Peter O'Toole on the Ould Sod
A star comes home.
This Longform Reprint is reprinted by permission of author.
Of all the many people I've written about in 60 years of being published, Peter O'Toole remains my favorite. I never enjoyed any assignment more than when I was assigned to interview him for Esquire back in 1963. I flew to London for our meeting, but he had personal affairs to attend to in Ireland and asked that we do it there instead. As a result, I spent time with him in his home country, traveling with him to taverns, race tracks, and familiar haunts with some of his old pals. What struck me as unique about him, as a celebrity and enormously talented artist, was that fact that while he responded candidly to my questions, he had questions of his own. He was not only the most intellectually curious person I’ve ever interviewed, but he interviewed me. (O’Toole had briefly pondered being a journalist, as you read in the obit today.)
In fact, he influenced my personal life in the following way. In the early 1960s, when I was still at The Times and freelancing for Esquire during my off-hours, I'd been married to my wife Nan since 1959 but was worried about having a child. I doubted I could afford one and, with a child, I feared I'd lose whatever freedom I enjoyed in a profession where guaranteed incomes were rare. But one day, when O’Toole was asking me about myself, I told him how I was worried about becoming a father. He quickly dismissed my concerns, saying: “Oh, you're too cautious, too worried about things--don't think so much, just do it!" (He pre-introduced me to the Nike commercial!)
After we'd finished the interview in Ireland, he invited me to spend a few days as his house guest in London and suggested that I ask Nan to join us. She did, and we stayed in his guest room. It was there that we conceived our first child, a daughter, Pamela, born in 1964. I have always privately thanked O'Toole for encouraging me into fatherhood. Pamela is the older of our two daughters, both the joy of our lives. And it is O’Toole, whose whose fearless love of life and adventure and personal confidence was infused into my cautious nature, to whom I remain so indebted today.
— Gay Talese, Dec. 16, 2013
All the children had their pencils out and were drawing horses, as the nun had instructed—all, that is, except one little boy who, having finished, was sitting idly behind his desk. “Well,” the nun said, looking down at his horse, “why not draw something else—a saddle, or something?” A few minutes later she returned to see what he had drawn. Suddenly her face was scarlet. The horse now had a penis and was urinating in the pasture. Wildly, with both hands, the nun began to flail the boy. Then other nuns rushed in and they, too, flailed him, knocking him to the floor, and not listening as he sobbed, bewilderedly, “But, but…I was only drawing what I saw…only drawing what I saw!”
“Oh, those bitches!” said Peter O’Toole, now thirty-one, still feeling the sting after all these years. “Those destitute, old unmarried birds with those withered, sexless hands! God, how I hated those nuns!”
He threw his head back, finished his Scotch, then asked the stewardess for another. Peter O’Toole was sitting in an airplane that one hour before had left London, where he has long lived in exile, and was flying to Ireland, his birthplace. The plane was filled with businessmen and rosy-cheeked Irishwomen, and also a scattering of priests, one of whom held a cigarette in what seemed to be a long, thin pair of wire tweezers—presumably so he would not touch tobacco with fingers that would later hold the Sacrament.
O’Toole, unaware of the priest, smiled as the stewardess brought his drink. She was a floridly robust little blonde in a tight green tweed uniform.
“Oh, look at that ass,” O’Toole said softly, shaking his head, raising his eyes with approval. “That ass is covered with tweed made in Connnemara, where I was born…Nicest asses in the world, Ireland. Irish-women still are carrying water on their heads and carrying their husbands home from pubs, and such things are the greatest posture builders in the world.”
He sipped his Scotch and looked out the window. The plane was now descending, and through the clouds he could see the soft, verdant fields, the white farmhouses, the gentle hills of outer Dublin, and he said he felt, as returning Irishmen often do, both some sadness and some joy. They are sad at seeing again what it was that forced them to leave, and feel some guilt, too, for having left, though they know they could never have fulfilled their dreams amid all this poverty and strangling strictness; yet they are happy because Ireland’s beauty seems imperishable, unchanged from the time of their childhood, and thus each trip back home to Ireland is a blissful reunion with youth.
Though Peter O’Toole remains an uprooted Irishman by choice, he leaves London and returns to Ireland every now and then to do some drinking, to play the horses at the Punchestown racetrack outside Dublin, and to spend some solitary hours thinking. He had had very little time for private thinking recently; there had been those grueling two years in the desert with Lawrence of Arabia, and then starring on the London stage in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal, and the costarring with Richard Burton in the film Becket, and then he would star in Lord Jim, with other films to follow.
Big money was rolling in now, for the first time in his life. He had just bought a nineteen-room house in London, and finally was able to afford paintings by Jack B. Yeats. Yet O’Toole was no more contented or secure now than he had been as an underfed drama student living on a barge, a barge that sank one night after too many people had come to a party.
