Siân Phillips on marriage to Peter O’Toole: ‘It was like holding sand in my hand’

Peter O’Toole’s former wife is central to a new documentary portrait of the Lawrence of Arabia star

Siân Phillips and Peter O'Toole: their two decades together form the spine of Jim Sheridan’s documentary portrait, Peter O’Toole: Along the Sky Road to Aqaba, a compelling new chronicle of the Lawrence of Arabia star’s life and work

Siân Phillips began her remarkable career at the BBC Home Service in Wales, aged 11, alongside such countrymen as Dylan Thomas and Richard Burton. The only daughter of a West Glamorgan schoolteacher and a steelworker, she grew up on an isolated farm in the Black Mountains.

As she recounts across two memoirs – Private Faces (1999) and Public Places (2001) – her father had ambitions to be an opera singer but had to settle for running a choir and a job as a policeman after he developed silicosis. Her mother was required to quit teaching after marriage.

“I didn’t realise at the time they were frustrated and depressed people,” says Phillips. “I was very grateful to them because they never revealed that to me. They never complained about their lot. I thought they were so dedicated to work they loved to do.”

Phillips – whose birth name Jane Elizabeth Ailwên was cymrified into Siân by a schoolteacher – could speak French before she learned English from BBC Radio. She was already a university graduate and a stage veteran when she received a scholarship to RADA, aged 20.


“Most of my work was in Welsh until I was about 17,” she says. “And then, when I went to RADA if I was ever in trouble with a part, I used to translate it into Welsh, think about it in Welsh, and then put it back into English.”

And I didn’t think: I’d like to marry him or I must marry him. I thought: I will marry him. I knew that we would be married. I can’t explain it

Two years into a successful London career, during which she won acclaim for leading roles in Sudermann’s Magda, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler and Shaw’s Saint Joan, she met Peter O’Toole, a man she describes as the love of her life.

Their two decades together form the spine of Jim Sheridan’s documentary portrait, Peter O’Toole: Along the Sky Road to Aqaba, a compelling new chronicle of the Lawrence of Arabia star’s life and work.

Several contributors, notably Kenneth Branagh and Brian Cox, characterise O’Toole as a lupine presence. That same wolfishness struck Phillips on their very first encounter.

“I met him on the street,” she recalls. “And I didn’t think: I’d like to marry him or I must marry him. I thought: I will marry him. I knew that we would be married. I can’t explain it. I can’t explain it at all. But I wasn’t surprised. Nothing surprised me about him. Although we really took our time because it was five years before we did get married. And we never made any effort to meet up or see each other. I didn’t make any effort to see him in plays. I didn’t follow him at all. I didn’t think about him, actually. And when he did turn up again, I thought, oh, yes, of course.”

O’Toole, a rare talent who is seldom referred to without the caveat “hell-raising” or a list of his sometime drinking companions – Richards Burton and Harris, Francis Bacon, Laurence Harvey – had worked as a newspaper copy boy and a radioman in the Royal Navy, before finding his feet as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic. Even before they were married, there were signs that life with the charismatic actor would be tempestuous.

“We were living together in Belgravia,” recalls Phillips. “I think he was jealous because I had about three Hollywood contracts dangled in front of me. And then this millionaire put me under contract so that I didn’t have to work; it was an experiment to see what an actress would do if she purely had to choose what she wanted to do. I was sent off with a woman who bought me an entire wardrobe of clothes. I got home and O’Toole said, but they’re all black and purple. You shouldn’t dress like this. And he threw them all over the window. Well, I had to laugh. And then he said, you can borrow my clothes. So I was wearing his trousers rolled up and big fisherman sweaters – which was an outrageous way to dress in the 50s when people wore suits and ties to go to rehearsal – for about six months.”

In 1962, O’Toole was chosen by David Lean to play TE Lawrence in Lean’s epic drama Lawrence of Arabia, a performance that earned him the first of eight Academy Award nominations and made him an overnight superstar. Phillips expected as much when she arrived in Jordan, where O’Toole studied Bedouin culture, Arabic and camel riding for two years during production.

Peter O’Toole and Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia

“He looked extraordinary, a thousand times fitter and healthier than he’d ever looked,” she notes in her autobiography. “His curly black hair had been straightened and bleached blond, and he was tanned. He looked like a movie star.”

She, however, had been expected to put her career on hold in service of her husband and their two daughters, Kate, born in 1960, and Patricia, born in 1963.

“I don’t want to turn this into anything about me,” she says. “Because it’s about my admiration for him. And my admiration for him was enormous. Obviously, it became very inconvenient for him to have another performer in the family. After Lawrence of Arabia, it was a very complicated, high-pressure environment. We never talked about it. He just made things impossible for me to work. It was hard to come to terms with that. I calibrated everything very carefully so that I did very good work that didn’t attract too much attention. Sometimes that work would escape under the net and become a big success. And that could be quite difficult for us domestically.”

In the wake of Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole formed Keep Films, the production company behind Becket, How to Steal a Million and several of the actor’s biggest grossing pictures. Phillips, a director of the company, was suddenly surrounded by secretaries and lawyers. Gina Lollobrigida stabbed Phillips in the foot with a stilleto heel as the Italian siren beat a path to O’Toole on a red carpet. The sudden surge of interest in the culturally Irish actor – the son of a Scottish nurse and Irish metal plater, football player and bookmaker – created confusion about his birthplace.

“He was as Irish as anyone I’ve ever met,” says Phillips. “I knew that he was, he told me he was born in Leeds. But the story quickly became that he was born in Ireland, and that he was from Ireland. And somehow the story stuck. It wasn’t true. But being Irish was extremely important to him.”

Phillips describes her domestic life with O’Toole as “having absolutely no pattern. Every year was different. He was charismatic and attractive and funny and excessive. But he also led a very quiet life when he was home. We’d go for walks. We talked a lot. We didn’t watch much television. He would read a huge amount. My mother and he would have great talks. It was a very pleasant life.”

The end of their 20-year marriage came about when O’Toole almost died from pancreatitis. He and Phillips subsequently enjoyed a second honeymoon in an off-season Italian resort. Returning to London after several idyllic months, O’Toole announced that he’d be journeying to Mexico for a new film. It was the last straw.

“Mexico was on the banned list as far as the doctors were concerned,” recalls Phillips. “We were going to go back and repeat all same pattern of life as before. He had very, very nearly died. And I thought no, I couldn’t do that again.”

She knew, upon divorce, that O’Toole would never speak to her again. He even passed her by on the street once. She remains touchingly protective about her former husband’s legacy.

“I don’t give many interviews about O’Toole,” says Phillips, who post-divorce forged a fine career on stage and screen. “It was terribly difficult to write about him. I didn’t want to betray his confidences. And I didn’t feel like being unpleasant about him. I wanted to appreciate him, but it was like holding sand in my hand. He was trickling through my fingers all the time.”

Peter O’Toole: Along the Sky Road to Aqaba screens at the Dublin International Film Festival at the Light House Cinema on Saturday, February 25th, and will be coming soon to Sky Arts