Friday 19 July 2019

Wine at breakfast? Why not?

He's the hell raiser who survives while all his drinking buddies -- Burton, Harris, McCann -- have downed their last. At 74, in pink jumper and cravat and fresh from a life-affirming tribute at the Galway Film Fleadh, Peter O'Toole talks bombs, Beckett and benders with Barry Egan

LIVING ACTING LEGEND: Peter O'Toole pictured recently in Galway
LIVING ACTING LEGEND: Peter O'Toole pictured recently in Galway
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

Someone once said that death's door is one of Peter O'Toole's regular residences. The eight-time Academy Award-nominated Irish actor looks frail but dapper in cravat and pink jumper today in his residence: the penthouse suite at the Radisson Hotel in Galway.

The Galway Film Fleadh, in association with the Irish Film & Television Academy (IFTA), is playing tribute to him tonight. Peter is very much the last of the gang that included, to name but two, Richards Burton and Harris. The last of his kind, he is still bursting with life at 74 years of age. He says his longevity despite the odds has "nothing to do with my habits, nothing to do with the way I choose to live my life. It is all to do with genetics. My dad went at 86. A car killed him. He was crossing the road. He left the bookie at 5.30pm going for the pub."

He slams his fist down on the palm of his hand to indicate a car impacting with his dear old dad. "He lived for about three months, but it took a car to take the old bugger away."

What will it take to take you away? "Probably the same," he says .

Peter O'Toole is a witty and epically engaging raconteur. It is an unparalleled joy to have a conversation with him. He reads, he says, some of Shakespeare's 154 sonnets most days. When asked if this is a form of Transcendental Meditation, he smiles and says, "If anything, it is the opposite of Transatlantic Meditation. I find it stirs my mind. It is not meditative at all."

What great truths did Shakespeare's sonnets teach you about romantic love?

"Not a sausage," he laughs. "I know nothing."

Who was the love of your life? "Ah!" he says not answering the question. He picks up the book I am reading, God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. "Ah, Hitchens," O'Toole says. "What was that other book? Dawkins? The God Delusion! Yes, I'd read bits of it. I felt he was shouting at me and telling things that I half knew. I thought, 'Hang on, mate, give us a little bit of slack.' He was so dogmatic."

You were used to dogma, presumably, being brought up Catholic in West Yorkshire of the Forties. "I am born and raised a Holy Roman," he smiles, serenely. "I was an altar boy. I wasn't touched." Noel Coward, it transpired, would have liked to have touched him. Having watched Peter star in Lawrence of Arabia, Coward famously said, "If Lawrence had looked like him there would have been many more than 12 Turks queuing up for the buggering session". Reminded of this, he laughs: "He used to call it Florence Of Arabia! Noel and I were good friends. He was a delightful man."

So, it transpires, is Peter O'Toole. He is full to the brim with stories. I love, in particular, the story of a terrorist organisation member who wrote a letter saying he had left a bomb for the actor.

"I don't know what you've heard," he begins, eyeing me up and down, "but we were filming in an apartment at the side of a famous restaurant -- I can't remember it's bloody name -- on the banks of the Seine. I went to the apartment in the morning to find some very gloomy faces and a piece of paper. Someone said to me, 'You speak Arabic, don't you, guv?' It looked like Arabic. I looked at it, and I thought this is mirror writing. I held it to the mirror: 'IRA bomb. You have two hours to evacuate the building. O'Toole is a traitor for playing a CIA man.' The building was completely evacuated. I was around the corner, waiting for it to blow up."

O'Toole says he doesn't think about his own death much these days. Not that he doesn't think about the past -- and what a glorious past it is. He can recall sharing a dressing room with George Formby in Manchester in the Fifties. "He kept two ukuleles, tuned to different keys, and I asked him if one was a spare. 'No,' said Formby, 'I find it very difficult to change key, so I don't bother. I just pick up another ukulele.' The phrase became a favourite -- whenever anything would go wrong, I'd say: 'Pick up another ukulele!'."

He recalls a night on the tiles with Samuel Beckett in the Fifties that began with Sam telling him that he thought no decent film could be made with dialogue -- it had all been downhill since the silent era. "I was at a party in Harley Street. I can't tell you the exact date but it has got to be about 57-ish. Krapp's Last Tape, which was then called Monologue For McGhee, was just out. At the party, I didn't know that many people and I was giving out about something, I forget what." Suddenly, he remembers: "Buster Keaton and silent films. And suddenly this man ... did you ever meet Sam? He had the most staring eyes. And he had a fierce temper. And he took his specs off. He just went: 'Bahh!', and he gave me a speech about silent films and this, that and the other. We calmed down eventually and we took a bottle from the party and ended up sitting in a doorway drinking a bottle of whiskey, surrounded by London fog. The only person near us was a policeman and we gave him a drop."

I ask him when was the last time he had a drop. "This morning. It wasn't whiskey. It was wine."

I thought you gave up years ago for health reasons.

"Oh, for God's sake," he harrumphs. "Who have you been reading? Put it like this: less than I used to, but I still enjoy a drop, yes."

In 1976, courtesy of his heavy drinking, O'Toole underwent surgery to have his pancreas and a large portion of his stomach removed. "Listen," he says with a smile beginning again on his lips, "I don't really want to discuss my internal economy."

His late-friend Richard Burton (who Peter once found draped drunkenly over a bass player in a London club, "beautifully chanting Shakespeare's sonnets to a picked-out iambic accompaniment") said that: "Acting is usually regarded as a craft and I claim it to be nothing more except in the hands of the odd few men and women who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate it into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing. I believe Peter O'Toole to have this strange quality."