He could still be wild and self-destructive, and the psychiatrists had been no help. All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church, with his smashing up so many cars that his license had to be taken away, and with marching in Ban-the-Bomb parades, with becoming obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, with detesting cops, barbed wire, and girls who shave under their arms; with being an aesthete, a horse player, a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (“My life is littered with copies of Moby Dick”) and reading the same sermon on that book (“…and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves…”); with being gentle generous, sensitive, yet suspicious (“You’re talking to an Irish bookie’s son, you can’t con me!”); with devotion to his wife, loyalty to old friends, great concern over the uncertain eyesight of his three-year-old daughter, now wearing very thick glasses (“Daddy, Daddy! I broke my eyes!” “Don’t cry, Kate, don’t cry—we’ll get you a new pair”); with theatrical genius that is equally moving whether performing pantomime or Hamlet; with anger that can be sudden (“Why should I tell you the truth? Who are you, Bertrand Russell?”) and with anger that quickly subsides (“Look, I’d tell you if I knew why, but I don’t know, just don’t know…”); and with the as yet unrealized contradictions in the Peter O’Toole who, at this very moment, was about to land in Ireland…where he was born thirty-one years ago…where he would have his next drink.
Two bumps, and the plane was safely down, racing across the concrete, then spinning around and rolling toward the Dublin air terminal. When the door was opened, a crowd of photographers and reporters moved in, flash bulbs fixed, and soon they were popping away as Peter O’Toole, a thin, lanky man of six feet three inches, wearing a green corduroy jacket, a green bow tie, and green socks (he wears nothing but green socks, even in tuxedos), came down the steps, smiling and waving in the sun. He posed for pictures, gave a radio interview, bought everybody a drink; he laughed and backslapped, he was charming and suave, he was his public self, his airport self.
Then he got into a limousine that would take him into the city, and soon he was riding through the narrow, winding roads past the farmhouses, past the goats and cows and green, very green land stretching for miles in the distance.
“A lovely land, “O’Toole said, with a sigh. “God, you can love it! But you can’t live in it. It’s a frightening thing. My father, who lives in England, won’t put a foot in Ireland any more. And yet, you mention one word against Ireland and he goes stark raving mad…"
“Oh, Ireland,” O’Toole went on, “it’s the sow that ate its own farrow. Tell me one Irish artist that ever produced here, just one! God, Jack Yeats couldn’t sell a painting in this country, and all the talent…oh, daddy…You know what Ireland’s biggest export is? It’s men. Men…Shaw, Joyce, Synge, they couldn’t stay here. O’Casey couldn’t stay. Why? Because O’Casey preaches the Doctrine of Joy, daddy, that’s why…Oh, the Irish know despair, by God they do! They are Dostoyevskian about it. But Joy, dear love, in this land! …Oh, dear Father,” O’Toole went on, pounding his breast, “forgive me, Father, I have fucked Mrs. Rafferty…Ten Hail Marys, son, five Our Fathers…But Father, Father, I didn’t enjoy fucking Mrs. Rafferty…Good, son, good…
“Ireland,” O’Toole repeated, “you can love it…can’t live in it.”
Now he was at the hotel. It was near the Liffey River not far from the tower described by Joyce in Ulysses. O’Toole had a drink at the bar. He seemed very quiet and somber, so different from the way he had been at the airport.
“The Celts are, at rock bottom, deep pessimists,” Peter O’Toole said, tossing down his Scotch. Part of his own pessimism, he added springs from his birthplace, Connemara, “the wildest part of Ireland, famine country, a land without horizons”—a land that Jack Yeats paints so well into his Irish faces, faces that remind O’Toole so much of his 75-year-old father, Patrick O’Toole, a former bookmaker, a dashing gentleman, tall and very slim, like Peter; who nearly always drank too much and fought with the police, like Peter; and who was not very lucky at the racetrack, like Peter; and who people in the neighborhood back in Connemara used to shake their heads for Patty O’Toole’s wife, Constance (“a saint”), and would say, “Oh, what would Patty O’Toole ever do without Connie?”
“When my father would come home from the track after a good day,” said Peter O’Toole, leaning against the bar, “the whole room would light up; it was fairyland. But when he lost, it was black. In our house, it was always either a wake…or a wedding.”
Later in his boyhood, Peter O’Toole was taken out of Ireland; his father, wishing to be closer to the racetracks clustered in northern England’s industrial district, moved the family to Leeds, a slum of one-down, two-up houses.
