How do you untangle a life? I’m in London for Peter O’Toole‘s Memorial celebration. How do I tell you about why I’m here, somewhat briefly. The simple answer is Kate O’Toole invited me. So, we’ll start there. My good friend Kate, who’s father was the famous Peter, has been untangling her father’s life and tying up loose ends since his death last December at age 81. She has been working on this production like crazy and I wanted to come and support her and see her Dad off. I had met him a dozen years ago and we all had a fun time in LA in 2007 when he was up for his 8th Oscar and lost again (they gave him an honorary one a few years before.) Anyway, I’m staying in his house with her and a few friends and yesterday was the big day that Kate and legions have been working on non-stop.
It started with the arrival of Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, who was an old friend of Peter’s, as well as Kate’s. Just looking at the lineup of speakers, and seeing the guests in the flesh was impressive, including Earl Spencer (Diana’s brother) Jeremy Irons (his wife, Sinead Cusack is in Other Desert Cities with Martha Plimpton, who is also there) Stephen Fry, but moreso impressive when the speakers got to speaking. Benedict Cumberbatch – who was at school with Peter’s young son, Lorcan O'Toole was first up. He said that Lorcan had brought Benedict (I think it's "Benny") over to meet his Dad at at school. In sight of all, but out of earshot, his classmates could see them talking away and suddenly Peter said "F*CKING C*NT!" really loudly. Afterward, everyone asked if Peter O'Toole had just called him a f*cking c*nt? – and he said, "No, but if he had, I would put it on my gravestone." Nice ice breaker.
In between, we got President Michael D. Higgins in a wonderful, personal tribute, and an overcome 79 year-old Albert Finney, who began by choking back the tears to say that he and Peter were together at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in ’53, which he asked to the ceiling “was just a week ago, right?” The theatre where the event was being held, The Old Vic, was where Peter worshipped and was worshipped through 5 decades. Kevin Spacey, the former artistic director there was in rare form (the President joked that he hoped that Francis Underwood, Spacey’s character on House of Cards, had no aspirations to his post, to which Kevin replied later in his remarks that the President had no worries, as Underwood was eying Vatican City and saw no reason there shouldn’t be a Francis the second. He had wonderful stories to tell about the Old Vic and interactions with P’OT over the years. I’ll tell you the best one:
When it was being announced that Kevin Spacey would become the new Artistic Director of the Old Vic in 2003, Kevin asked Peter if he would come to a morning press conference at the theatre, to which Peter replied, “Fuck off!!” So, he tried again by asking if he would possibly come to an evening performance to kick-off the announcement, to which he got, “There’s rugby this afternoon, if my team wins I’ll come, otherwise, Fuck off!” So, the morning came and went and Spacey got no word and the at the beginning of the performance that night the stage manager came to him to say, “Mr. O’Toole is here.” So, Peter came onstage and they had a nice interaction and they went off stage together. So, they are standing together in the wings, as Elton John and Courtney Love are now singing, “The Bitch Is Back”. Courtney has persuaded Elton to let her wear his 70s duck outfit. So, Kevin is watching Peter’s expression run the gamut from A to Z and back again as Courtney decides to, without mentioning to anyone prior, that she would do a strip tease out of her duck costume as they are singing. Peter after watching her for half a minute exclaimed, “SHE’S A GOOD DUCK!”
There were SO many other great stories that this could become a 10,000 word New Yorker piece, so I’ll not go on and on but one story does start with actor John Standing, reciting Noel Coward‘s “I Went To A Marvelous Party”, and later contained John’s imitation of Peter saying in Ireland, just up the road from a convent, “Have you ever fucked a nun?” It finished by one nun, Sister Agnes Curly, all 4’10″ of her, refuting the story in front of an adoring crowd. If she were a stand-up, you would say that “she killed”.
It was a wonderful tribute with actual sword fights, bawdy humor, and tons of appreciation for a great man that we all loved. It wasn’t one of those show-off, one upsmanship affairs, which are tedious and annoying. Memorials are truly for the living because the dead don’t care, of course, but this one hit all the right notes and painted a picture of a life well-lived in every way possible. Omar Sharif was there (just barely) and several others could not attend because of work commitments like Dame Judi Dench and the great Derek Jacobi (who was in I, Claudius with Kate’s Mom, Sian Philips, as well as Laertes to Peter’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in '63) I was honored myself to be invited at all, let alone to be seated front row center. It WAS a memorial – but it was also one HELL of a show. Kate’s reprise of the eulogy she gave at the funeral put a deeply personal note on the symphony:
To prepare for the role of TE Lawrence, Dad had read Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, where Lawrence had written that “…the dreamers of the day are dangerous men because they may act out their dreams with open eyes. This I did.” “My father took those words to heart when he was studying for the role. But I am sure he understood them long before he ever read them. The world has lost a great actor, no doubt, but I’m not concerned about that – I have simply lost a great dad.” She went on to say, “I brought my father’s ashes home to Ireland where they are currently in safe deposit with the President, who is minding them for me until I get a chance to return home to fulfil his wishes. He’ll be buried near my place in Galway overlooking the sea and the islands where his roots lie. The west of Ireland was the most important place in the world to him.”
It was beautiful, moving and perfect. And as Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins said in his speech, “O’Toole was destined to be a star, and when he was a boy he had written in his notebook:
"‘I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.’”
Afterward, there was a great party for 100 or so at Peter’s member’s only club, The Garrick. Without too much explanation, suffice to say, if the Queen had a pub/ club, it would be The Garrick. (Although, she would be the only female member as it doesn’t allow women in as members, only as guests.) Look at the joint. The greatest actors of their time have belonged for nearly 200 years, and many of their portraits now hang in the rooms we were in, including Laurence Olivier and Noel Coward. We all ate, drank and chatted away 3+ hours in no time. And toward the end, when there were less than 50 of us left, we were treated to a song that Sister Agnes wrote and performed just for us. Watch it. And watch out – here comes The Singing Nun, 2014. (The audio is a bit bad at the beginning, but it gets better. Stay until the end if you think she's just a name-dropping nun.)
I’ll end this with a video commentary Peter made for TCM just two years ago when they did a tribute to his career and he put his feet in cement at The Chinese Theater. There were no clips of movies at the memorial or really much film talk at all, but if you haven’t seem some of his most remarkable performances in Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion In Winter or Goodbye, Mister Chips, or you want to revisit them, here is Peter Seamus O’Toole in his own words, with a very fitting ending. He’s gone, but we’ve got him on film, thank God. And, no matter how it was said, everyone that day was saying the same thing, essentially; “Wow. Wasn’t he GREAT and weren’t we damned LUCKY to have known him?” To me, that’s the best that any of us could ever hope for.