We lost one of the greats today when Peter O’Toole, star of stage and screen, passed away at 81. I had the honor of interviewing him in 2007, when he was promoting “Venus,” which earned him a record eighth Oscar nomination. I remember this interview so vividly, how I was waiting in the lounge at the Four Seasons Hotel, when I looked up and saw a legend walking towards me. It’s not online anywhere, so I’ve reposted it below.
In the Game
Peter O’Toole holds court on great actors, good roles, and bad theatre.
By Jenelle Riley
In the 1982 masterpiece My Favorite Year, Peter O’Toole plays Allan Swann, a drunken, womanizing performer living off the glory of his swashbuckling roles of youth. He has no misconceptions about his art, famously intoning, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” When he inevitably disappoints Benjy Stone (played by Mark Linn-Baker), the young TV writer who worships him, Benjy tells him he’s useless as an ordinary man. “I need Allan Swanns as big as I can get them,” he pleads.
They don’t come bigger than Peter O’Toole. Since he emblazoned himself on screen and into movie history as the passionate title character of David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece Laurence of Arabia, the Irish-born actor has become so renowned for his behavior on and off stage that he’s entered that elite pantheon known as living legends. His performances are renowned, from the conniving king of The Lion in Winter and the shy schoolteacher in Goodbye, Mr. Chips to the manipulative film director of The Stunt Man. His roles are so numerous and varied that at one point while reminiscing about his favorite parts, he even stops himself and thinks out loud, “What else have I played?”
It’s a bright Sunday in Los Angeles and the 74-year-old actor is in the city thanks to a record eighth Oscar nomination for his performance in the comedy Venus, his first since My Favorite Year. Once again, he is nominated for playing an aging actor, but whereas Allan Swann was defiant and fun-loving, Venus’ Maurice is all too aware of his own mortality. Reading obituaries of his peers and wondering “how many lines will I get” when he dies, Maurice becomes obsessed with a crass 20-year-old girl (played by newcomer Jodie Whittaker). O’Toole convincingly conveys Maurice’s unrequited affection for his diamond in the rough, speaking volumes with a single glance of those still-stunning blue eyes.
While somewhat frail in person, O’Toole’s sharp wit shows no signs of slowing down. He is verbally quick and clever, and little gets by him. “We’re being photographed, are you aware?” he asks, gesturing towards a bush where a paparazzi is hidden fairly inconspicuously. “You start to develop a sense for the camera.” No surprise, as O’Toole has lived most of his life in front of a lens. And his deserved nomination for Venus has feel like a vindication for the actor. When the powers that be wanted to bestow an Honorary Academy Award on him in 2003, he considered refusing, noting he was “still in the game” and might just “win the lovely bugger outright.” He eventually relented, appearing at the awards and delivering a heartfelt speech, but as it turns out, he was right—he wasn’t done yet. O’Toole stands a good chance of walking away with the gold on Oscar night, an occurrence that would mark a sweet coda to the career of a man who remains one of the last great movie stars…in addition to being a terrific actor.
Back Stage: Maurice seems like a role created specifically for you; but apparently it actually wasn’t written with you in mind?
Peter O’Toole: Indeed. This is the way our business, the actor’s business runs. As any actor knows, good parts make good actors. Oh, you have to be able to do it, of course. But good parts make good actors. When things were a little bit dry or fallow in my business, what I always did, throughout my entire life, was to stick on a play. I avoided the Royal Shakespeare Companies and the National Theatres and all that rubbish. I don’t like any of them; I have not liked them for half a century. So I’d put them on myself. Within weeks, usually, the phone would be ringing and another job would come to light.
Back Stage: What have you got against groups like the Royal Shakespeare Company?
O’Toole: Apart from the fact that they’re very bad? There was a period—a generation, indeed—thirty odd years in which the Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre and the Royal Court, all that lot—they were mediocre, which is unforgivable. Mediocrity is just disgusting. Laterally, within the last five, ten years, they’ve become bad. And that is such a relief.
Back Stage: Do you think they know they’re bad?
O’Toole: No, they’ve got a very high opinion of themselves. They live in an isolated little community. All it is, is a young bunch of mediocrities who are being exploited because they get no money—all the money goes into production or some director’s pocket when it’s transferred to London.
Back Stage: When was the last time you were onstage?
