I’ll always remember the night I was kissed by Lawrence of Arabia. And Hamlet. Robinson Crusoe. Lord Jim. Alan Swann, Don Quixote. King Henry II. Henry Higgins. Anton Ego. And so many more figures of history and imagination that all had the good fortune to have Peter O’Toole breathe his bigger than life breaths into their characters.
But before we kiss and tell, let’s follow the Bard’s advice and sit upon the ground and talk of kings.
We can’t know what it’s like to go from relative obscurity to towering figure of international cinema and the dramatic arts in one camel-wrangling role, but we have Peter O’Toole’s wry smile to suggest it wasn’t all bad. Around age 30, that time when Camus noted each man positions himself in time, O’Toole instead sprinted for immortality. One year he was the bagpipe-playing sidekick of Peter Finch in a Disney version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” and then he was T.E. Lawrence, leading David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” a film that remains a high-water mark of poetic, brainy, big screen filmmaking.
But make no mistake, O’Toole’s rise to “towering figure” may have been nicely aided by that camel-top perch where he strode as a thoroughly convincing megalomaniac whose blazing comet life story filled the screen and then some, but O’Toole could also command attention from the back corner table of an Irish pub.
We know this to be true because now, there’s no doubt that the movies have gotten smaller with Peter O’Toole’s passing.
I speak of the great actor’s qualities not only as a lifelong fan of his work, though if you saw him onstage in his Olivier Award-winning role as Jeffrey Bernard, you got both the charisma and the craft in one tour de force performance and my personal encounter with O’Toole was just, shall we say, icing on the cake.
But what rich icing it was. Our one moment upon the stage together was both mercifully brief and positively unforgettable. Some observers thought it unforgivable as well.
It was 2001, soon after I had moved to London for Variety and was called upon by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to host a conversation with O’Toole after a screening of one of his other great films, “The Lion In Winter.”
He wasn’t happy about the handmike he had to use during the interview.
He wasn’t happy about the stage lights in his eyes.
He’d had, I suspect a glass of wine. Or three.
And he took it all out on me as I bravely smiled through 30 minutes of taunts, snide asides, outright insults, all in all a genuinely humiliating half-hour I wouldn’t trade for all the Awards Season gold.
As I was leaving the after-party, I saw O’Toole huddling with his pals Omar Sharif and Richard Harris. I literally looked away as I extended my hand in a “No hard feelings” gesture that was as futile as it was sincere.
O’Toole suddenly turned toward me, grabbed my hand and the next thing I knew I was in the bear-hug embrace of Peter O’Toole staring directly into “those” blue eyes and not sure if I was about to be subjected to more ridicule and or receive the world’s most passionate apology.
I got neither, but instead I received a benedictory kiss on the forehead, (we’re both Catholics, you know) a long, long gaze and the simple words, “You poor sod,” to which I replied without hesitation, “I love you.”
So that, my friends, is what I call a towering figure and a commanding presence. In that moment I achieved total clarity and insight that while I may have earlier taken a lashing, now I was given a story I’d be telling for the rest of my days.
So this is a story told of a king, but it’s not a sad story. O’Toole lived life joyously and gave joy to film fans all over the world. But there is one person I feel bad for: St. Peter. He now has to deal with the fact that there’s one Peter in heaven that everyone will be clamoring to meet and he’s not standing at the gate with a book and a long face, he’s at a back table and the crowd is gathered around to hear his stories and drink in his glories.
So I have only one thing to say to St. Peter: You poor sod.
(For a sober account of that evening, here’s the Variety report from the time.)