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'Lawrence' star is still Lean & mean

TELLURIDE, Colo.--Peter O'Toole regarded the Telluride Medal hanging around his neck and intoned: "When 50 years ago this year, I took my first uncertain steps on the stage as an actor, had anyone suggested to me that half a century later I would be up a Rocky in a grand old opry house, being festooned with medals, wandering and relaxing with old and new friends and colleagues, watching the better part of five decades of my life tumble on the screen in the company of the new generation O'Toole, my son Lorcan, I might have said that would be unlikely."

But here he was, at 10,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, in the Sheridan Opera House, built for miners, restored by the Telluride Film Festival, reporting that he understood Sarah Bernhardt had trod upon these very boards. My job was to interview him. I approached it with hesitation; some actors are eager to please, but O'Toole seems eager not to be annoyed. I was apprehensive until a moment before we went onstage, when I saw him doing an actor's deep-breathing exercises, and realized; He isn't here to make my job hard, he's here to win the audience.

And he did, in an hour-long conversation that was arguably the most entertaining in the festival's 29 years. O'Toole is a funny man with impeccable comic timing, elegantly dressed, and he uses a cigarette holder and a pack of Gitanes to punctuate his remarks, sometimes making an audience wait for a cigarette to be extracted, lighted and inhaled before supplying a punch line.

He was at Telluride with the American premiere of "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell," a biopic about a legendary alcoholic London writer whose weekly column in the Spectator was described a the longest-running suicide note in history. O'Toole also starred in the London stage version. He was in America this autumn in connection with the launch of the latest restoration of "Lawrence of Arabia," David Lean's great 1962 film, recently voted the fourth best film ever made in the Sight & Sound poll of the world's film directors.

Ebert: This film reminds me of the time when directors and actors and writers thought differently than they do today. The length of it, the ambition of it, the breadth of it, the depth of it. The fact that it had the patience to tell its story without having to blow something up every five seconds.

O'Toole: The script demanded those things. The circumstances demanded all those things. David had the courage to do all those things. We were the right people to do all those things. And we took two years and I don't think there's one boring second of it. Some say disagreeable seconds, but not boring.

Q. Albert Finney was originally considered for the role?

A. That's right. So was Marlon Brando. I think probably Groucho Marx and Greta Garbo...

Q. David Lean found you when you were essentially unknown, and then trusted you for two years with this great undertaking. It must have been a leap of faith on both of your parts.

A. I had a phone call at Stratford upon Avon, where I was playing Shylock, and it was David Lean. Would I be able to come to London and have a chat with him? I'd grown my own beard and long hair which I'd dyed black...and David said, "Peter, what do you look like underneath all that stuff?" I said, "Well, I'm quite fair-haired, really, and..." He said, "Well, we'd need that. I've seen a film called 'The Day They Robbed the Bank of England,' in which you play a young English army officer and you didn't put a foot wrong and I really want you to do it." And I said, "who's the producer?" He said, "Sam Spiegel." I said, "Not a chance." Because Sam Spiegel and I didn't get on at all and we didn't get on for years before "Lawrence of Arabia." And David said, "Well, look, you're going to hear everybody in the world is about to play this but please have faith, please trust me, and you'll do it." And Spiegel, of course, was having a baby. He said, "You can't have him. For God's sake, David, you can't have that awful man, that dreadful life." But David stuck to his guns and indeed that's what happened and then two years later we finished it.

Q. Some actors have trouble staying in character for two hours; you did it for two years. Do you have rushes in the desert? How did you keep on top of a project that lasted that long?

A. I've never looked at a rush in my life. For me, the beginning and the end of everything is the script. It's the words; it's the situations; it's the people. The short answer is, if you watch that film very, very carefully, you can see the decomposition of the flesh. I began when I was, what...28? And finished when I was 30, and I can see it but very few other people can, so I'm told. Nothing really, just concentration, I suppose. I've no idea.

Q. Did you relationship with Sam Spiegel get any better?

A. Not at all. He turned up at one point, on his yacht, when we moved to Spain, and he summoned me on board the yacht. He'd seen the rushes for the nine months we'd done in the desert and I left the yacht feeling dreadful. Destruction was his game. I couldn't bear the man. When I came off the yacht, there was a little bar and there was the artistic director, John Box, who's alive and well, and I was about to tell him what had happened. He said, "Don't. Don't, don't. I was there for an hour before you." So we helped ourselves to the wine and we finished up--this is so pathetically boyish--climbing up the anchor chain onto his yacht and we stole all his cigars.

Q. As I was looking at these scenes from your career, I must tell you that you made the right decision in not remaining as a film critic. It's true that when you were 16, you did film notices?

A. I did, yes.

Q. And then went into the Navy and then joined that amazing group of actors that simply transformed the British cinema.

A. In 1953, at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, in London, there was Albert Finney, Alan Bates, me, and--I always leave people out so they get very upset, but it doesn't matter--Frank Finlay, and on and on and on and on. We were a remarkable little group and we all moved into the theater, as well as the cinema, and all of us are still alive, which is even more amazing.

Q. Was there a sense of competition in those days?

A. No working actor worth his salt doesn't know what competition means. Yes. In the older days, in the 1800's, theater was on a par with boxing. Yeah, there's always been a very healthy sense of competition between us.

