Brando. The high highs. The utterly fabulous lows . . .
Why is that?
What is it about him?
Why is he more interesting than other people?
"I was talking to a chemist chum of mine," he mused. "He's got himself a little villa on an island where the sun shines and he was telling me that nearly all his neighbors are people who've made a lot of money and have spent their lives just accumulating these bucks. And then they've bought themselves these lovely little retirement places with a pool and they don't know what to do. They're just bored. Well, isn't it time to start living as soon as you can? And then, just keep your fingers crossed if you survive?"