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Peter O'Toole: Profile of a master

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This is London, a suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a cool evening in March. It’s the end of a two-day press junket, and there’s one last thing to do. The marketing man with the graying mustache has asked if Peter could please autograph some items, so Peter O’Toole is at a table in a corner of a low-lit room, doing drudge work for the digital age. O’Toole — bon vivant, unruly genius, confirmed nonconformist — is signing away at a thick roll of promotional packaging for the new Lawrence of Arabia DVD. A self 40 years younger stares up from each sticker, head wrapped in the hood of a bedouin cloak, bright blue eyes heroically smoldering. O’Toole is now 68. His hair, silver. He looks as lean as Keith Richards. He is not quite 6’3”. He needs a drink.

”What was all that nonsense about another brandy?” he asks. ”Was that just propaganda to get me to the table?” His teasing rhetoric amounts to polite insistence, and the marketing man scuttles back to the mini-bar.

O’Toole has dressed for the press as a dapper eccentric. A paisley pocket square pops from the breast of a red-striped olive blazer. Under the blazer is a burgundy vest; under the vest is a pale yellow shirt. Under the shirt is a scar that runs from waist to chest, a souvenir of an operation he doesn’t like to talk about; some of his ”plumbing” came out in the mid-’70s, around which time he quit drinking — or at least, to use the popular phrase, quit ”raising hell.” His operating mode now appears to be moderation. (Hence, the brandy.) The green lapel pin is French, an insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters. The gold ring is Irish, a family thing. Once upon a time, he would wear only bold green socks, an idiosyncratic tribute to his nation. Today they’re a muted greenish gray.

He’s diligently signing Peter O’Toole, Peter O’Toole…But no pen at hand is fit for this plasticky paper, and he declares his tedium with a zesty shout: ”I’ve become an automaton!”

Hmmm. Well, then. On to the one-sheets. The marketing man starts to untube posters. The actor, weary but cheerful after two days of droning on, sips at the liquor, his pale cheeks turned pink by Grand Marnier. He’s got a sharp jaw and a wicked chin, and his handsome face is heavily lined. The steep, sleek nose — smashed in youthful shenanigans and reflattened in a bungled stage fight — is the result of rhinoplasty.

He looks at the posters and says, ”He’s a cowboy!” Before him are a couple dozen reproductions of a painted pulp fantasy: T.E. Lawrence is charging on camelback, reins tight in his left hand, saber aloft in his right, blond mane flowing and desert robes floating as he leads a throng of bedouins over a dune and onward to glory. The young actor in this image was heading for seven Oscar nominations, world-infamous carousing, and an irregular resume of triumphs, oddities, and flops. ”Lawrence, the cowboy!” he says. The actor’s snickering softly and dutifully squiggling: Peter O’Toole, Peter O’Toole…Nearly done. He smiles and signs Richard Harris on one poster, smile widening to a pagan grin. He writes Michael Caine on the next and chuckles. Then, reminding himself of Caine’s knighthood, he scribbles a Sir and chuckles again.

As gestures of rebellion go, this is a small one, really just a minor eruption from a famously rebellious spirit. But O’Toole has always, at all costs, been himself—an elegant renegade beautiful in his defiance, charming in his perversity, and never more enchanting than when risking a plunge from the high wire. Peter O’Toole is the very definition of “dashing.” And he might be, at this controlled corporate moment in the history of Hollywood, the last uncontrollable swashbuckler left.

The Dorchester is a five-star heap of deep carpets and mahogany that stands, white and stately, opposite Hyde Park. “It was a sort of film pub in the ’50s and ’60s,” O’Toole says. “Visiting firemen stayed here and lots of my chums. Richard Burton always kept a room here, and I can remember one time in the late ’50s when Peter Finch, Laurence Harvey, and I were all offered the same part, the assumption being that we weren’t friends. I think the producer was Dino De Laurentiis, who’s still alive, and we all marched up to his door and said, ‘We don’t think we’re suitable for the part.'”

For the record: Firemen is slang for VIPs, the particulars of the movie part are long forgotten, and O’Toole’s list of old chums includes Harris, Caine, Albert Finney, and the now-gone Burton. They were all storming British theater in the ’50s, the age of the Angry Young Man. Back then, upstart playwrights were using their pens as shivs to slash at the self-satisfaction of the British establishment. These actors proved to be their thespian equivalents, giving searing turns as the new lower-class antiheroes and drawing fresh blood from the classics. In the movies of the ’60s they were emblems of raw passion on the screen and avatars of high-living high jinks off. O’Toole was their loudmouthed intellectual, wired and wiry, with the persona of a pretty boy who couldn’t help himself.

