In the mid-1990s, a Guinness worker's son from Walkinstown rented a house opposite Marlon Brando's in Los Angeles. "Brando," Gabriel Byrne told me a few years ago, "was very articulate about what fame does to people and how dangerous it is. He talked about Mephistopheles and the pact that you make with the devil at your own peril.
"If you are not a strong person, it will destroy you. You can list off the people in film or music that fame has destroyed. What happens is not that you change so much as people's perceptions of you change, and that changes you."
Working in an industry where treachery is on a Shakespearean scale, Gabriel has made his mark in Hollywood since his big-screen debut in 1981 as King Uther Pendragon in John Boorman's Excalibur.
The former teacher has also played - among many others - Lord Byron in Ken Russell's Gothic, a gangster in the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing, a bent ex-cop in The Usual Suspects, a Jesuit priest investigating demonic possession in Stigmata, Satan himself in End Of Days, D'Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask and psychologist Paul Weston in In Treatment on HBO ("It is a fundamental need in human beings to be listened to," Gabriel noted of Paul's influence on his patients).
"A favourite film? I really don't have any," Gabriel said from his home in Brooklyn last Tuesday. "I never watch my own films but I remember my life and how I felt emotionally while I was making them. The result is something I have no control over. You do your work, give it everything and go home and forget it."
After Gabriel played James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten on Broadway in 2000, he said what he learned from the play was that "nobody's love can save anybody else. There are people who want to die, and nothing or nobody will stop them. The only one who can save you is yourself."
Gabriel saved himself when he stopping drinking 23 years ago. ("One day I woke up and I said, if I don't stop this, I am going to die," he said on The Late Late Show two years ago.)
"I have demons I wrestle with - as everyone does," he says now (his demons could be as a result of the abuse he suffered at school and as a young boy while training to be a priest in England). "I'll never defeat them but I do a little every day to try to keep them at bay."
"I'm not afraid of death. I am afraid of suffering. Or being a burden on my loved ones. I'm not very courageous with pain. I almost broke the bones in a nurse's hand holding on to her as I got an injection from a doctor," Gabriel says, recalling the incident with comic aplomb:
Doctor: "I've never seen a grown man so afraid of a needle. Thank God you're not giving birth."
Patient Gabriel: "Me too. Because that would be not just painful but very, very weird."
Gabriel says he has "never been comfortable in the 'show' side of our business. I detest it actually."
If he ever needs a laugh, "I'll put on a Sminky cartoon and I'm restored. Or I'll watch politicians acting. Especially sincerity. That's always good for a laugh."
Gabriel says he is "an introvert by nature. I'm very content by myself. Always have been. I love nature and silence. I'm utterly happy tramping fields and walking in forests or mountains. Fortunately my wife understands that side of me," he says, referring to Hannah Beth, whom he married at Ballymaloe House in Cork in 2014 and with whom he has a young daughter, Maisie.
"I have the most wonderful memories of working all over the world on more than 90 films with some of the world's greatest actors and directors. I never thought it would happen like that. I would have been happy teaching, and being in an amateur drama club."
How does he think his life would have panned out if he'd stayed as a schoolteacher at Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin?
"I think I would have developed as a teacher," he says. "It is a most under-regarded and important profession. I have the utmost respect and admiration for it. But like nurses and firemen and ambulance drivers, we don't pay them. I would probably have gotten involved in the union to fight for better conditions.
"A good teacher leaves a lifelong impression. I had the most wonderful students. And I remember each and every one of them, and I wonder where life has brought them. I often wish I could return to teaching now that I've experienced something of the world."
When he was starting off as a struggling actor in Dublin, Gabriel used to sign on in Werburgh Street dole office, "with a pencil that was tied by twine to the bars, in case somebody would run off with it. There was a sense of shame, despair and hopelessness, a sense that it was your fault. It was tough being on the dole. Because deep down you believe it is your own fault - deep down somewhere inside you, you start to deny a part of yourself."
Gabriel told me a few years ago that he didn't really understand what a powerful impact finishing work must have had on his father Dan, a barrel-maker for Guinness, "to be not working any more, when your whole life was proscribed by clocking in and being with your workmates and going for a drink afterwards. Anybody who hasn't been unemployed doesn't understand."
I ask him now could he put all that in the context of the 20 million people unemployed in America and the million on the dole now in Ireland because of Covid-19.
"When you are unemployed, you not only lose your financial security but very often your core identity takes a hit," he says. "The collapse of self-esteem, purposeful time, your sense of order,and being of use in the world. Often there is anxiety and depression, drinking and drugs to escape a sense of hopelessness. Hope for the future can seem futile. But we will overcome this and it may paradoxically lead to a better and fairer world. I have that faith."
The eldest of six children growing up in Walkinstown, at the age of nine he was on the hop from school on a bus into town when by chance he saw Gene Wilder being filmed in St Patrick's Park eating an onion sandwich for a scene in the movie Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx.