Q. I had a chance to see your 1976 movie "Rogue Male" on cassette. You asked that it be shown here. I'd never heard of it, and I'm at a loss to understand how it fell through the cracks.

A. The crack is called the BBC. "Rogue Male" it is deep in my heart. Robert Hunter, the guy I play, he wants to kill Hitler not because of any other reason than the fact that Hitler murdered his fiancee. This is in 1938. When he joins the war effort his purpose is exactly the same. He wants to destroy this man.

Q. You seem to have a particular fascination with the evil of Hitler. You talk about him in your autobiography; even from earliest childhood you were fixated.

A. My Dad, who was a bookie, would take me to the news cinema, which was over the railway station. They had an hour program with the Three Stooges, Donald Duck, who I adored, and the Ritz Brothers. I was watching with my father and along came Mussolini and great hilarious ripe raspberries were thrown at him. Then along came Hitler and there were no raspberries and I was physically ill at the age of six, seeing this man.

Q. To move on to "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell," the other film that you're showing here, about the lifelong alcoholic who wrote a famous weekly column in The Spectator about his adventures...

A. Ah, 1955. I was at the Old Vic and there was a very pretty girl wobbling around. I thought, this is charming; I shall look at her. And I went into the pub next door, waiting for her to come in, and she came in on the arm of the leading man, John Neville. And there was a young chap with a sort of Elvis Presley hair and he said, "Yeah, I fancied her too. Hello, my name is Jeff." And it was Jeff Bernard, a stagehand. He was extraordinary man, a brilliant man. A cricketer, a film editor, many things, a writer, humorist. [Playwright] Keith Waterhouse took Jeffrey's words and fashioned them into this play, "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell." Keith had been in the pub with Jeff and they'd been laughing and joking and playing cards and losing money, whatever, and Keith went back home, put on his dinner jacket, went to the opera and sat there nodding off quietly. He thought, "I had so much more fun in the pub. What in the name of Jesus am I doing here?" And, click! His play came to mind because another chum of ours was locked in a pub one night and he spent the entire night in the pub. So that was the premise of the piece.

Q. When you were appearing in the first run of the play in London, Bernard wrote in The Spectator about going to the bar in the theater every night in order to accept free drinks from the audience during the intermission. He felt this was really almost as much a benefit as the royalties.

A. Yes, Jeff would turn up every night and he'd nod off during the first half. He'd come into my dressing room, drink all my vodka. I said to him before we began rehearsing, "Jeff, I'm simply not even going to try to impersonate you." He said, "That's very handy, Pete, I've been impersonating you for 35 years."

Q. I loved the clip we saw from "The Lion in Winter." Your confrontation with Katharine Hepburn is astonishing. You were particularly good friends with her?

Q. You said it. I was in a play in London called "The Long and the Short and the Tall," and there was no lavatory in my dressing room. And after the show I was peeing in the sink, which one does, and a voice said, "Hello, my name is Kate Hepburn and I have come--Oh dear, oh dear!" We met, and it was a joy and it was indeed a challenge. Many of us were, a little the morning, she'd give you about 60 seconds in which to recover and if you weren't there--zip! She'd cut your head off. I adore the girl.

Q. I understand you do the world's greatest impression of John Huston. I wouldn't dream of asking you do to it for us....

A. (As Huston): "Don't worry, kid, everything will be fine." There's a marvelous moment when once I was staying with John in Ireland and came the morning and there was John in a green kimono with a bottle of tequila and two shot glasses and he said, "Pete, this is the day we're gettin' drunk." We finished up on horses, the pair of us; he in a green kimono, me in my nightie in the rain, carrying 303 rifles, rough-shooting as in "Rogue Male" but with a schitzu dog and an Irish wolfhound. Of course, we were incapable of doing anything and John eventually fell off the horse and broke his leg. And I was accused by his wife of corrupting him.

Q. In addition to being a great actor, you're also an accomplished writer and speaker, and it seems that those sorts of things go with the territory.

A. Well, there's the Gaelic language, the Irish language, which wasn't killed stone dead, but was slowly strangled from about the 16th century until this present day. However, the tunes and the rhythms of the Irish language are in the consciousness. And in Ireland the metaphor is as natural as breathing.

Q. Would ever play Y. B. Yeats? You look a little like him.

A. He really was the complete actor-poet. He wandered around with bow-ties and bored everyone to tears and had someone with a harp...I imagine that had you met W. B. Yeats in the streets, you'd think, this is the most gruesome man. But he turned out to be the most beautiful lyric poet of the 20th century and, yeah, I wouldn't mind playing Yeats.

Q. Who of current screenwriters would write your Yeats role? Who would do you justice?

A. Oh, who would do the Yeats justice? I've noticed that recently there are more and more excellent young writers. It goes on and on. I can't think immediately. Maybe it's the boy....McDonough...I can't remember proper nouns at this certain point...

Q. Martin McDonough.

A. Perhaps him.

Q. (quoting a line of Yeats): "MacDonagh and MacBride... 

A. Yeats!

Q. We know their dreams enough to know they dreamed and are dead.

A. A terrible beauty is born...

Q. Far beneath Ben Bulben's head...

A. Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horseman, pass by!

Q. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.

A. Why shouldn't that old man be mad?

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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