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THE RULE OF O'TOOLE

Peter O'Toole, a bigger-than-life legend, occasionally flirted with going on the wagon and becoming a stay-at-home kind of chap. But, truth to tell, he was never toasted for his sobriety or timidity. Here's what he was like in 1972, the year I interviewed him for The New York Times just before the opening of "The Ruling Class," a dark comedy for which he received one of his eight Oscar nominations. --GUY FLATLEY

 

"I was sort of the Vanessa Redgrave of the fifties," says the slightly disheveled man slouching into a hotel chair. True, he's tall, good looking and has blue eyes, but you'd never in a million years mistake him for Vanessa Redgrave. And there's another performer you'd never mistake him for: sporting a graying beard, shaggy dark hair, drably casual clothes, and non-movie-star glasses which fail to conceal the bags beneath his bleary baby blues, he bears scant resemblance to that golden matinee idol of a few seasons back, Peter O'Toole.

But Peter O'Toole he is, and he's classing himself with Vanessa Redgrave because of that crusading lady's celebrated penchant for the soap box. "I, too, used to be tremendously political," O'Toole says, wearily waving his cigarette holder in the air. "I had opinions and information about everything, but I'm sinking into my 40's now."

To be precise, he is sinking into 40, the traumatic age he turned last month. But he hasn't fled the faraway Galway home he shares with his actress-wife Sian Phillips and their two daughters, Kate and Pat, just to make a public confession of his loss of social commitment. He's in New York to promote "The Ruling Class," a movie produced by Keep Films, Ltd., a company which he heads with Jules Buck. Directed by Peter Medak and adapted by Peter Barnes from his blistering stage comedy about the decadence of British aristocracy, "The Ruling Class," according to some, is the first O'Toole venture in years that is worth promoting.

There is no denying that the extroverted yet enigmatic Irishman, who burned bright on the British stage before skyrocketing to cinematic superstardom as "Lawrence of Arabia" in 1962, has fizzled a bit in recent years. Even though he has won four Oscar nominations--for "Lawrence," "Becket," "The Lion in Winter" and "Goodbye Mr. Chips"--there've been too many clinkers along the way. The list is lamentable: "Lord Jim," "What's New, Pussycat?," "The Bible," "The Night of the Generals," "The Great Catherine," "Brotherly Love" and "Murphy's War."

On stage he received decent reviews for "Man and Superman," "Juno and the Paycock" and "Waiting for Godot" in Dublin, but the London critics fired some of their most vitriolic volleys when he co-starred with his wife in "Ride a Cock Horse." And his "Hamlet," which inaugurated Britain's National Theatre in 1963, was infinitely more tragic than Shakespeare had intended.

It has been hinted that O'Toole's juiciest performances of the past decade have been delivered, free of charge, in the more congenial pubs of Ireland. Not to mention England, where O'Toole also maintains a lavish home. Adding fuel to his reputation for whiskied hijinks was an unpleasant legal skirmish, earlier this year, during which a righteously sober Joseph E. Levine defended his decision not to pay one more penny to O'Toole for his "performance" in "The Lion in Winter" by claiming that the actor's "disgraceful conduct" had caused that movie's production costs to soar. Despite the fact that he went on to assert that O'Toole has been ordered out of two hotels, for becoming "excessively drunk," Levine lost his case.

That Joseph E. Levine, by the way, is the very same Joseph E. Levine who subsequently snapped up the distribution rights to "The Ruling Class" after catching a screening and being bowled over by O'Toole's tour de force as a singing, dancing, sermonizing earl whose schizophrenic conviction that he is Christ is cured only when he comes to see himself as Jack the Ripper.

"I think it's delightful that Joe is distributing our film," O'Toole roars, clapping his hands. "It's hilarious! Marvelous! Everyone should settle their disputes this way. The truth is I never has anything to do with that lawsuit; the company that employed me sued Joe's company, Avco-Embassy. I wasn't involved until somebody produced some startling evidence about me. I never knew exactly what it was, but I gather it was something pretty hairy. I must have been urinating in a doorway or something."

Then it's true that O'Toole has a drinking problem?

"Drinking problem?" he answers, tilting his glass and draining the last ounce of his Polish vodka. "Why, no, not at all. Drinking is the easiest thing in the world. Oh, it's true--people like myself and Albert Finney and Richard Harris and Trevor Howard do drink. And since we do our drinking in public, we've been known to do a bit of jumping, shrieking and leaping. So what? We're bloody professionals and not one of us has ever been soused on the job. Do you have a drinking problem, or can I fix you another drink?"

