Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Public Interview with Peter O’Toole

I do not think I ever imagined that one day I might be sitting in the presence of one of my favorite actors of all time, the legendary Peter O’Toole, listening to him tell stories of his life and career. But it happened. And what better way to enhance the experience than to precede it with watching one of my favorites of his many screen performances, as the perennial and flamboyant bad boy movie star Alan Swann in Richard Benjamin’s 1982 film My Favorite Year? And to follow it with a filmed-for-TV version of his final London stage triumph, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell?

The latter film was included as part of the program. My Favorite Year was at another theatre a half-mile away and was one of several O’Toole movies aired at the Galway Film Fleadh as a tribute. Due to the scheduling, I found myself jumping out of my seat at the Omniplex just after Swann had made his famous entrance on live television in 1954 by swinging on a rope over the audience and landing on the stage.

I ran to the Town Hall Theatre with just enough time to catch the man in person. As it turned out, I could have waited to see the final few minutes and all the credits, since there was a delay in letting the crowd into the auditorium, as RTÉ were setting up for recording the interview for radio. After we were finally let in, presenter John Kelly walked out to give the usual spiel about fire exits and turning off mobile phones when it immediately became apparent that Kelly’s microphone was not going out through the PA system. We couldn’t hear him. Then began a process of the RTÉ sound guy repeatedly calling up to the projection booth for someone to turn on Kelly’s mic. (His mic, a small and discreet clip-on job, was on and working fine for recording purposes, we were assured.) The next thing we heard was the disembodied voice of Peter O’Toole chatting with someone backstage. More directions were yelled up to the booth, Kelly kept repeating an un-amplified “one two three” and we kept getting snatches of O’Toole’s voice, as big as life filling the auditorium. Eventually, we heard him in the middle a major congestion-clearing cough, and we all laughed but also cringed at the undignified invasion the great man’s privacy. I think we were all afraid that next we would be hearing a toilet flush—or worse. Finally, Kelly declared that he was taking things into his own hands and walked off stage. He soon returned with an old-fashioned handheld microphone. As we waited for things to begin, I nearly felt like I was in the audience of the live King Kaiser TV show depicted in My Favorite Year. I nearly expected O’Toole to come swinging in on a rope.

Finally, the man of the hour ambled out on stage amid, to no one’s surprise, a rapturous standing ovation. His movements were slow and deliberate and, while on his feet, he appeared a bit frail. But his presence was as imposing as ever. And the voice was the same as we have known and loved it for more than 40 years. His speaking cadence might have been a bit more hesitant than we remembered, but it was clearly the same voice and same wit. Before taking any questions, he announced that his memory for “names and titles” was gone and we were not to expect him to remember any of them. But as it turned out, with few exceptions, he had an amazing command of people’s names and the titles of plays and movies—so many in fact that I myself cannot remember most of them.

People who happened to read my report last year of Kelly’s interview with Jeremy Irons may remember that my main gripe about him as an interviewer is his tendency to spend so much time discussing acting method, shortchanging us on more lively chat. To be fair, there is probably no way I could do what Kelly or other professional presenters do, and I think he was actually taking into account that he had one of the most colorful figures of our age in the chair across from him. He did elicit a fair bit of biographical information and did prompt the actor to tell some of his more famous anecdotes. But, frustratingly (especially for an event at a film festival) he asked him specifically about only two of his scores of movies: Lawrence of Arabia, his first starring role, and Venus, his 2006 movie that garnered his most recent Oscar nomination. And, frustratingly, the discussion of Lawrence barely brought up the name of director David Lean. Another disappointment was the omission of the usual time for questions from the audience, which is when, at least in past interviews, some of the best questions get asked.

A County Galway native, O’Toole recounted how he was born in Connemara to an Irish father and a Scottish mother. He grew up in Leeds, England, where his father was a bookie and he attended Catholic school. He had two professions before he began his half-century-plus career as a full-time actor. He was a reporter for a Yorkshire newspaper, and then he spent two years in the Royal Navy, an experience he says he enjoyed very much. The day before the Film Fleadh interview, he was brought down to the Galway docks and chatted with some sailors whose navy ship was docked there. They offered to bring him on board but, he said, he refused because he might not come off again.

Asked what made him want to become an actor, O’Toole said it was seeing Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic Rashomon and later his 1954 classic The Seven Samurai. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in the company of the likes of fellow Irishman Richard Harris and Albert Finney and Alan Bates. He described his time on the stage in the 1950s as a kind of golden age where the actors were in control. Turning a bit curmudgeonly, he decried the state of theatre these days, saying, “Everything is controlled by directors and designers.” Kelly asked him about the story of him applying to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, one that O’Toole said had been made too much of. He explained that he had applied and been rejected for the reason that he did not have the Irish language. “Are you looking for an actor or a linguist?” he intoned with a bit of indignation. He later was a made a lifetime member of the Abbey, however, a fact that clearly pleased him. In the long discussion of his acting craft, O’Toole offered his definition of what a “professional” is, in terms of acting. He illustrated it with the (apocryphal?) story of an 80-year-old actor who was called in at the last minute to fill in for someone else. As O’Toole told it, the old man wiped some black grease from under a window sill, applied it to strategic points on his face, briskly wiped his hands clean and with a no-nonsene, all-business manner asked, “Okay, where’s the stage and what’s the play?”

