These days, Peter O’Toole’s only tipple is champagne, but at 68 he still retains his rakish charm and teasing wit, SARAH HAMPSON writes
Thursday, November 23, 2000
OSHAWA, ONT. — ‘Come now, darling,” says Peter O‘Toole in his deep, dramatic voice, putting his arm around my shoulders. “Come and talk to me.”
I’ve been waiting for my cue as to when the promised interview would begin and wondering if it ever would. When he arrived on the set — at the Parkwood Estate in Oshawa, Ont., the grand art-deco-era mansion built for Robert Samuel McLaughlin, the founder of General Motors of Canada — around 3 in the afternoon, he looked weary. I could see him sitting alone in his movie-star chair, drinking tea from a stainless-steel thermos and occasionally passing one hand over his wan, gaunt face.
Once, when he was called onto the set, someone asked how he had spent the weekend. “I blew my nose,” I overheard him laconically reply.
But now, he seems to have revived himself somewhat. “Have you seen my young ones?” he asks, as he glides up for a little chat with me and Gino Empry, a Toronto publicist and long-time acquaintance of O’Toole’s. In this comedy, Global Heresy, co-produced by GFT Entertainment in Toronto, and Ultimate Pictures UK in London, O’Toole plays Lord Foxley, an eccentric British aristocrat, who decides to rent out his ancestral heap to pay for some repairs. Through a series of mishaps, he and his wife, played by Joan Plowright (Tea with Mussolini), end up impersonating the butler and housekeeper, and the people who lease the place are not the IBM-esque types they expected but a loud, young American rock and roll band.
All his “young ones” talk about is how “humbled” they are in his presence. “He gives and he creates. He’s a God, man,” effuses Canadian Jaimz Woolvett. In one scene, Lochlyn Munro, another Canadian actor, had to pick up O’Toole and shove him into a table, filled with glasses. A stunt double was available, but O’Toole wanted to do it. “He took the whole scene to a higher level,” Munro says. O’Toole has also regaled them with stories. “He stands on the side of the set or whatever, and he says, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time that me and Omar Sharif [during David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962] gambled our entire year’s wages over two days in the desert?’ ” laughs Keram Malicki-Sanchez. “Or we’ll be talking about France, and he’ll go, ‘I had a drink in a bar in France once. Woke up in Corsica,’ ” puts in Amy Phillips.
O’Toole is 68, lean and tall, his handsome face lined with wrinkles, his once-blond hair grey, and his famous blue eyes limpid and engaging.
He plays the role of screen legend beautifully, the aging matinee idol who has seen it all, done it all, heard it all, darling. Empry tells him that Alicia Silverstone (Love’s Labour Lost, Batman & Robin), who plays one of the rock stars in the film, would not speak to me, as her agent and manager had not okayed it.
“Ah,” says O’Toole. “So fancy,” he grimaces elegantly.
He sweeps his hand in front, guiding me to where we can sit together.
But if I had thought I would be charmed and indulged by the screen and stage legend, I would be sorely disappointed. He will spar. He will flirt. He will employ his trademark rakish wit. He won’t always be as gentlemanly as he appears.
Dressed as a butler, with thin-striped pants, a black jacket and a white shirt, he takes off his white gloves, pulls at his tie to loosen it and plops a beaten-up old porkpie hat, his own, on his head. He pulls a small blue pack of Gauloises from inside his jacket, jiggles one free, and places it in the end of an ebony cigarette holder. If smoking is banned in the historic house, no one is about to tell him.
“You are enjoying a new popularity,” I begin. In the summer, he completed a film in London,Final Curtain, by John Hodge, the writer of Shallow Grave and Trainspotting.
“Comes and goes,” he says with dramatic flourish. “Every three or four years I’m hot again,” he laughs.
His last big film hit was My Favorite Year in 1982, I suggest. Through the nineties, he made a string of forgettable movies.
“Oh, nonsense,” he retorts.
“Is there a feeling you haven’t done what you’d like to do in film?” I persist. The British papers have made much of the fact that O’Toole suffers from unfulfilled promise in his film career, unlike his contemporaries Michael Caine and Sean Connery.
“Oh, not at all. No, no, no, no, no,” he trills, sounding annoyed. “I’ve done everything that’s possible to be done.” And, yes indeed, Hollywood does come calling, still.
“What keeps you going?”
He surveys me through a screen of blue smoke. “What keeps you going?” he spits.
He places an elbow on the armrest of his chair and holds his cigarette, elegantly, in front of him. Through the smoke, his eyes are merry, disdainful, mischievous.
I switch tacks. “Your health. Are you well?”
“Not too bad.” O’Toole, rather famously, gave up drinking in 1975, following a near-fatal pancreatic inflammation. (He now drinks only champagne.) Reportedly, half his stomach was removed, and he can eat only a limited diet.
“You’re able to eat properly?” I venture.
This sends him into a long, high-pitched laugh, a sort of “hee hee hee!” atop a spongy cough. He sounds like a car engine turning over and over.
