Peter O’Toole’s Greatest Role

One of Peter O’Toole’s more memorable lines occurs in “My Favorite Year,” in which a frightened Alan Swann, realizing that the television show on which he was about to appear was going out live to the nation — one take, no reshoots, no editing — shouted in panic, “I’m not an actor. I am a film star!”

otooleIt is a sentiment that O’Toole himself doesn’t share. He is a creature of the theater, to the extent that in “Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice,” the second volume of his rambling, discursive, idiosyncratic and thoroughly memorable memoirs, he spends a fair amount of pages discussing and dissecting the plays he performed in during his first year of study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In fact, the entire book, all 406 pages of it, covers that one year of his life at the RADA, when he was a 21-year-old student, charming, quick-witted, tempestuous and itching to act. This is far more than the 198 pages he took in “The Child” to cover his first 20 years.

Those looking for juicy movie gossip or accounts of debauches regretted will be bitterly disappointed in O’Toole. Of debauches there are plenty, particularly of the drinking variety, but they were fully enjoyed, never regretted, and recalled with fondness. He is appreciative of the female sex, although he noted that in London of 1953, as in his early life, sex consisted more of theory than practice (in one amusing scene in his first volume, “The Child,” he and his buddies at a swimming hole sport in a nearby tree, innocently unknowing of the discarded condoms hanging among the branches).

As for celebrity sightings, they are few upon the ground. He shared classes with Albert Finney, recalling in one acting exercise how he drifted about the room, imitating a bubble, while the future Tom Jones portrayed a falling leaf. O’Toole the student meets Richard Burton the young lion of the stage briefly after performances at the Old Vic, and sparks flew once when Burton leered at the women accompanying O’Toole:

“Now, did you ever meet a young man who with complacency could watch while the women in his company were being given a thorough scrutiny by another young man in a pub? A stranger at that? An actor? A bloody film star? It was while I was adjusting my ears to their pinned-back position and mustering up one of my better grim scowls, that Richard took his gaze away from the women, glanced at Joe, at Bob, and then looked straight at me. A grin as big as it was friendly and as warm as it was wide spread over his face. His eyes sent a merry message which said that, on the whole, I could be in much worse company. He raised his glass to me, to my friends, we raised our glasses to him, and then with the grin still on him he ambled away to sit with Lewis and Philip of France at a table on the other side of the bar.”

No, one must read O’Toole’s memoirs simply for the pleasure of his company, his memory, and his life. Using Joycean monologues spiced thickly with nearly impenetrable British slang, he recounts stories, conversations and characters with a vividness of fiction. It may very well be largely made-up: can you write 400 pages about a year in your life, 44 years down the road? But who cares? The ride is worth the ticket.

Reading the “Loitering” books is to immerse oneself in O’Toole’s life like settling into a warm bath. In “The Child,” he describes growing up in a northern industrial town, the son of an itinerant bookmaker. He remembers his playmates were tough men, racetrack touts and minor criminals with names like the Zulu, Bob the Liar, Educated Evans, and Jack Jack the Levantine. His family moved to London, to the Hunsbeck district, a working-class slum called by Bernard Shaw the black stain on the face of the British Empire. Then World War II came, the Luftwaffe blitz on London, and O’Toole was delivered to a family outside the city.

Overshadowing it all in the first book, is, of all people, Adolph Hitler, and O’Toole digresses frequently about the dictator who loomed over his childhood. In the second book, Hitler is replaced by the great Restoration actor Edmund Kean, an equally compelling choice.

At the end of “The Child,” following two years on a Royal Navy vessel on behalf of Queen and country, he was awarded a scholarship to the RADA: “Fees and books and kit for two years all taken care of, a generous chunk of cash each term for shelter, food and clothes, the life of being a student in London and getting paid for it on offer, and an arcane, whimsical instinct within me encouraged to shape up to this business of becoming an actor.”

In “The Apprentice,” he describes his student life in post-WWII London: the classes, the sometime eccentric teachers, his classmates and their doings. It’s a knockabout life, a carnival of encounters, revolving around the RADA building and its inhabitants, where every day held the promise of an adventure or a good time. Like the time he organized a toy-assembling party to help pay the rent, and which caused a massive blackout. Then there’s his year-long romance with the American student whom he identifies only as Alice Capone from Chicago, the Hopi, or Pocahontas. When the houseboat he was sharing with three other students began sinking, O’Toole and company threw a party, dancing and drinking and shouting and laughing, taking turns at the pumps until being driven off by the rising waters, returning only at the last minute to rescue a drunken roommate.

His father even makes a cameo appearance, encountering his son selling balloons to tourists in York. O’Toole had acquired the lot and, being chronically broke, decided to convert them to cash. The genial bookmaker is soon teaching his son the art of huckstering: “Give us a kiss. Now. Shove over. Mark them up to a dollar the eight. Your last chance ladies and gentlemen, to buy these red white blue and yellow Royal Academy balloons! Two for a florin or a dollar with give you eight. Dramatic balloon!”

O’Toole portrays his life as theater, a star among a cast of fun-loving but thoroughly professional eccentrics. He does not get all the good lines, nor all the good scenes, but we are grateful for the company nonetheless. He is a generous spirit and a boon companion, and both books left me eagerly awaiting the next act in his life.