Culture Shock: Peter O’Toole – a great actor undazzled by his own star
The late actor’s approach was sceptical, cool, intellectual. He was, at his best, almost a meta-actor
Photograph: David Montgomery/Getty
Five years ago I was trying to catch a boat across the River Plate from Uruguay to Argentina. For some reason I couldn’t grasp, the Uruguayan customs officers were in a foul mood. They seemed intent on holding everyone up with barked questions, and those of us in the long queue were getting anxious that we would miss the boat. At the head of my line was a particularly sour-looking middle-aged woman who seemed to be pursuing a personal vendetta against the world. As I shuffled to the head of the queue she threw me a Medusa glare.
The boat was sounding its final warning to embark. She snatched my passport with a withering gesture of contempt. Then a big beacon of a smile lit up her face and she turned its full wattage on me. “O’Toole,” she said. “Como Peter O’Toole?”
I smiled back knowingly, letting the possibility linger that yes, indeed, I was one of those O’Tooles. She waved me by on to the boat, leaving the rest of the sweltering queue stranded.
For most of my adult life a very distant star has shed the tiniest ray of light upon me. In all sorts of places, from Kenya to Bangladesh to Savannah, hotel receptionists, immigration officials or taxi drivers would hear my name with momentary incomprehension and then the little light bulb would go on: “Oh, like Peter O’Toole.” (For some reason the only place this has not been true is China.) And every time this did happen there would be a little reminder of what a star is, what it’s like to have a name that radiates so widely that even to be associated with it by pure coincidence is to be slightly less obscure. Peter O’Toole was that kind of star.
Yet he was also wonderfully, mischievously perverse, a great defier of his own fame. One of my favourite moments of Irish theatre is not a play. In October 1984, when the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin held a gala performance to mark its reopening after refurbishment, Peter O’Toole was invited to do the opening turn. Presumably, the expectation was that he would do a bit of Shakespeare, perhaps, or a Yeats poem. He decided to read, slowly and deliberately, Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, with its suggestion that the children of the Irish poor be sold as food for their landlords, “who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children”.
Some members of the dress-suited audience began to heckle; others walked out. RTÉ, which was broadcasting the show live, cut O’Toole off in the middle of the reading and went to an ad break. The Irish Times reported next day that it had received “a number of calls, which were preponderantly critical of O’Toole”.