O'Toole serves a round of drinks and makes a face when asked to describe his childhood. He's told the tale too many times before: a skinny Irish immigrant kid whose father was a bookie and whose rigid teachers in the Catholic slum schools of Northern England used to brutally rap his knuckles every time he attempted to write with his left hand. "That sort of thing is so boring. But if you really want to know, I was brought up in a very divided slum background. The sheenies hated the micks, the micks hated the wops, the wops hated the sheenies. When you're pressure-cooked into a Catholic slum upbringing, you don't forget it very easily.

"I used to be scared stiff of the nuns; their whole denial of womanhood--the black dresses, the shaving of the hair--was so horrible, so terrifying. Of course, that's all been stopped. They're sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now; a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day.

"I stopped practicing Catholicism when I was about 15, and I stopped believing some time later. Do you remember that fellow who was here earlier, the one with the beard? Did you know he was a priest? His name is Leo Walsh. He's been with the Indians down in Colombia, and he has his own parish in Northern England, but now he's taking a little time off to think. I was an altar boy to Leo when I was a child; I served one of the first masses he said after being ordained. He knew I was leaving the church, and he never mentioned it. We've been friends for 30 years and Leo's never mentioned my leaving the church. We were talking about old times when you came in."

For O'Toole, old times do not necessarily mean good times. Having had his fill of no-no's from the nuns, he dropped out of school at the age of 13 and took a dreary job in a warehouse, which was followed by a frustrating four years spent traipsing about as a photographer's assistant for the Yorkshire Evening News. But his spirits sank to a new low when he was drafted into the Submarine Service.

The only way he could have avoided the draft would have been to return permanently to Ireland, a move he was reluctant to make since it would almost certainly crush his growing urge to become an actor. Besides, his feelings about England had always been mixed. "I was brought up in England, lived in England, worked in England, and I liked English people. The English policy . . . that's another matter. On the other hand, what is Southern Ireland's policy for unification?

"I don't want to sit here like a bishop in a plush hotel room in New York making pronouncements about what's going on over there, but I must say that the expatriates don't hesitate to speak out. Since I've been here, I've met a policeman, a barman, a journalist--all Irish, and all quick to point out what must be done to unify Ireland. They're better versed than I am, flinging around names of obscure Irish politicians I never even heard of."

At any rate, O'Toole traded the torpor of The Yorkshire Evening News for the torment of the Submarine Service. "They made me a sailor--with bellbottoms! It was grotesque. What did they think they were doing with me looking after the welfare of the nation? What was I doing marching to the left and marching to the right? What was I doing darning socks? It was a bloody nightmare and I tried every way to get out. Once, I drank about 18 bottles of wine, took a lot of aspirins and a drug that was supposed to turn me gray, but it didn't work. Finally, I started pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole situation to them. I can't really say how much of what I was doing was pretending, or when my pretense became real. But I was released as mentally unsuitable after 18 months."

Mentally suitable is what O'Toole turned out to be at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he won a scholarship and studied for two years, shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. "That was the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren't reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty. Even then, we were dissenters. It was the time of Korea, and we wanted to know what it was all about--this war to keep back the hordes of reddish yellows, yellow reds, or whatever.

"You see, we all shared the common experience of being war babies, of being bombed, of being evacuated, of facing compulsory service. It's one of the most incredible experiences in the world, being bombed. You play this mad, demented, passive role. I tell you, if you haven't been bombed, you haven't lived. Perhaps if more people had been bombed, they might be less generous in their supply of bombs."

After graduating from the Royal Academy, O'Toole joined the Bristol Old Vic, where, over a period of three-and-a-half years, he played 73 roles. It was at Bristol--and later at Stratford-Upon-Avon, where he stunned viewers as Shylock--that O'Toole demonstrated his enormous skill in interpreting character roles. "Acting, by definition, is character acting," he says, thoughtfully tugging at his beard. "The French make a fine distinction between and acteur and a comedien. A comedien can take on any role; an acteur takes on a recurring role. I prefer to think of myself as a comedien. But, really, I'm loath to talk about myself in these terms. I'm a jobbing actor. Acting is what my job is; have jock strap, will travel."