“Where does all this junk come from? I know nothing about what you’re talking about.”
We move on to the subject of his children. He has three, two girls from his first and only marriage to Sian Phillips. She left him after 20 years of marriage in the seventies. He also has a son, now a teenager, from his two-year relationship with Karen Somerville, a former American model. One of his daughters has recently had a child, making him a grandfather for the first time. “I’ve read all the clichés [about being a grandfather], and felt they couldn’t possibly apply to me, but they do,” he says warmly.
“So, are you more serene, Mr. O’Toole?” I say, hoping this would unleash some friendly discussion.
“It’s a strange thing,” he begins, with a long sigh. “I don’t know what you have read, you see. I don’t know what is in your mental furniture concerning me.”
“But you do have a reputation,” I say. (Michael Caine once accused Richard Harris, Richard Burton and O’Toole of being “the world’s most glorious drinking triumvirate,” and suggested they had sacrificed their talents to the bottle.) “I’ve always been serene,” he insists. “I can get a bit excited from time to time, but not very often.”
So if age has not affected his lifestyle, has it changed his approach to his work?
“Well,” he blows out smoke. “I’m less concerned than I used to be. Just as you become too old to do it, you start learning how to do it.”
Does he mean he takes himself less seriously?
“Um, you realize it’s far too serious a business to take too seriously.”
Well, that clarifies things. I press on. Is there something he feels he can bring to the roles he has played recently because of his experience? In Final Curtain, he plays an aging television star, unhappy with how his biographer is portraying him. In February, O’Toole won a special award for outstanding achievement at the annual Laurence Olivier Awards in London for the smash-hit play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell by Keith Waterhouse. (Joan Plowright, who is Lord Olivier’s widow, presented him with the award.) The story of a drunken magazine columnist allowed him “to put his decades of wild living and heavy drinking to creative use,” sniped one critic in The Guardian.
But this question provokes another long peal of high-pitched laughter. “I’ve done a bit of rehearsing to play a carouser, but whether it was necessary [in order to act the part], I don’t know.” He does say that having a “walloping smash hit” at his favourite theatre, the Old Vic, was “especially gratifying” because “that’s where it all began for me in 1953″ with George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara.
Now, someone down the hall calls him onto the set. He gets up, excuses himself. “Got to get it on the wing, darling,” he tells me with a sweetly evil smile. I’m not sure he’ll return and, if he does, in what mood. But 15 minutes later, he’s back, another cigarette lit, the same bemused expression on his face. “Any more daft questions?” he asks.
“Tell me about your young people,” I say. “Would that be a good question?”
“Certainly,” he says dryly, inhaling. “What would you like to know?” he taunts. “They’re very kind to me,” he says after a pause. “They take me out for walks. They see that I’m watered and fed. They tuck me up in bed.”
Can he be difficult on set? One of the young actors said that, in one scene, O’Toole entered as the butler with a tray of beer for the rock stars. When the director shouted “Cut,” O’Toole promptly pitched the entire tray of beer off the balcony.
“Yes, I have a habit of doing that,” O’Toole drawls through a long exhale. “I once threw a cat into a fire. I was holding it and they said ‘Cut,’ and I had nothing to do with the cat, so I threw it,” he laughs.
Did the cat survive?
“Oh yes,” he offers lazily.
He seems to be enjoying himself a bit more.
Can’t we have some champers? I ask.
“No, baby,” he says in a soft, low voice. “I’m on set again in a minute.”
A few minutes later, he gets up again when called to perform, then returns to resume his pose of elegant icon, one long leg crossed over the other. The conversation dances all over the place. What does he prefer — stage or film. “When I’m doing theatre, I prefer to be doing cinema. When I’m doing cinema, I prefer to be doing theatre.” Why? “Perversity.” He says he never considered moving to Hollywood. “I love London.” (He also has a house in Ireland.) “I don’t go where I’m not happy. [Califormia] is not my cup of tea.” He admits he would like to win an Oscar. He has been nominated seven times.
Since he had earlier admonished me for asking “cliché questions,” I decide to try a goofy one: “Are you romantically available?”
“Ah, that sounds like a loaded question,” he chortles. There’s a pause.
He inhales deeply on his ebony holder. “Why, you interested?” he shoots back.
I ask him to answer the question.
“Always,” he says voluptuously.
Does he like being on his own?
“Oh yeah,” he says, leaning back, holding one long hand along the side of his face. And can he say why? (O’Toole must be asked a million questions. He offers little voluntarily.) “I can be with other people and I can be on my own. But if I’m not on my own, I can hardly ever be alone,” he answers in riddle.
So, does he have a girlfriend?
“None of your business,” he reprimands sternly.
I thank him for his time. He stands. “Have they been difficult questions?” I ask. He has been sighing and exhaling and puffing out his cheeks through most of them. He takes my hand, and gives it a little squeeze. “No, darling. I’m difficult. Hopeless, really. Hopeless,” he mutters with a sigh as he turns away and an assistant holds up a big hooded parka for him to wear on his journey out to his waiting limousine.