“My first memory of Leeds as a child was being lost,” said Peter O’Toole, tossing down another drink. “I remember wandering around the city…remember seeing a man painting a telephone pole green…And I remember him going away and leaving his paint brushes and things behind…And I remember finishing the pole for him…And I remember the police station…And remember looking up at the desk, all white tile, white as a nun’s hand, and then I remember seeing a big fucking nasty looking down at me…”
At thirteen, Peter O’Toole had quit school and had gone to work briefly in a warehouse and learned to break string without scissors, a talent he has never lost, and after that he worked as a copyboy and photographer’s assistant at the Yorkshire Evening News, a job he liked very much until it occurred to him that newspapermen remain primarily along the sidelines of life recording the deeds of famous men, and rarely become famous themselves, and he very much wanted to be famous, he said. At 18 years of age, he had copied in his notebook the lines that would be his credo, and now, in this bar in Dublin, tilting back on his barstool, he recited them aloud:
“I do not choose to be a common man…it is my right to be uncommon—if I can…I seek opportunity—not security…I want to take the calculated risk; to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed… to refuse to barter incentive for a dole… I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence, the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopias….”
After he finished, two drunken men at the far end of the bar clapped their hands, and O’Toole bought them, and himself, another drink.
His career as an actor, he said, began after his tour in the Navy and a year of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. One of his first acting jobs was with the Bristol Old Vic Company impersonating a Georgian peasant in a Chekhov play.
“I was supposed to lumber onto the stage and say, ‘Dr. Ostroff, the horses have arrived,’ and then walk off,” O’Toole said. “But not me. I decided this Georgian peasant was really Stalin! And so I played it with a slight limp, like Stalin’s and fixed my make-up like Stalin…and when I came on the stage, smoldering with resentment for the aristocracy, I could hear a hush come over the audience. Then I glared at Dr. Ostroff…and said, “Dr. Horsey, the Ostroffs have arrived!’”
In the next three years at the Vristol Old Vic, he played 73 roles, including Hamlet, but, until he got the movie role in Lawrence of Arabia, nobody had heard of Peter O’Toole, said Peter O’Toole, his voice hard.
“Lawrence!” O’Toole spat out, swallowing his Scotch. “I became obsessed by that man, and it was bad. A true artist should be able to jump into a bucket of shit and come out smelling of violets, but I spent two years and three months making that picture, and it was two years, three months of thinking about nothing but Lawrence, and you were him, and that’s how it was day after day, and it became bad for me, personally, and it killed my acting later."
“After Lawrence, as you know, I did Baal and a close friend of mine, after my dress rehearsal, came back and said, ‘What’s the matter, Peter, what is it?’ I asked what the hell he meant, and he said, ‘There’s no give!’…Christ, his words struck terror in me. Oh, it was bad acting! I was looking at the floor…couldn’t get my voice going again…I was flabby, diffuse…Later I said, ‘You’re in trouble daddy,’ and I felt it in my fucking toes. I was emotionally bankrupt after that picture."
“Oh a BBC show, on Harry Craig’s show—that mother dug too deep!—I said that after Lawrence I was afraid of being mutilated. That filming for that length of time, two years, three months, and having all the responsibility for the performance but none of the control…Christ, in one scene of the film I saw a close-up of me when I was 27 years old, and then 8 seconds later, there was another close-up of me when I was 29 years old! 8 goddamn seconds! and two years of my life had gone from me!"
“Oh, it’s painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed,” he said, staring straight ahead toward the rows of bottles. “Once a thing is solidified it stops being a living thing. That’s why I love the theatre. It’s the Art of the Moment. I’m in love with ephemera and I hate permanence. Acting is making words into flesh, and I love classical acting because…because you need the vocal range of an opera singer…the movement of a ballet dancer..you have to be able to act…it’s turning your whole body into a musical instrument on which you yourself play…It’s more than behaviorism, which is what you get in the movies…Chrissake, what are movies anyway? Just fucking moving photographs, that’s all. But the theatre! Ah, there you have the impermanence that I love. It’s a reflection of life somehow. It’s…it’s…like building a statue of snow….”
Peter O’Toole looked at his watch. Then he paid the barman and waved good-bye to the drunks in the corner. It was 1:15 P.M.—time to be getting to the track.
The Chauffeur, a fat and quiet man who had been dozing in the hotel lobby all this time, woke up when he heard O’Toole singing and sauntering out of the bar, and he quickly hopped up when O’Toole announced cheerfully, bowing slightly, “The races, m’good man.”
In the car on the way to Punchestown, O’Toole, who was in good spirits but not drunk by any means, recalled the joy he’d had as a boy when his father would take him to the racetrack. Sometimes, O’Toole, said, his father would miscalculate the odds at his bookie stand, or would lose so heavily on one of his bets that he would not have enough cash to pay off his winning customers; so, immediately after the race was over, but before the customers could charge toward the O’Toole bookie booth, Patrick O’Toole would grab Peter’s hand and say, “C’m’on, son, let’s be off!”—and the two of them would slip through the shrubbery and disappear quickly from the track, and could not return again for a long time.
