The Day Peter O’Toole Wasn’t Drunk

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Behind the scenes with one of our greatest actors. Columbia Pictures/Getty

Peter O’Toole, an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose performance in the 1962 epic film “Lawrence of Arabia” earned him overnight fame and established him as one of his generation’s most charismatic actors, died on Saturday in London. He was 81.New York Times

Peter O’Toole called me up one day and asked me to visit him in his grand Georgian house in North London. He did not look good. His skin was a strange yellow and he looked way older than his 50 years. He wore a collar too large for him, like an old man in his dotage, around which was wrapped a Garrick Club tie, the symbol of a British movie and stage actor who had made it to the Establishment.

“I don’t want you to write my biography,” he said. “I forbid you to write my biography!”

I was taken aback. Two years before, his dear friend, the Welsh actor Kenneth Griffith, had introduced me to O’Toole in a private screening room in Soho and told him I was a reliable and honest journalist who would do him proud. O’Toole eyed me up and down and said, “So be it.”

By the time I was summoned to O’Toole’s residence to be ordered to desist, it was far too late to stop my work. “I’m sorry,” I told him, “but the book is finished. The typescript is with the publisher.”

He gave me one of those blank stares with his searing blue eyes that caused women to swoon and critics to imagine he was having profound thoughts.

I explained that no biographer needed the permission of his subject and reassured him that I had been diligent in checking with Griffith, a close friend and neighbor of mine, whenever I was not sure what the truth was about O’Toole, who had left a hilarious snarl of misinformation about his life that was almost always impossible to unravel.

For instance, he was on the record with three different versions of how he had lost his virginity. Which was right? It didn’t matter because each was so crazy, so far-fetched and so beautifully spun by O’Toole that I included all three.

Like many actors, O’Toole had assimilated the magical qualities of the texts and screenplays he had memorized and this grandiloquence spilled over into his everyday speech. Add to this his Irish roots -- he grew up in the grimy Yorkshire city of Leeds -- and his account of anything, from his first roles to working with David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia -- was larded with such eloquence and so many humorous asides that every tale, no matter how tall, was riveting.

As we talked, I imagined that O’Toole was nervous about being described as a hellraiser and a drunk. This was hardly a secret, but there was a good reason he would not want me to bring more attention to it. I remembered his Macbeth at the Old Vic not long before, which was so chaotic and the reviews so dreadful that audiences flocked to see what was to be a collectors’ item in the history of bad performances.

I also remember going with Griffith to a play O’Toole was in at the Haymarket Theatre in London that was truly appalling. Ken said it would be rude not to go backstage after, but I said it would be embarrassing for all concerned. “You leave that to me,” Ken said, as we headed to O’Toole’s dressing room.

And there I learnt my first lesson in thespian good manners. O’Toole looked up and his hangdog face silently said it all: “It was terrible, wasn’t it?” But Griffith, a master of deception, held both hands up in the air as he said, “Who’s a clever boy!” And the awkwardness was smashed back over the net, where it remained, like a stray tennis ball, unnoticed in the corner.

I learned later O’Toole was not worried I would portray him as a boozer in my book. Everyone already knew that he and Richard Burton and Richard Harris could drink anyone under the table and out to the curb. O’Toole was even tanked up for some of his memorable movie scenes, such as when he first emerged from a shimmering horizon as T.E. Lawrence astride a camel. (He got great pleasure from recalling that his look of startled, drunken fear in that scene was described by the critic from Time magazine as O’Toole at his best, capturing the faraway look of a messianic Englishman changing the fate of the world.)

No, O’Toole was worried about something quite different that day. In his young middle-age he developed a stomach ailment and two miles of his intestines were removed. That meant his drinking days were over, and his drug of choice became cocaine. And it was this that he feared I might announce to the world--to stage and movie producers and to American customs officials.

He dearly needed to be able to travel to and from Los Angeles to continue his trade. And he desperately wanted to stay in touch with Lorcan (Gaelic for Lawrence), his new baby son from his second ex-wife, who lived in the United States.

He had nothing to fear from me: I had no intention of outing his drug habit; I wanted color, not wagging fingers. I wanted to tell stories like the one about his dreadful and enthralling Macbeth. So many people lined up to see it, the run was extended; It went on tour around Britain, where it played to sold-out crowds, then came back into the Vic for a second triumphant run. That was one of the joys of O’Toole--he could sometimes be so bad he was very good.

Or, to put it another way, no movie or play with O’Toole in it was all bad.

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