"That was the first time I had ever seen an actor working," he said years ago. As a young boy, he wanted to be a priest because, he told The Guardian, "in a way I didn't then understand, the church tapped into my love of theatre".
He didn't become an actor until he was nearly 30. For most of his 20s, he taught history and Spanish. He loved going to the theatre. "The students came to me one day and asked if we could start a drama club," he said years ago, "and that's how I got interested in acting as a form of expression." He got some work at Focus Theatre, where he became a student of the legendary Deirdre O'Connell, who taught young actors her understanding of the Stanislavski/Lee Strasberg method. One fateful day, John Boorman came to the Focus and Gabriel got a role in Excalibur. Not long after, he and his girlfriend and mentor Aine O'Connor - a TV producer and presenter - moved to London.
They were living in a pokey flat and were far from flush. One day, when Gabriel had landed a role at the Royal Court Theatre, Aine spent all the money they had for the month on a suitcase for her boyfriend, who went white with shock when she told him the price - £200. "This won't be the last big job you'll get and you're going to need good luggage in years to come." Aine's words were prophetic. Gabriel has been travelling with good luggage ever since.
The New York Times described his ascent as "from Cult Hero to Renaissance Man". Another critic described him as "the rare contemporary actor who… can turn that air of splendour into a sustained gale-force dramatic wind".
Gabriel, of course, took to fame like a duck to wet cement. When a Hollywood agent said to him, "This is it - you're going to be huge, say goodbye to your anonymity", he almost saw it as a threat.
Gabriel and Aine eventually broke up. He moved to America in 1987 and married actress Ellen Barkin. They have two children; Jack, now 31, and Romy, 27. They divorced in 1999.
"It's not only that Gabriel's an innocent - which is part of his charm in a town like this - but he just can't see the bad in people," Ellen told The New York Times in 1995. "He's the exact opposite of me. If he has a bad thought about someone, Gabriel thinks that will make him a bad person."
"I've had a blessed career," Gabriel says. "I've always done what I've wanted to do. Never had a plan or really much ambition. Was never proactive. Didn't go to showbiz parties."
He adds that he "avoided boasters, lick-arses and people who don't listen."
What does he abhor?
"I abhor disloyalty and people who abuse one's trust. Gossip-mongers. Cynical, bitter and angry people."
Gabriel adds that he "really detests bullies who use power to suppress those in weaker positions".
He is "fascinated" by history, politics, economics and literature. And his politics?
"Politically, I would be much to the left," he says. "I have a moral view of society - ie what is just and what is good for our fellow man. I despise neo-liberal economics and those who espouse its horrendous doctrines. I'm acutely aware of propaganda masquerading as truth."
In 2012, Gabriel dismissed The Gathering - a tourism initiative to entice people with Irish connections to visit the country - as "a scam". "Most people [in Ireland] don't give a shit about the diaspora except to shake them down for a few quid."
He has nothing but praise for the President Mr Higgins. "I'm very proud of Michael D and Sabina. They're inspirational. Michael D was a passionate and compassionate politician and always had a world view. Would that he were leading the country".
He reads "voraciously." "My role models in Dublin," he says, "always had a paperback sticking out of a coat pocket. I adore Irish and British humour. Although I've lived outside Ireland for a very long time, I have never lost my connection to it."
Last Tuesday, Gabriel turned 70. For his 50th birthday, his children Jack and Romy presented him with a videotape congratulating him on his big day. The tape included Jack and Romy in a mock-Irish brogue saying: "Da, would ya shut your effing hole for Jaysus' sake!"
Of Romy, Gabriel told The New Yorker in 2005 with a chuckle: "I've got to pick up my 13-year-old daughter for a magic show. What a girl! She's interested in magic. She said to me, 'I want to learn how to make almost everybody I know disappear'."
Not likely to disappear for some good years to come, Gabriel doesn't want to make a comment about the big Seven O. But he is philosophical about life, about the world, about people, about his career. He is "full of gratitude for the life I've been given. I've lost dear friends and family members," he says referring to, among others, his sister Marian who died at 33 in 1989 of cancer and his ex-partner Aine, who died in 1998 at the age of 50, also from cancer. "But they are with me constantly in spirit. I will never forget them. I have a loving wife and family and great and loyal friends."
One such loyal friend is the broadcaster Caroline Erskine. "I've known Gabriel since the 1970s and the beginning of his long relationship with my great friend, the late and very lamented Aine O'Connor. Gabriel was, and still is," she says, "the smartest and funniest company you could ever keep. More recently, I'm proud to have worked with him on a campaign to make end-of-life care in hospitals more in tune with Hospice principles. Gabriel is a tireless champion of the Irish Hospice Foundation and, as patron, passionately promotes its work on behalf of the dying and the bereaved."
Another close friend is TV producer Colman Hutchinson, who worked for many years on The Late Late Show. He and his wife Sharon first met Gabriel in the late 1970s. "I had been working with Aine, who was a talented and beautiful television presenter."
