The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Memoriam, Peter O'Toole

I have just heard that Peter O'Toole has died, at 81. Beyond the entirely flukey fact that we had a mutual friend in Tim Wallace-Murphy, I only met O'Toole once, on an occasion I described on reading of his retirement last year:
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.
How I wish I could encapsulate what the man and his movies meant to me--there's a line in Phineas at Bay that is an O'Toole homage, using the cadences of O'Toole's delivery of a line from a classic bit in one of his films. I loved so many of his films--from the famous to the obscure,but his two portrayals of Henry II, in Becket and in The Lion in Winter kindled my youthful interest in that most protean of monarchs and that early reading led me to perceive the historical roots of the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis in the Becket-Henry II conflict.

How strange that a man whose entire acquaintance with me was a handshake, a program signing, a kind word and a smile, should have given me so very much.

Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him.


Anonymous said...

Ah, Only you, my dear, dear friend, would recall such a sublime moment with such effervescence! I placed a tribute on my drama page and recalled our meeting with the great man to my students. I did tell them, however, that my friend could tell the story better! You made my night, old friend!

Anglocat said...

Thank you, me dear fella! I am so glad you enjoyed reading the story; how wonderful it was to share that experience with you!

Every good wish for 2014!