It was the summer of 1960, and I was on my way to visit my English boyfriend and his family in London. My flight was a day late in arriving, and after a hasty welcome, John Libson and I hustled off to Stratford upon Avon. We had to get there, because it was the only day when Peter O’Toole, a recent client of John’s father, was performing Taming of the Shrew and Merchant of Venice in the same day.
I was sleepy on the way from London up to Stratford, but O’Toole’s performance in Shrew was galvanizing. He played Petruchio with élan. Handsome, tall, he strode across the Stratford stage with elegance, his cape whipping up both Kate and the audience. His posture, his diction, his height—what a presence. We understood why he was being called the next Laurence Olivier.
After the curtain, we met at a local pub, called the Dirty Duck by the regulars. Peter entertained John and me the way a gracious host would. I drank in his charm along with the pints of bitters we kept ordering. Then O’Toole excused himself. He had to get ready to play Shylock at 8:00.
When the curtain rose that evening, I kept looking for Peter, that handsome slip of a man. I couldn’t find him. I knew he was playing Shylock, and I saw Shylock on stage. But the Petruchio I had enjoyed in the afternoon and the charming young actor I drank with in the early evening was nowhere to be seen. Peter’s whole being was transformed. He was scary and tragic at the same time. He broke my heart that night. He was the only Shylock of my life, then, and since.
Later that year, he came to New York, and he turned up at a party my parents were giving. When he learned that I was heading back to college the next day, and that my school was outside Philadelphia, he was delighted. He and his sidekick were headed there, too, and so we agreed to take the train together. We all had some time to kill when we arrived, so off we went to a bar near 30th Street Station, where we imbibed and joked and laughed until I had to catch the Paoli Local to Bryn Mawr. Peter and his sidekick ceremoniously accompanied me to the station and up the stairs to the track.
When I got back to school, there was nobody to tell of my adventure. Peter O’Toole was an unknown actor. I followed his career through my London friends, and we were excited when we heard that Peter was filming Lawrence of Arabia.
My friend John Libson was in New York when the movie opened, and we sat in the New York theatre together, amazed by the scope of the movie and by the performance of our friend. We thought the movie went on a bit long, but O’Toole was wonderful, and maybe the movie would give him the break he needed. We had no idea.
O’Toole was beautiful, and brilliant, and kind. When I watched him in My Favorite Year, I gasped at the twinkle and the charm. It had lasted through the ups and downs of his amazing life.
RIP, Peter O’Toole, You were quite a guy.
copyright@ Jane Isay