Kelly’s cruise through the acting method finally hit a sandbar when he asked a question that, as he admitted while asking it, was extremely trite. He asked what advice O’Toole could give to anyone trying to start out in the acting business. It was the only time that the actor appeared completely befuddled by a question. He muttered something about never being very good at taking advice himself and therefore not particularly good at “dishing it out.” He then went on to describe his holy trinity of the creative process: actor, author, audience.

O’Toole was playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice when he got the call for the lead in Lawrence of Arabia. David Lean’s Indian brother-in-law had happened to see O’Toole in a small role as an English captain in the film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and said to the director, “There is your T.E. Lawrence.” O’Toole told the familiar stories of learning to ride a camel and the endless months of filming, as the production stretched out. He was taught to ride by the grandson of Auda abu Tayi, who was played in the movie by Anthony Quinn. O’Toole said he recently realized, upon watching the movie again a few years ago, that a long shot of Lawrence and another man riding camels in the distance was of himself and his camel riding instructor. His friend died a few years later, fighting the Israelis. With some apparent amazement, O’Toole noted that, after more than two years of filming in several countries under a wide variety of conditions, he only came close to being killed once. That was on virtually the last scene filmed, which happened to be the first scene in the movie, back in England. He was being towed with a camera filming him close up. He was supposed to be riding a motorcycle and, as the real Lawrence did (fatally), he went into a ditch.

In the best part of the interview, Kelly asked him about a number of the actors he had worked with and/or been friends with. As if playing a stream of consciousness game, O’Toole responded to each name with a single word followed by a pause and some elaboration. His word for Audrey Hepburn (his co-star in William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million): “unhappy.” He described her as discontent in her marriage and wanting to get out of the business. While filming in Paris, when director Wyler mentioned to him that Hepburn was “blue,” O’Toole and Eli Wallach decided to give the iconic gamine (who, he said, never ate) a brandy and port. They then got into a car (with Hepburn driving) which she then proceeded to plow into a bridge pillar.

His word for Richard Burton was “friend.” We learned that Burton always called him by his middle name, Seamus. He spoke perhaps most movingly of Richard Harris, not only a fellow Irishman but a fellow rugby fan. Noting that they had always supported their home provinces’ teams (Connaught for O’Toole, Munster for Harris), the actor could not help but tease his friend from beyond the grave. Noting Munster’s recent success in the European championship, O’Toole laughed, “Harris had to die before Munster could win the Heineken Cup.” When it came to Peter Finch, Kelly coaxed O’Toole into telling the famous story about how the two of them were on the way from Dublin to the seaside town of Bray when they stopped into a small pub. (“A real hole in the wall,” said O’Toole.) The owner refused to serve them, so they wrote out a check, insisting on buying the pub. To their relief, when they returned the next day, the owner had not attempted to cash the check. For years after, O’Toole brought people to the little “hole in the wall” place, to “his” pub. “I brought executives from Columbia Studios there,” he said proudly. “I brought Kim Novak there.”

Kelly even asked O’Toole about the late Cyd Charisse even though, as far as I know anyway, the two never worked together. He asked because they were sitting under her image, a blow-up of poster art for the Film Fleadh, which was taken from an outtake of Singin’ in the Rain, from the famous ballet dance with her and Gene Kelly. O’Toole told of meeting Fred Astaire and asking him about his favorite dance partners. As he counted down the list, O’Toole said, “And Cyd Charisse?” O’Toole said Astaire’s face suddenly lit up, making him look like a delighted little boy. “When you have danced with Cyd Charisse,” he said, “you stay danced with!”

O’Toole actually had to prompt Kelly to ask him about Katharine Hepburn. About her the actor was positively effusive, saying that she exemplified everything great about America. He recounted how he read the script for A Lion in Winter and immediately felt that no one could play Eleanor of Aquitaine except Katharine Hepburn. He sent her the script, not particularly expecting to hear back from her. To his surprise, after a fair amount of time had elapsed, he got a phone call. Doing a spot-on imitation of Hepburn’s famous voice, he quoted her as saying, “Do this before I die!” They made her deadline with 35 years to spare, winning three Oscars in the process, including one for Hepburn, as well as earning O’Toole the third of his eight Oscar nominations.

O’Toole spoke of what a great time he had co-directing and starring in his 1990s tour de force at London’s Old Vic, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. It brought his professional career full circle, bringing him back to the acting days he really loved. He says that he will not act on stage again but continues to take film and television roles if interesting ones are offered to him. Recent movie roles have included King Priam in Troy, the Duke in the latest Lassie remake, the egotistical food critic in Ratatouille and the King in Stardust. He has also had a recurring role as Pope Paul III on The Tudors.

In a stark departure from his usual high-minded line of questioning, Kelly broached the subject of O’Toole’s reputation for carousing—under the guise of “how it affected the work,” of course. He was particularly interested in the accounts of how O’Toole was known to climb buildings and if he actually enjoyed doing that. Revealing no apparent shame or feelings of repent, O’Toole replied mischievously, “I still do,” adding that it was especially fun while drunk. Because of health complications, O’Toole’s drinking days are long behind him. And clearly, if he still enjoys climbing buildings, it is only in the form of reminisces. But in that moment, I knew I was still watching the same man I had seen on a movie screen just a couple of hours before, falling off a balcony while tied to a fire hose on a movie screen.

God bless Peter O’Toole. In spite of everything, he gives us all hope. Well, at least us guys. (Attended 13 July 2008)