O’Toole: I did my last theatre in 1999. I did a revival of a modern play I’m very fond of called Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell by Keith Waterhouse that I originally did in 1989. It and Waiting for Godot are my favorite modern plays. It was at the Old Vic, where it all began for me in 1953. I managed to get the same cast we had in 1989 when I first did it. We did the first half and it seemed to be going all right. Then the second half went beautifully, I know it did. Come curtain call, as I walked onto the stage to take my bow, the entire theatre jumped up at me. And as I was bowing I said to myself, “Pedro, now is the time to go. Go now. There will never be another part that requires the same energy and movement and diction. And if one came along, you wouldn’t be able to do it and you won’t be able to do what you used to do quite well.” And I have no wish to shuffle on as a butler. As anyone will tell you, theatre is an enormously tiring and exhausting business. I didn’t use the word retire, neither shall I because, who knows? I might have to get my props and go off to the north of Scotland to do a tour.
Back Stage: You’ve done a lot of theatre in America, including your Broadway debut in 1987’s Pygmalion. Do you have a preference between continents?
O’Toole: I prefer to do my theatre in London. It’s what I know. But I’ve played in Chicago, in Washington. I did Vanya and Present Laughter in Washington. We broke every record at the Kennedy Center.
Technically, Pygmalion wasn’t my debut. My daughter had done an off-off-Broadway play a long time ago when she was a Yale student. It was The Hostage; I went to see her to do it. I was nervous—worrying could she do it, could she act? And she could. I went down the second day and a flu had hit New York and the cast was short. In The Hostage, you have dozens of people. They could manage just about, but at the end they couldn’t find someone to play the secret policeman. So I went on as the Secret Policeman. The audience didn’t have the faintest idea. So my daughter got me a part. Very nice of her.
Back Stage: What drew you to Venus?
O’Toole: I read it and after a sort of hiccup—I wasn’t quite sure about one particular thing—I said, “When do we do it?” The thing was, I wouldn’t do it until we could find a Venus. And where do you find what the English call a “chav”—a real sluttish, tracksuited-wearing, popcorn-munching slob? Who can also do it at a high level and handle complex dialogue. And she couldn’t be a glamour puss, she had to be sort of plain and yet lovely. Roger said, “Oh, she’s out there.”
There’s an old theatre truism that says when you read a play and there’s a part for a woman or a man and you can’t immediately think of one or two people who could play it, be very careful. Of course like all truisms, it has its exceptions. Roger was auditioning hundreds and he rang me up and said he had three contenders and wanted me to do the reading and they could put it on film. I would say, quite cheerfully, that two of the three could have done it. Astonishing. I went to a film place in Soho so I could watch them with the sound and picture blown up and get a proper look. And it was Jodie.
Back Stage: Do you concern yourself at all with people drawing comparisons between this role and your real life?
O’Toole: If I hesitated over people’s misconstructions about me, I’d be finished. My Favorite Year, for example, gave me a wonderful opportunity for self parody. But Maurice and I have absolutely nothing in common at all. Maybe a tenacity for life. But I’m a grumpy old bugger.
Ultimately, it was a beautiful script. And of course, we got the best cast you could possibly find. Like my beloved Vanessa. I’ve worked with her father, her sister, her children, her niece, her brother, but I’ve never worked with Vanessa even though we’ve known each other since the 50s. And I think our particular scenes are about as good as one could do anything. The Redgraves are a deeply talented family. My lot are coming along, I’ve got two now who are in the business. My daughter Kate and my son, Lorcan, who’s 23 and a struggling young actor.
Back Stage: Does he ever ask you for advice on his struggles?
O’Toole: He did a lot once. He wanted to know a lot in the early days. Don’t forget, the young man has been under my shadow for a long time, particularly when he became an actor. In the last couple years he’s decided to do it his own way, and that’s cool.
Back Stage: How did you respond when your children told you they wanted to be actors?
O’Toole: The chief thing is, if anyone says they want to be an actor, I try to say as little as possible. I like to go and look at them. And see if they can do it—and very, very few people can, you know? Thousands of people have it as a job description but only a handful in any one time in any one generation can do it. It was a delight to see my daughter; she could do it. Then I went to see [my son] as a 16-year-old and he can do it. And if you can do it, when you don’t get the job, you can go back home and think it’s their fault. But if you cannot do it, you spend the rest of your whole life mystified about what is this acting? What do I do? Mystified. Because you’re born with it…or not at all.
Back Stage: Can’t training help make you an actor?
O’Toole: Training can sharpen and deepen and enrich. But it can’t teach you how to act. It’s impossible. I would say that in England there are about 150 people who can really do it in any age group, from my age group to the middle age group to the young age group. There’s probably 50 from each group. And there are thousands of actors.
