The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On Peter O'Toole's Retirement

What's this? Peter O'Toole is retiring?:
Dear All,
It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back.
My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.
However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay.
So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.
Peter O’Toole
As the man says, everyone must decide for himself when to end one's stay, and I'll only add that Peter O'Toole's acting has been a big part of my cultural life--from his two very different portrayals of that most protean of monarchs, Henry II, to his chilling performance as the 13th Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class to Pygmalion.

What? You didn't know that Peter O'Toole played Henry Higgins? Well he did. On Broadway. And I saw him, in my college graduation year of 1987, along with two of my best friends, two fellow theater junkies who had acted with me in several shows in college, as well as our dates, on the night of the class formal. We'll call them Porthos and D'Artagnan, and I ask their pardon if they ever read this, reminding them that I loved them as brothers, and still do, but we definitely had an Athos, and although I was a damn poor Aramis, I did have the scholarly yearnings.

We blew that off in favor of catching Peter O'Toole, Amanda Plummer, Lionel Jeffries and Sir John Mills, after drinks at Trader Vic's, dinner at Cafe des Artistes (now long gone alas), and a carriage ride in Central Park. (Of course, we ended the evening with what Porthos earnestly promised was the best corned beef hash in New York at Cosmos Diner, but that's a different part of the story. And the hash was pretty damn good.)

But Pygmalion. For the end of college celebration, we saw a show much better than the review above linked suggests. Sir John Mills brought a level of thuggishness to Alfred P. Doolittle normally omitted, but supported by the text--think of Alfie's threats of physical punishment of Eliza, and her fear of him--and Amanda Plummer credibly dreaded him. And when, in his first big scene at Wimpole Street, Doolittle threatens Eliza, in this production bulky John Mills (none o' that "Sir John" gammon, hear, d'ye see) raised his hand to belt her, only for O'Toole, like an angry bantam, got between them, and you would swear they were going to strike each other.

It was electric. And also when Higgins, in this telling first saw Eliza and not a teaching project.

After the show, we decided to wait for them at the Stage Door. There was a large crowd, too. Amanda Plummer shot out of the Stage Door like a soul released from Purgatory and fled the fans, disappearing into the night.

Sir John and Lionel Jeffries (an excellent Pickering, by the way) came out and the crowd, avidly awaiting PETER BLEEDIN' O'TOOLE, barely noticed. My friends and I did, though, and they were gracious, friendly and kind, signing our programs, chaffing each other gently, and disappearing off to the pub 'round the corner, with a final "Now, don't miss Peter!" from Lionel Jeffries.

When the Man Himself appeared, he was visibly tired--swaying slightly in the approved Alan Swann manner, rakishly smiling and signing autographs. We waited til the crowd thinned out a bit. When that happened, we moved up. Athos and I were impressed--this was Hollywood Royalty, and an actor we had all admired, and, in my case, stolen from (I took a moment from POT in Becket and used it in an Agatha Christie play, breaking up D'Artagnan in performance. Not acting, but we enjoyed it even if the audience may not have). We each complimented the performance, got our program signed and gave way. But D'Artagnan was awestruck. He wanted to say something non-jejune, to connect. (I'd face a similar moment a year later when I met William J. Brennan during my first year of law school.) As he struggled, O'Toole smiled devilishly--pure Eli Cross. "I won't bite," he said, in that dry, slightly swooping way of his, and D'Artagnan mutely handed him his program.

"Do you have a pen?" O'Toole asked, with a slight Plantagenet bite.

D'Artagnan handed him his silver Cross pen, of which he was rather fond.

"Thank you," O'Toole said, and signed the program with a flourish.

Seconds later, Peter O'Toole vanished into the limo.

As did, if I recall correctly, a silver Cross pen.

D'Artagnan never complained.

Many thanks for the great performances, the roguish touch of magic and wishing the Great Peter O'Toole a joyous retirement, completing his memoirs. Which I will buy. I just hope that they are written by hand, with a certain Cross pen.

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