The Secret Wisdom of Peter O’Toole

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Dec. 16 2013 1:08 PM

The Secret Wisdom of Peter O’Toole

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Peter O'Toole, dashing as always, in 1981

Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Though 2001 was not my favorite year, I’ll always cherish it for having delivered the voice of a great movie star unto my eager ears. That March, in advance of the DVD release of Lawrence of Arabia, I spent a London afternoon interviewing its singular star for Entertainment Weekly. Yesterday, upon hearing that Peter O’Toole was dead at 81, I dug up the transcript of our 3-hour chat and sunk in, once again enjoying its evidence that O’Toole’s acting genius extended from a general verbal gift.

It seems greedy not to share this view of my cutting-room floor, so here, as a small contribution to the jaunty symphonic elegy O’Toole deserves—a requiem scored for brass and beer barrels and Great Irish Warpipes—I give you some unstrung pearls of the artist’s wisdom and unpublished nuggets of the man’s wit. “I’m a talker,” O’Toole said. “Always have been.”

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Always will be.

On Watching His Own Films
“Looking at myself 20 years ago is interesting, and 40 years ago is fascinating. The new ones I’m not too keen on. The first time I ever saw myself in a film was at a private showing. I saw this young man come in, walk over to the desk, and on the desk was a stuffed pigeon. I thought, ‘I did that.’ It was me, and I just didn’t know who it was. I had no idea. I told this story to John Gielgud and he said the first time he heard himself—John, the gooolden voice—John said the first time he heard himself he ran into the street.

“We just don’t measure up to our own expectations.”

On Playing Prince Hamlet
“I was never very good, but I loved playing him. I think every young actor should have a go, just to figure out what he can’t do. I think I managed to find the wonderful humor that’s there, at perhaps a loss to the frailty. I don’t know. ‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.’ To realize, as I realized then, that the word ‘conscience’ isn’t Jiminy Cricket, it is ‘consciousness’—I think I managed to get that, to let an audience see a mind at work.”

On Method Acting
“I don’t know anything about the Stanislavski school. I know nothing about it. I wonder how it came into being. People of my bent anchor ourselves into the belief that we belong to traditional storytelling. That kind of introspection, I don’t quite see where it fits in with the overt business of telling a yarn. I feel it is presumptuous. The author’s done all that.”

On the Contemporary Stage
“Theater is a bore. The former boss of the English national theater, Sir Richard Eyre, has just come out and caused a sensation in the last two days saying that English theater is mind-numbingly, heart-burningly da-da-da-dull. Well, yeah, we know that. It has been for the last generation.

“Amateurs! If you want to be a theatre director, what are the qualifications? There are three that I can think of: can’t write, can’t act, can’t juggle. So what are you doing in the fucking theater? Mediocrity.”

On Actors Who Feel Burdened by Their Fame
“Funny business to have picked if you can’t cope with the shit.”

On Growing Older
“For the last two years, I’ve worked with a load of young people who’ve just blown my mind. Smashing kids! I played a thing called … um … um um … uhm, uh, I forget. Nouns. I’m hopeless on nouns. Senility, incidentally, is nothing to do with general forgetfulness; it’s all to do with nouns.”

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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