Colman can remember Aine suggesting that they meet up for a drink. "So off we went to the Gresham Hotel. Aine was a household name and everybody in the bar wanted to come and talk to her. Sharon and I ended up talking to Gabriel at length as nobody was interested in talking to us or Gabriel, who was a teacher and part-time actor at the time. We liked him immediately, he made us laugh with his wit and repartee."
Their friendship grew over the years, and Colman and Sharon "took great delight in seeing Gabriel's star rise, first in The Riordans then Bracken and then Gabriel and Aine's move to London and his stint at the National Theatre.
"As his fame grew we were lucky enough to be asked to join him on the set of one of his early films, Christopher Columbus in Granada in Spain. Gabriel had the starring role. Sharon and I were extras in the movie, but we ended up on the cutting-room floor. We had so much fun out there, amazing lunches and dinners, and we were put up at the Alhambra Palace hotel.
"We asked Aine and Gabriel to be godparents to our daughter Ava. Gabriel has been a loving and supportive godfather down the years. Gabriel has been a true friend and we wish him the happiest 70th birthday," says Colman who went on to produce Who Wants to Be A Millionaire on ITV and is now production consultant for Sony Pictures Television.
"Gabriel is not a big self-publicist," says musician and producer Barry Devlin. "So I think we sometimes overlook just how big his corpus of work has been - and how good. As well as his acting career, he's produced, directed and written for stage and screen. And he's still hard at it. And there's definitely a portrait in the attic. He's still a handsome devil at, what, 50? Is he even 50?" laughs Barry.
"He's great company. The best. And he's generous with his time. When I was making All Things Bright And Beautiful back in 1993, he took on quite a small role in the film. Not because it would advance his career, but because it might advance mine."
The President Michael D Higgins said: "Both Sabina and I have been privileged to have him as a friend, from his early days as an artist. Beyond the world of the arts, he has also participated in some of my campaigns in Galway West. I recall in one of these campaigns, Gabriel, the late Mick Lally and myself campaigning in the midst of a herd of cattle.
"He has been a strong supporter of the arts, both here in Ireland and in the United States. He has a deep commitment to culture and the livelihoods of artists."
Teri Hayden, Gabriel's agent of 30 years said: "While most people know the serious side of Gabriel his friends are lucky to be treated to his funny and playful side. Favourite memories include the many phone messages on my answer machine with him mimicking a wide variety of people demanding and complaining about anything and everything. He did this on a new staff member in the office on her first week.
"The poor girl was shaken up but handled it perfectly and had a good laugh when the voice cracked into gales of laughter. We have a unique relationship both professionally and personally for over 35 years and I consider my self very fortunate to be his friend."
Ten years or so ago before Christmas, Gabriel appeared, out of nowhere, in the Merrion Hotel lounge area in Dublin, where I was interviewing someone, and for reasons best known to himself, was suddenly standing over me, rubbing those trademark brooding eyes…
"You know what? I'm just out of bed," he said, quickly adding: "Do I look like I just got out of bed?"
The blonde lady I was interviewing politely answered: "Not at all."
Gabriel was far from convinced.
"Are you serious?" he asked.
"A long evening?" she joked.
"It wasn't even a long evening," Gabriel said. "I went to sleep and I woke up again. It's jet lag. It kind of kicks in on the fourth day.
"I'm here," Gabriel went on "to have my breakfast." (It was 2pm).
"Lisa Murphy, isn't it?" the actor said as he departed. "I saw you in the paper yesterday. I try to keep up with things."
Gabriel (who I first met in 1988) is fantastic and gracious company. Generous with his time, he has given me interviews in London, Chicago, Dublin, Los Angeles and New York down through the years, (introducing me, along the way, to everyone from Liam Neeson to Yoko Ono as well as the movies of Fellini and Bergman et al).
I remember talking to him in 2002, around the time he was finishing Spider with Ralph Fiennes. The 9/11 attack had happened as it was being filmed. He recalled walking onto the set one day and seeing people gathered around a television set.
They were watching what Gabriel thought was a clip from the film, "then what appeared to be a plane crash that just happened". Seconds later, Gabriel and the crew got the horrific news of what had happened in New York.
"The movie is about what madness is," he said of Spider. "RD Laing said madness is a sane response to an insane situation. Sometimes it is a perspective: you see it that way, I see it this way."
I asked Gabriel did he think he had that little bit of madness in him when his father and sister died.
"Yes," he replied. "I think we all, to a greater or lesser extent, go along the same journey. There are very few of us who escape it. It is not that the incidents [are the same], it is your reaction to the incident.
"I know people who go to pieces, and the people who remain calm will surprise you with their heroism. I know one thing that all of us in this life will confront: loss, separation, death, disappointment, great joy, great happiness, hope - all those things. These are the things that make us human. These are the things that make us feel we are living."
Happy birthday, Gabriel. Your movies have perhaps helped many of us feel we are living.
Sunday Indo Living