In 1958, he traveled from Bristol, hoping to wind up on London's West End. His hope was in vain, however, since "The Holiday," the vehicle that was to carry him there, broke down in the provinces. (The following year, he finally made it to the West End, where he was immediately hailed as a sensational new star in the anti-military play, "The Long and the Short and the Tall.") But, in one respect, "The Holiday" did prove to be a lucky break for O'Toole. Playing his sister was a striking Welsh actress named Sian Phillips, who has excelled at playing his real-life wife since 1959. No doubt this is proof that O'Toole disagrees fervently with that new breed of actor who insists that marriage is as obsolete as a silent movie?

"Marriage is an impossible institution! I can't be expected to stay in the same room, to remain faithful forever. This notion of two people being bound to each other can't be legislated. When a marriage works, it's a complete accident, a delightful shock. People are not held together by contract, they are held together by mutual esteem. And I'm very fond of Sian."

He is also very fond of Sian's acting. "My wife is the best actress in Britain, and I'm not alone in thinking this. Did you know she's Tennessee Williams' favorite actress? She's done all the Williams ladies. She's a bloody good actress. . . but we don't work well together. We're both hypercritical."

Some critics feel that O'Toole worked best of all with Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter," but during the shooting of that fiery melodrama it was rumored that tempers blew so hot that an exasperated Hepburn advised an exuberant O'Toole that if he didn't shape up, she'd ship out.

"Trouble with Kate?" O'Toole cries, looking mortally wounded. "I worship that bloody woman. I've never enjoyed working with anyone so much in my life, not even Burton. There were no problems, not a one. As a matter of fact, Kate came to see me in Ireland a few weeks ago--completely unannounced, as always. 'Hello," she said, looking in the window. My children thought it was a tinkerwoman.

"I've had luck with my leading ladies. The real shocker was Ursula Andress, with whom I made 'What's New Pussycat?' She's a bloody sex symbol and all that, and yet she's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. A real mother hen, looking after everybody. That movie was a bit curious, though. I had never improvised in my life, and I was talked into it by Woody Allen and Pete Sellers. The idea was that we'd do improvisation and Woody would take the best bits and stretch them. It didn't work out that way at all. From the beginning, Woody didn't get on with Pete, and there the three of us sat in one room. And in the next room all those lovely ladies who hated each other--Romy Schneider, Capucine, Ursula . . ."

O'Toole is also high on Elizabeth Taylor, who costars with him and Richard Burton in the soon-to-be-released "Under Milk Wood," but he seems particularly taken with Sophia Loren, his voluptuous leading lady in "Man of La Mancha," due to open here in December. "Sophia is gorgeous, a marvelously put-together machine. But she's a grievous card sharp; in Naples, they're born with a pack of cards. Of course, she can do this," he says, pointing his nose in the air in an impressive caricature of a haughty movie queen, "but give her a nudge and she's the funniest woman in the world. A helluva woman!"

And "Man of La Mancha" is a helluva musical. Is it possible that O'Toole can scale the vocal heights of "The Impossible Dream"? "I did my own singing, but they're free to use anyone's voice they please. That's their privilege; after all I've got a voice like a broken bottle going under a door. Besides, those songs are difficult, not at all like the songs in "The Ruling Class"-- "The Varsity Drag," "My Blue Heaven." I could muster the first phrases, and I gave the rest a flash. But apparently it was horrendous, so they brought in a highly paid opera singer to do the high notes."

"My Blue Heaven" notwithstanding, you needn't look for O'Toole to follow the pop-singing path blazed by his fellow-Irishman Richard Harris. In fact, you needn't look for O'Toole at all for a while, since he has promised himself that--come hell or high-class script--he will take at least a year off from acting. Like Leo Walsh, he wants time to think, time to go on an archeological dig in South America, time to spend with his wife and daughters.

Is he a strict father?

"No. But I have two very strict daughters who think it's very odd that anyone should take any interest in me at all."

How old are they?

"Old? Let's see, Kate is 70, which would make Pat about 55. Oh, I'd say they're twelvish or so. They grow up so quickly these days. They go to a very good school, with high academic standards, and I think they are both happy. They smile a lot. They smile when they go to school in the morning, and they smile when they come home."

Peter O'Toole, who didn't smile a lot in school, smiles now.

Click here for more interviews by Guy Flatley and Diane Baroni.