The scar rises razor-straight and livid from the waist of his shorts to just under his narrow, prominent chest.
“There’s no truth to the rumor that I’m dead.”
O’Toole keeps a weather eye out for the laugh, here. That’s the actor in him. He’s just finished sponging off the make-up in this tiny, stifling dressing room at the Studebaker theater, after playing the matinee idol in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” which opens Tuesday at the Kennedy Center.
No truth at all: At 46, and 16 years after he astonished us in “Lawrence of Arabia,” the son of Spats O’Toole the book-maker is hustling into corduroys and green socks (he always wears green socks) and his body looks hardy as a wharf rat’s.
It’s his face you keep wondering at. Though O’Toole does not, despite his quickness to astonishment at nearly everything else.
“I’m a 46-year-old gentleman and I’m not surprised at it,” he says, wrapping a bony O’Toole shrug around the words, coy and fatalistic at the same time; fey.
You remember that face — you couldn’t forget it — when O’Toole strode triumphant atop that ancient wooden train in “Lawrence,” teeth flashing in the desert sun, pale perfect skin — and the eyes. They were, and can be still, two pinion points of blue, like nailheads on which the rest of his face hangs.
Even though he finally stopped drinking four years ago (along with the operation, and his wife leaving him) little grog blossoms still touch his cheekbones, and the wrinkles scatter like jackstraws by the corners of his eyes. The chin juts. The teeth are distinctly British Isles.
“There’s not much I can do about it,” he says, and he flares his hand in that extravagant uncertainty of gesture, that world-wise ambivalence that made him a hero to a generation that was tired of Cold War sureties and Hollywood’s institutionalized naivete.
“We heralded the ’60s,” he says. “Me, Burton, Richard Harris; we did in public what everyone else did in private then, and does for show now. We drank in public, we knew about pot. The mores have changed since then. Oh, the mores have changed.”
Indeed: Peter O’Toole, back then, was what a lot of young men wanted to be forever, God’s blessing on the wild ginger man, the Irishman defending to the death his right to be miserable in that fine, dank, pint-pot funk of outraged women, losing horses, and endless, hopeless talk.
How he raved through the famous Gay Talese story about him in Esquire, 15 years ago: “Oh Ireland, it’s the sow that are its own farrow . . . tell me one Irish artist that ever produced here — just one!” (O’Toole now has a house in the west of Ireland.) “The Celts are, at rock bottom, deep pessimists: I don’t know what it is, but there’s something in me that after I build something. I knock it down — just for the hell of it.”