He was already famous for his stage work when Finch recommended him for 1960’s Kidnapped. The producers needed a man who could play the bagpipes; O’Toole liked the idea of earning 175 pounds for one day’s work. That same year, a supporting part in a crime caper caught the eye of director David Lean. For their follow-up to Bridge on the River Kwai, Lean and producer Sam Spiegel were planning a wide-screen epic meant to rival the vastness of Gone With the Wind—a recounting of the WWI exploits of T.E. Lawrence, the British officer who led Arab tribes in guerrilla raids against Turkey. Finney had turned them down. Marlon Brando too. “We had nobody for the leading role,” Lean once recalled. “So I used to spend my days in cinemas in the West End, and one day I went to a film called The Day They Robbed the Bank of England…There was Peter O’Toole, playing a sort of silly-ass Englishman in a trout fishing scene.” O’Toole aced the screen test and headed out to the desert in Jordan.

His first camel-riding lesson came on day one. “If you want it to go left,” he recalls, “you give it a thump on the head with a lump of timber. If you want it to go right, you give it a thump on the head with a lump of timber. If you want it to stop, you’re in trouble. The very clever bedouin have a string on its nose for braking.” Then came the sand burns, the broken bones, the dislocated spine, and a pair of concussions. Lawrence of Arabia was less a movie shoot than an education in adventure, and O’Toole, remembering it, slips into a report of maddening weather. “Four hundred miles away from the nearest water, and these mirages just drive you insane…There would be a dust storm like”—he snaps his fingers—”it was timed. Omar Sharif and I found that the best place for dust storms was underneath the makeup lorry.” The pair found that Beirut was the best place for the weekend furloughs they were allowed every three weeks. “We’d just drink,” Sharif says. “And try not to sleep too much so that we didn’t waste any time.”

As Lawrence, O’Toole was a trembling mystic, his lanky frame somehow an instrument of grandeur. He gave the audience an enigma to long for, and the role established a pattern for his screen roles: To this day, O’Toole specializes in men whose obsessions override—or deform—their wills. You can’t help but root for the vital daftness of his heroes and the bursting vigor of his villains. The common thread is soaring flamboyance. Alicia Silverstone—costar of O’Toole’s latest film, a forthcoming comedy called Global Heresy—sums up the swaggering side of his allure thus: “He’s a rock star.”

O’Toole followed Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated show of romantic bravado with Becket, making himself over as a grotesque sliver of brutishness, a deliberate attempt to tweak his matinee-idol image. As Henry II, he sizes up his subjects with a feral leer that suggests he’s always about to pounce. And yet the king is sympathetic, a victim of his lust for power. O’Toole returned to the same king four years later opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1968’s The Lion in Winter, his hamminess delicious for the strength of feeling behind it. “He lives in me,” O’Toole says of Henry II, drifting into a reverie about the man who provided him with two Oscar-nominated roles. “His whole life was a journey…He never stopped traveling. Restless. Didn’t give a damn.”

The next restless year, O’Toole traded the crown for a mortarboard—and earned his fourth Oscar nod—in a musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips; two other musicals—each notorious in its own way, both about delusion—lay ahead. The Ruling Class was sophisticated camp. Man of La Mancha, on the other hand, was an all-earnest rehash of Broadway’s take on Don Quixote, a movie dream impossible to swallow. In the film, O’Toole stiffly mimes his lyrics from behind a prosthetic honker and a bad beard…but all to wicked purpose. “It was very difficult even then to get a film like Ruling Class made,” says director Peter Medak. So O’Toole offered an exchange. “Peter was asked by United Artists to do Man of La Mancha, and he suggested that he’d do that provided that United Artists help finance our film. Even then he took no salary and put some of his own money into it. He was quite insane about wanting to do the film.” O’Toole was scratching an itch for nose thumbing: Class is a demented joke on the British aristocracy that doubles as a swipe at flower power. O’Toole’s earl is a paranoid schizophrenic who is relieved of the conviction that he’s Jesus Christ only to adopt the notion that he’s Jack the Ripper. Another display of loose ebullience, another Oscar nomination.

