I wasn’t exactly surprised to read that Peter O’Toole had died on Saturday. He was, after all, 81 years old and hadn’t been a well man for a while. Still, it’s rather hard to take when one of your heroes dies.
For the past 40 or so years, I have had an unparalleled love affair with the theater, and I was lucky enough to have been both a Londoner and a New Yorker at different times. That means I have been, for most of my life, a denizen of the West End and of Broadway, of the Fringe and Off-Broadway. There were times when I chose to buy a cheap student stand-by ticket over spending the money on lunch. It is one of my more socially acceptable compulsions. And I confess to arguing over actors the way some argue over football or basketball stars.
Other writers have gone over his career from the Royal Academy to “Lawrence of Arabia” to his marriage to Sian Phillips falling apart. He holds the record for the most Oscar nominations without winning one — although he did receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. I’ll leave that serious stuff for others. It’s the anecdotes I love.
O’Toole was the last of the post-World War II British actors who spent as much time raising hell as he did rehearsing. The class also includes Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Robert Shaw and Peter Finch (who was Australian, but he was one of them anyway). Their style of acting was larger than life, if you want to be charitable, or overboard, bordering on hammy if you prefer not to be. Whichever side you came down on, you couldn’t deny that, on occasion, they were more entertaining with their offscreen antics than with their performances.
In 1968, while filming “Great Catherine,” an assistant was sent to get O’Toole for his scene. In the dressing room, there was no sign of the actor. However, the TV was showing a horse race going on nearby. The camera zoomed in on O’Toole who had joined the crowd. The director sent a car to get him.
The drinking did get out of hand, and it stayed there. While working with Michael Caine in 1958, O’Toole took Caine out to dinner. Caine awoke in a strange flat and asked O’Toole what time it was. O’Toole replied, “Never mind what time it is, what f***ing day is it?” It turns out it was 5 p.m. — two days later, and they were due on stage at 8. When they arrived at the theater, the manager told them they had been banned from the restaurant where the binge began. Caine wanted to know what they had done to deserve it; O’Toole told him it was best not to know.
Once in Paris, he went out for a drink and woke up in Corsica. O’Toole confirmed this with the media.
In the 1970s, he went to lunch with some friends and after several bottles of wine, they decided to take in a play. It was only when they got to their seats that O’Toole realized he was actually in the show. This story appears to be apocryphal, but it fits.
I had the good fortune to see him perform in “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell” at the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue in 1989. Bernard was a real-life journalist who wrote the “Low Life” column for the Spectator, when he was sober enough to do so. The premise of the play is that Bernard wakes up in a pub after it has shut for the night and he can’t get out. It was, as O’Toole said, a role for which he had done a great deal of research. Of the 40 years I have attended the theater, it remains my favorite night of all.
He also wrote the occasional odd poem, and one of his early ones includes what I think is a fine epitaph: “I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”
Watch a clip of O’Toole in “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell” here: