Sunday 24 June 2018

Put simply, I loved him... Michael Colgan on Paolo

Gate Theatre artistic director, Michael Colgan, pays tribute to his close friend, who made him laugh for 45 years

At the opening night of
At the opening night of "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Gate Theatre in 1998, Paul McGuinness, Michael Colgan and Paolo Tullio.

Michael Colgan

What can anyone do with death? It offers no compromise, no get out of jail card, no phone a friend. You accept it, bear the loss, and comfort yourself, while hurting yourself in the memories. They’re all that’s left with you, and my memories of Paolo are numerous, sometimes vague, often jubilant, but now heart-rending. Maybe I could have spent more time with him, maybe I could have done more to halt the illness, maybe lived more in the moment. He gave me the most precious gift, a life-long friendship of laughter, wisdom and loyalty. Put simply, I loved him.

I first met him in 1970 in our tiny theatre in Trinity. He was sitting, no perched, on the dressing room counter in Players. A tidy, exotic creature with an extraordinary wit, flamboyant dress and a smile that could conquer the world. I was clearly out of my depth. But when he spoke, the warmth, the kindness — his interest — made me recognise that this man was truly special. For reasons unknown, or unknowable, we became instant friends.

We were soon cast in a production of The Tempest, with Paolo playing Trinculo, in an Italianate Scottish accent, with me the boorish (typecasting) Stephano. Paolo insisted that we should improve Shakespeare by tempting me to be his feed for some of his favourite smutty jokes. Bad jokes, delivered by a gifted, intelligent actor always have appeal. He brought the house down. Never has The Tempest been so funny.

For a review we wrote a sketch where Paolo, the small Italian, played Jesus à la the Californian actor Tab Hunter. The scene was Jesus returning home to a Jewish mother having spent 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. Her first line was “not a word, not a card — how much does it cost to pick up a phone?”.

When he said he was going down to hang out on the docks, she called after him, “Don’t go walking on the water”, to which our hero replied, “Aw, Ma, I know where the stones are”. It went from bad to worse, with the Trinity authorities deeming it blasphemous and threatening to take it off.

We went on to do much more but our biggest success was the Robin Hood pantomime We’ve all Maid Marion. We both wrote it, I directed it, and Paolo played Robin Hood. He was hilarious, and, believe it or not, we were asked to transfer the production into the commercial world. The cast included Chris de Burgh and Paul McGuinness, and Dillie Keane played the put-upon Maid Marion.

After college we formed the Dublin Actors’ Agency. Paolo’s other jobs at the time included running a restaurant and keeping us all entertained. He was forever telling me stuff, like how to upholster a chair, how to build an oven in the bank of a river (still don’t understand that) or how to make gunpowder. To the latter, I remember replying, “Do you really think there’ll be a need for me to know how to make gunpowder?” There was nothing he couldn’t do. He could sing, play the guitar, was a celebrated chef, speak many languages, he even made his own shoes, but most important, he made me laugh for 45 years.

Never a cross word, never a negative thought. Each time I was with him he made me feel funnier than I really was. When I told him a joke, he reacted as if he’d never heard it, or gave him an interesting fact, he made me feel he was hearing it for the first time. A gentleman. Highly intelligent, yet forever giving.

I once read in the Talmud that “kindness is the highest form of intelligence”. Paolo was proof of that. So many of us will be lost without him.

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