And all the while, gossip columns filled up with accounts of booze-fueled antics: a brawl with paparazzi on the Via Veneto in Rome, a fistfight with a French count at a Paris nightclub, setting speed-drinking records with his pals in bars everywhere. O’Toole’s social life provided material enough for legends that sometimes obscured his talent. “We were silly and young and drunken and jumping up and down and making complete clowns of ourselves,” he says. “I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer at one’s local bar in Paris and woke up in Corsica. Harris woke up in Marseilles once. A little while ago, Richard and I were at a rugby match together, and he said, ‘Ah, Jesus, I miss wakin’ up in f—in’ places that you’d never knew you had been to. I used to love going to the shop to buy a packet of cigarettes and not coming back for a month.'” The imitative brogue gives way to a wheezy laugh. “Two old codgers trying to watch a rugby match and stay sober!”

“Peter Sellers. I loved Peter.” O’Toole is musing on the trouble that starts when self-doubt creeps up on actors. “He really felt he was nothing other than his parts. He was a comedian, but he was a comic actor, too; that’s the bit he couldn’t trust.” O’Toole unfolds himself from his chair, slides off his blazer, and, using the jacket as a bullfighter’s cape, demonstrates a pass called the veronica. He’s talking, by way of analogy, about a matador who thought too much about his perfect technique and consequently got gored. “You’ve got to trust it and believe it. I saw Peter in here from the beginning. Peter sort of ended in here, too…. He’d sit here and really worry: ‘But you’re a real actor, what do I do?’ ‘But Pete, Pete, you’ve got something I could never do.’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Comic genius.’ He could never believe it…Are we making any sense?”

I think we are: O’Toole’s English flows in spasms of dandyish patter. Anecdotes and quotes of poetry lead to old saws or fresh observations as he languorously rambles back to his point—all at a fantastic cadence, illustrated by pantomime and impersonation. To hear him in conversation is to witness a born performer savoring the syllables of a new favorite monologue, exulting in playful self-expression. “I fell in love with language when I was about 15 or 16,” he says. “And that is why I became an actor.”

And when he says, “I’m from a nation of talkers,” he’s talking about Ireland. His father uprooted the family from Connemara, in County Galway, when Peter was an infant. Dad was a bookie; the O’Tooles followed the horses. By the time Peter was 6, they had finally settled in the northern English town of Leeds, the “Golden City” of horse racing. He loathed his Catholic slum school. The natural lefty’s still got scars to prove that the nuns rapped his right hand whenever he failed to write with it. At 15, O’Toole was a dropout. He was working as a photographer’s assistant at the Yorkshire Evening News, thinking of joining the press. The teenager scribbled an oath in his notebook: “I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man…I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”

After a stint in the navy, O’Toole wandered around England, sucking in life and working odd jobs. One night in the early ’50s, he spent his last shillings to see Michael Redgrave play King Lear at Stratford—a Beethovian blast of mind-altering drama. He slept that night in a manure-ridden haystack. The next morning, fragrant of fertilizer, he rode into London, happened upon the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, chanced upon and charmed the top administrator, and spontaneously arranged an interview. Three hours later, smelling fresh and spouting bright bits of theater history, he was on his way to a spot and a scholarship.

He graduated in 1955, signed on for a bit part in a Bristol Old Vic production of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker, and stayed for three years. His big smash came in London, a 1959 turn in The Long and the Short and the Tall. By the next year, when he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, he was arguably the most acclaimed young actor in Britain, the anointed heir to Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

It’s imagination that O’Toole nourishes these days—the spellbinding creative power of a sensitive show-off. On top of the memoir, he’s writing a novel, transcribing the unbidden lucid visions that have begun popping into his head in the mornings. He’s picked up digital video; he’s learning lights, camera, sound. He wants to make documentaries: “Shakespeare, the actor. T. E. Lawrence, the man. Not the Arabian.” But acting isn’t what it used to be. “I still have the same love,” he says. “I don’t have the same appetite. I can’t see myself doing a massive part on stage. Not in a hurry. I did one last year”—Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell at the Old Vic—”and I began to feel it. I don’t have the appetite to take on and sustain the entire 20 weeks of a movie—and, happily, that’s unlikely to come my way. I think perhaps our Maker has put a kind of mechanism into our personalities that when we’re past it, we know.” To see Peter O’Toole going into the good night—ungentle but mellow, at ease in his lovely and freakish orbit—is to think: He knows.

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