This article was originally published in the Nov. 12, 1978, Style section.
CHICAGO — Naked save for boxer shorts in the shrill blaze of lightbulbs caged over the mirror, Peter O’Toole sighs: “No. No terminal illness. I had an operation four years ago, got my innards fixed, and that’s where that story got started.”
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.”
And now, O’Toole sags back on a moribund plaid couch in Chicago and says: “I never felt self-destructive.” Denies it flat out with a resignation that is not to be challenged. And of course, self-destruction no longer is the modus operandi of college boys, either, they found that they had no trouble succeeding. The mores have changed.
At 13, O’Toole wrote in a notebook: “I will not be a common man because it is my might to be an uncommon man . . . I will stir the smooth sands of monotony . . . I do not crave security . . . I wish to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] my soul to opportunity.”
Of course, he had always been uncommon, after his family left Comnenara for England when O’Toole was 7. “The English never let you forget you’re Irish, by God. Aha! Not during World War II, when Ireland was neutral.” He wriggles with delight at the memory of his desmars. “My only friend was an Italian named Marin, he was on the wrong side, I wasn’t on any.”
He quit school at 13 to work for the Yorkshire Exening News, hoping to be a photographer: “I wanted to be Weegee (the great New York crime photographer) but they all called me Squeegee.”
And fame: I wanted that from the time be famous to me ! I’d look at the people in a bus queue and I’d say to myself: “They don’t know !” I used to rehearse interviews with my friends, for the time when the press would be after me.”
He spent two thorny years in the Royal Navy, persisting in calling at a floor, not a deck, a window, not a porthole — “being perverse,” he says, with a hint of middle-aged disdain, even embarrassment at the futility of rebellious youth.
Within a year after his discharge he was studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was intense to the point of fanaticism. In a bit part in “Uncle Vanya” (which he’ll be playing on alternate nights at the Kennedy Center), he was supposed to walk on, say: “Dr. Astrov, the horses have arrived,” and then walk off.
“But not me,” he once told an interviewer. “I decided this Gecogan peasant was really Stalim . . . and so I played it with a slight limp, like Stalim’s . . . and fixed my makeup like Stalin . . . and when I came on the stage smoldering with resentment for the aristocracy, so very sinister, I could hear a hush come over the audience . . . then I glared at Dr. Astrov . . . and said, “Dr. Horsey, the Astrov have arrived:” (He now plays Dr. Astrov).
He played 73 roles with the Old Vic, working up from one old man the Actor of the Year award for his role in “The Long and Short and the Tall.”
Another O’Toole legend: Producer Sam Spiegel saw O’Toole in that role, and asked him to do a screen test. O’Toole arrived, took off his coat, and a pint of Scotch fell out of the pocket. Spiegel said to-continue, anwar. O’Toole, playing a doctor decide to ad lib lines in which he comforted a hypothectical Mrs. Sam Spiegel: “It’s all right, Mrs. Spiegel,” he said. “Your son will never play the violin again.”
A year later, when David Lean told Spiegel that he wanted O’Toole for “Lawrence,” it took a lot of persuading.
He spent over two years filming with Lean, and then he was world famous. And he was one of the new breed of British actors; no more drawing room smoothies with the sculpted nostril wings flaring. Now it was Burton, the Welshman, and Michael Caine, the Cockney, and Tom Courtenay, the working-class hero — all of them looking back in anger, carousing like Holden Caulfields who’d finally figured out how to have fun, and with that settled; what else did you need — except for the requisite blessing of course, for a ginger man.
O’Toole did a brilliant “Becket” with Burton. Then “Lord Jim,” and comedies such as “How to Steal a Million” (with Andrey Hepburn). He did “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” and played Henry II to Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter.” He bought a Rolls and a London townhouse to raise his two daughter in. Meanwhile, the newspaper printed two-inch items about him being arrested for trying to kick down the door of a Dublin pub; about him losing his driver’s license after one too many smash-ups.
You could be tough and sensitive at the same time. O’Toole seemed to be showing us; even if it was by the light of his own consuming fires.
In the ’70s, O’Toole faded from American cinema view as we caught up with his despairs and riots. One wonders why. It’s a delicate question to ask.
It is not a delicate one to answer, it turns out.
“I got unpopular,” says O’Toole, screwing another Gauloise into a black cigarette holder. “I don’t have a row with a director or anything like that. These things happen. I was getting older. There’s nothing to be done about it.”
And then the operation, and quitting drinking, and the marriage breaking up, and you realize that what you’re looking at is not the angelic existential man of “Lawrence,” not the world-grieved rebel of media’s enshinement, but a middle-aged Irish workingman who fancies none of the introspection and analysis his screen persona would seem to urge.
“I’d rather do than talk, I’d rather act than discuss,” he says. “In North America actors have to talk about the play, analyze it. There is a passion in the 20th century for analysis. Everything has to be analyzed. Why? Why? Everything has to be wholly quantified and measured; God, the whole dissection of things — body, soul, mind, words!
“My passion is language. The most satisfying thing for me is having worked with fine writers — John Osborne (”Look Back In Anger”), Samuel Beckett, and Robert Bolt (screenplay for “Lawrence,” among others). Give me literature, not meditating and brooding. You’re better off spending your money on Shakespeare than a psychiatrist, yes indeed.”
But the unexamined life not being worth living and all that, what if he is wrong?
“What does it matter?” O’Toole shouts. “Hey? All I have is words. For a moment, something is defined, and then . . . That’s why I love the theater — its impermanence. I never had a certainty in my life. And you mention happiness . . . That’s a curious thing to want, now, isn’t it? Would you really want to spend the rest of your life happy?”
Does this mean he likes being unhappy?
“No, it’s neither that you want, it’s . . . Have you not found an untouched conservatism in yourself as you grow older? I wonder what I’m conserving, which is why I’m on this tour you see, with two very demanding roles.”
One doesn’t see.
“Well, there’s an awful lot of ‘why’ in the world. But we need a bit of ‘how’ do we not?”
Does he mean the how of art, rather than the why of aesthetics and analysis? The how of life?
The answer is a vague affirmative. O’Toole drifts off into what seems like musing until you see he’s staring at you, that haggard face shifting and gathering around the eyes, smiling a little while he waits for another question. It’s the sly but kindly smile of a butler who gets taken for the host, or the host for the butler for that matter — or Spats O’Toole’s kid for the existential hero.
O’Toole has recently completed a number of movies, one in Toronto, another for English television, one called “Stuntman” in Hollywood, and the already legendary “Caligula.”
“They’ll never release it,” he says, with a crimson tongue drifting behind those wolfish, browning teeth like an animal in a zoo cage. “Impossible. Too many lawsuits, God knows what all and it’s pornography you know, God.” He laughs. “I would pay money if they’d release it, I swear. Ohhh, you should see it, John Gielgud and I wading through the writhing bodies! Wonderful.”
O’Toole leaps to his feet and pounds the wall with excitement. “I play Tiberius, ancient and wrinkled. It’s such a riot.”