Back Stage: Is it frustrating for you to work with people who don’t have it?
O’Toole: No, you get used to it. You get used to it in drama school. None of us who went to drama school knew, “What is this acting thing?” Edith Evans was asked about becoming an actor and she said, “You catch it, like influenza.” You do. And it’s a mystery, you don’t know what you’re doing, you just know you want to try and do it. And after a couple turns, you realize you’re not all that bad. And after awhile you see a look in someone’s eyes and you know immediately—immediately—they get it. Or you go onto a set and look in someone’s eyes and there’s nobody home. And they try and they try and they try and they’re just in for a lifetime of mystification.
Back Stage: Are there any new actors today you admire who have that special quality?
O’Toole: Oh yes, there’s always young talent. It renews itself. Not many, but a few. There are some exceptional young women and men today. There’s a young English actor called Simon Russell Beale, he can do any damn thing. I love to see him work.
I’ve been watching a lot of movies lately, including this year’s [Oscar nominees]. That’s what I’ve been doing; I spent yesterday at the pictures. Having rather arrogantly announced that I was still in the game three or four years ago, I’ve been dealt a very nice hand. So I’m going to play it.
Back Stage: It’s been reported that before you received the 2003 Honorary Oscar, you considered turning it down. Were you being serious?
O’ Toole: Well, that’s a jumble that has been reported and misreported. Put it this way: at first I wasn’t at all keen on it. My behavior was a little bit crass, but you might expect that. And it was pointed out to me, very firmly, by my daughter that this is the highest honor. So I accepted gladly and delightedly.
Back Stage: I recently read an interview where you referred to your 1991 comedy King Ralph as “bottomless stupidity.” Do you always go into a film with the same amount of commitment and dedication, regardless of the project?
O’Tolle: Oh yeah. Whether theatre or cinema, acting is what I do for a living. It’s how I put steam on the table. I have to earn my living. And the longer I go on living, the more expensive it becomes. I’m not going to get a Venus or a My Favorite Year or a Beckett or any of those through the post every month. Maybe every 10 years I might get one. I can’t always be the supreme judge of the material. If it’s a good job, I’ll do it. It’s like asking a musician if he turns up and he’s going to play Vorisek and he doesn’t like it, will he bugger it about? Not at all. He’s going to play it. You go out there and you plow your author. That’s an old 18th century English expression: “Come on old plowhorse, plow your Shakespeare.”
Back Stage: Is it possible for you to pick a favorite role from all the ones you’ve played?
O’Toole: Strange thing, but I can walk into a room and they’re all sitting there. I never know quite who’s going to live on. All I have to do is think of them and they come. I’ve got about half a dozen parts that are there—sitting in the chair. And I know them, I could do them tomorrow.
Back Stage: You mentioned being unsure of yourself for a long time. At what point did you feel accomplished as an actor?
O’Toole: I was as green as grass when I began, I had no confidence. I wasn’t from an acting family, I didn’t know the business. I’d been a journalist and a sailor for three years. By the end of drama school, I had a certain amount of confidence from doing plays. And when I went into repertory at the Old Vic, it took me about a year to 18 months before I began to see I could do it. And other people were saying I could. Then the compliments began to grow and grow and grow.
There’s an old saying—in America it takes 20 years to become an actor. In England, the saying is 15 years. I thought, “I can’t wait 15 years.” I was playing Man and Superman on stage in Dublin in 1967 or 68 and I’d just done The Lion in Winter with Kate Hepburn. As I turned up to work every day with my beloved Kate, it dawned on me that for the first time in my life, I felt that I was completely on top of it. And that was 15 years.
Back Stage: What’s been your biggest challenge as an actor in your career?
O’Toole: The most difficult play on earth is the one we call the Scottish play. I was quite confident in doing it. I knew that so many people had come unstuck throughout history. But I felt prepared and convinced I could do it. It’s called hubris. Yet I knew as I was walking onstage that I was going to be no use. I knew it. But we weren’t a bad company and it isn’t a bad play. We toured the whole of England with it and by the end of the tour, I had an inkling of how to play…MacBeth.
It’s a sublime play and the most difficult of all the parts, no question. Man, woman, every part in there is difficult and complex. Macready, he spent 10 years trying to get MacBeth right. He said, “I got onto the stage and could not put on the stage what was in my imagination. I’m in despair.” Henry Irving was booed off the stage. Alec Guinness died a death, Albert Finney died a death, I died a death. Yet the whole company was determined to get it right. All of us were guilty of hubris, even the witches.