Punchestown’s grandstand was jammed with people when O’toole’s chauffeur drove toward the clubhouse. There were long lines of people waiting to buy tickets, too, well-dressed people in tweed suits and tweed caps, or Tyrolean hats with feathers sticking up. Beyond the people was the paddock, a paddock of soft, very green grass on which the horses pounded back and forth, circling and turning, nostrils flaring. And behind the paddock, making lots of noise, were rows and rows of bookies, all of them elderly men wearing caps and standing behind their brightly-painted wooden stands, all of them echoing the odds and waving little pieces of paper in the breeze.
Peter O’Toole watched them for a moment, silently. Then suddenly, a woman’s voice could be heard calling, ‘Pee-tah, Pee-tah, Pee-tah O’Toole, well, how ah you?”
O’Toole recognized the woman as one of Dublin society, a well-built woman of about forty whose husband owned race horses and lots of stock in Guinness.
O’Toole smiled and held her hand for a few moments, and she said, “Oh, you look better every day, Pee-tah, even better than you did on those bloody Arab camels. Come to our trailer behind the clubhouse and have drinks with us, dear, won’t you?”
O’Toole said he would, but first wanted to place a bet.
He placed a five-pound bet on a horse in the first race, but before the horse could clear the final hedge, the rider was thrown. O’Toole lost the next five races, too, and the liquor was also getting to him. Between races he’d stopped in at the Guinness trailer, a big white van filled with rich men and champagne and elegant Irishwomen who brushed up very close to him, called him “Pee-tah” and saying he should come back to Ireland more often, and, as he smiled and put his long arms around them, he sometimes found that he was leaning on them for support.
Just before the final race, O’Toole wandered out into the fresh air and sun and placed a ten-pound bet on a horse about which he knew nothing; then, instead of going back into the Guinness van, he leaned against the rail near the track, his bloodshot blue eyes gazing at the row of horses lined up at the gate. The bell sounded, and O’Toole’s horse, a big chestnut gelding, pulled out ahead, and, swinging around the turn, kicking divots of grass into the air, it maintained the lead, leaped over a hedge, pounded onward, leaped over another hedge, still ahead by two lengths. Now Peter O’Toole began to wake up, and seconds later he was waving his fist in the air, cheering and jumping, as the horse moved across the finish line—and galloped past, the jockey leaning up on the saddle, an easy victor.
“Pee-tah, Pee-tah, you’ve won!” Came the cries from the van.
“Pee-tah, darling, let’s have a drink!”
But Peter O’Toole was not interested in a drink. He rushed immediately to the ticket window before the bookie could get away. O’Toole got his money.
After the races, with the late afternoon sun going down and the air suddenly chilly, O’Toole decided he would avoid the parties in Dublin; instead he asked the chauffeur to take him to Glendalough, a quiet, beautiful, almost deserted spot along a lake between two small mountains in outer Dublin, not far from where the earliest O’Tooles were buried, and where he, as a boy, used to take long walks.
By 5:30 P.M. the driver was edging the big car around the narrow dirt roads at the base of the mountain, then he stopped, there being no more road. O’Toole got out, lifted the collar of his green corduroy jacket, and began to walk up the mountain, a bit uneasily, because he was still slightly dazed by all the drinking.
“Oh, Chris, what a color!” he shouted, his voice echoing through the valley. “Just look at those trees, those young trees—they’re running, for chrissake, they’re not planted there—and they’re so luscious, like pubic hair, and that lake, no fish in that lake! And no birds sing, it’s so quiet, no birds singing in Glendalough on account of there being no fish…for them to sing for….”
Then he slumped down on the side of the mountain, tossed his head back against the grass. Then he held his hands in the air, and said, “See that? See that right hand?” He turned his right hand back and forth, saying, “Look at those scars, daddy,” and there were about thirty or forty little scars inside his right hand as well as on his knuckles, and his little finger was deformed.
“I don’t know if there’s any significance to it, daddy, but…but I am a left-hander who was made to be right-handed…Oh, they would wack me over the knuckles when I used my left, those nuns, and maybe, just maybe that is why I hated school so much.”
All his life, he said, his right hand has been a kind of violent weapon. He has smashed it through glass, into concrete, against other people.
“But look at my left hand,” he said, holding it high. “Not a single scar on it. Long and smooth as a lily…Look…”
He pulled out his airplane ticket, and, with a ballpoint pen, wrote out his name.
He laughed. Then, standing and brushing the dirt from his green jacket and trousers, he staggered down the mountain toward the car, and began to leave behind the eerie quiet lake, the running trees, and the island of those wizened white nuns.
Gay Talese is a bestselling author who has written eleven books. He was a reporter for The New York Times from 1956 to 1965, and since then he has written for the Times, Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and others. Listen to Talese discuss this story and more on the Longform Podcast.