He still possesses this quality. Even allowing for hyperbole, he is a legend. And as with all legends there are many stories that have grown legs about him over the years.

Did you really go for a drink in Paris and wake up in Corsica? "Unfortunately, its true," he laughs. "Yes. Those days are gone. I'm afraid all my friends have gone," he says almost wistfully.

By rights, Peter O'Toole should have been gone too. In his hellion heyday, he did crazy things such as drunkenly climb up the walls of Lloyds Bank in London. "It was simple then. You have heard of Buildering?" he says referring to the act of climbing illegally and without ropes on the outside of buildings and other artificial structures.

"Well, my friend Patrick Oliver -- O Liver, I call him -- and me had read about buildering. So we decided to builder everywhere. Churches. Town halls. Always at night. And on Lloyds Bank!" he laughs. "Where did you find that story?" he asks, laughing more and more.

I wondered whether he and his pals -- Burton and Harris et al -- saw themselves as carrying on the traditions of Rimbaud and Baudelaire and Byron, or were you just pissheads who liked lunacy. "We were just ordinary, law-abiding souls who liked a drop. "

I suspect there was more to it than that. I tell him my theory. Peter once said that he and The Two Richards were young people who'd been children throughout the war. He added that you can only imagine what it was like in 1946 not to be bombed, not to be rationed, not to be restricted. I asked him was that the key to him living a life in the realm of the senses.

"Firstly, when the war ended, my daddy and I, we jumped on a boat and we came to Dublin, and I bought eight-hour killed meat, butter, nylon stockings. I went to a place called The Green Cuckatoo in O'Connell Street. This was 1945-46. That's the first thing we did. The sense of liberty, the sense of freedom of no war, no more bombs. I mean, Dublin was bombed. Belfast was bombed."

But did that post-war freedom -- with the knowledge during the war that life could have ended at any time -- form your sense of being a libertine? "A libertine?" he smiles. "Libertine. That's a good word. You make me sound like Rochester." Did you think you were indestructible? You're still here. Others aren't.

"Quite. How can you tell?" he laughs. "But ... they're all gone. Harris is gone, not too long gone. [Donal] McCann, gone. Burton, gone. But Burton went a long while ago. Harris was the most recent, and McCann," he says. "I even found myself associated with one of the other hell raisers, Oliver Reed, all the time. I never meet the boy."

What was it like being a hell raiser? "It's like asking a fire what it's like to be a fire."

What's it like to be a fire, Peter? "Hot," he says, roaring with laughter.

Looking back, did you regret the effect it must have had on your marriages?

"I didn't have 'marriages'. I had one perfectly sound marriage which tottered on for quite a while," he says of his 20-year union to Welsh actress Sian Phillips (they married in 1960 and had two daughters : Kate and Patricia O'Toole. He has a son, Lorcan, from a later relationship.

Be that as it may, but you got married. "I did. In Dudley," he laughs. "She was a lovely woman." Asked how she would describe him, he says with a rueful smile: "I have no idea." She said you were volatile (She also called O'Toole, a "dangerous, disruptive human being".) "Volatile? That's hardly a novel thought," Peter grins. "She is a lovely woman. Bright and intelligent."

He isn't the eternal luvvie you might have suspected. He thinks Samuel Beckett was, for instance, a one-trick pony. "Oh God. I mean, Sam Beckett. I think when the dust settles after a few generations Sam Beckett will be known as a brilliant French novelist, one of the greatest, who, by chance, wrote an extraordinary play called Waiting For Godot. En Attendant Godot. And it works. I don't think much of the others. That's heretical, I'm told."

By the same logic, do you think that Peter O'Toole had essentially one movie in him?

"What?" he gasps. I repeat the question as the blood drains from his face. "Me? What does that mean? How can I possibly? The question is meaningless."

O'Toole, who also starred in classics such as Goodbye Mr Chips and The Lion in Winter, professes himself delighted with the one piece of work that -- like Waiting For Godot with Beckett -- will be eternally associated with Peter O'Toole: Lawrence Of Arabia.

"I am delighted. If it had been a bore, but it was two years of a young man's life, from 28 to 30, spent in amazing conditions. It is a greatly loved movie all over the world. Oddly enough, I was recently reading one of the first press notices it ever had in England, and it wasn't all that favourable. It lacked 'a light touch' or something." Peter O'Toole has a marvellous turn of phrase, equal parts Byron, Will Self and Bernard Manning. A car breaking down isn't a car breaking down. It is shaking like "a Sheffield dog shitting penknives". "Well," he laughs, "that's an old saying, I first heard it in Sheffield." Lest we forget, he devoted an entire section in one of his memoirs to the laundering of "shitty knickers". He laughs at the memory, but not as much when I asked him where he was born.

"It depends what paper you read." He once said, "I'm not working-class. I come from the criminal classes. You see, technically, daddy was," he says, his eyes brightening at the mention of his daddy, "a criminal, because he was a bookie. And bookies were illegal until 1962 in England. Daddy was a race track bookie who didn't always go to the tracks. And so he would run a little book. That was illegal. And so, if he had been caught, he would have gone to prison. Happily, he wasn't caught. But can you imagine those days? 1962, the pair of us stood in a casino. There was a framed 100-pound chip and the mayor and the parson were there. Two years earlier he would have gone to prison for it. That was his life: avoiding being caught." Was that your life too: avoiding being caught? "You've caught me. Avoiding being caught?" he laughs. "It's not a bad thing. Don't be caught. What's the 11th commandment? 'Thou shalt not be found out'." And when that unlikely event happens, Peter O'Toole can just pick up another ukulele.

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