Peter O'Toole's new role: Raucous autobiographer

May 14, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

"Don't ever tangle with a Texan," an American friend told Peter O'Toole on his first trip to the States. Actually, he used a shorter, more expressive verb. But the advice impressed the British actor so much that he flew to Texas the first chance he got.

"I stayed with some chums of a chum (in Paris, Texas)," Mr. O'Toole said on a recent visit to Dallas. "And we just bowled about. We went to see the Red River. We came to Dallas. Just to get a little whiff. Flying here was extraordinary. I looked at some of the fields, and they were the size of Ireland."

That was nearly 20 years ago. In late April, the flamboyant star returned to hype his memoir "Loitering with Intent: The Child" (Hyperion: $21.95). A line by puckish "Dave" star Kevin Kline inspired the title: "We do the acting for nothing," the American told the author. "It's the loitering with intent that we get paid for."

Looking like a pale, dapper, slightly blown tulip, the actor poured himself a late afternoon cup of English Breakfast Tea and rammed an untipped Gauloise into a black holder. When the French cigarette popped out on his shirtfront, he casually swept away the ashes with a pallid hand and poked it back in. After all those years on stage, he passes off the flub with studied grace.

Mr. O'Toole may call himself "a creaky 60-year-old," but he still moves like a willowy panther. At the interview, he was charming though mildly aggrieved at having left his copy of anthropologist Richard Leakey's "Origins Reconsidered" and a paperback Oxford dictionary on the plane. "It's a rather complicated book," he explains. "And you have to glance at the dictionary every moment."

His fans knew he can play an obsessed king, a mad baronet and drunk old actor. They knew that he once tore through five uncut acts of "Hamlet" on stage and "broke through" playing what one British critic called "an unmade Bedouin" in "Lawrence of Arabia" on screen.

They knew that for years he had a great thirst and a gift for outrageous behavior. And that he'd lost a portion of his guts to surgery and sworn off the sauce in 1976. But what few people knew until this year was that he could write raucous prose like a wild Irish poet.

"Loitering with Intent" is not the usual star memoir. The first of a planned three-volume autobiography (The Child, The Actor, The Man) is bursting with life, a roisterous Gaelic pub of a book filled with sweet Runyonesque oddments -- his racetrack bookie dad, his loving mum, his painter friend Patrick O'Liver. "We are joined at the hip," he says.

Like Mr. O'Toole with "Origins Reconsidered," the reader could use a lexicon for his colorful language. The book is chockablock with expressions, such as "running the pasties" (playing cards) and "popped her clogs" (died).

"A lot are racing-world expressions, theater-world expressions. I love the metaphor of slang. I love popular demonic speech. Don't forget," he says, "I was reared on Abbott and Costello and The Three Stooges and Popeye. We had to translate all that, and we loved translating it. We have what Dylan Thomas called 'the barrier of a common language' in America and England. I think there's a lot of give-and-take. I think we've adopted a great number of American terms, and it's only fair that we spread it around a bit."

After all, says the avid reader, whose first American hero was Jack London's "Martin Eden," "It's a living language. It's growing. It's alive. It's vivid. I'll take anything that comes from America.

The hardest part of his own book was beginning, he says. "It was like barnacles on the keel of a boat. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was looking for the voice, the fair voice, the honest voice. Fair to the reader, fair to me. It took me nearly a year to begin. The whole process of taking the first step. It was a search for the voice that's inside my head. After a while, I began to trust the pictures. I don't know where the words come from. But if the pictures aren't there, nothing happens."

Besides cricket (he's a recently certified coach), the actor's greatest joy is his 10-year-old son Lorcan (the Gaelic equivalent of Lawrence). The product of a tight-knit family, Mr. O'Toole waged a trans-Atlantic custody battle for the boy, who spends his school term with his father and holidays with his mother, American actress Karen Somerville.

"Loitering with Intent" has left its imprint on him, the busy actor says. "I haven't been able to calculate what yet. It's inchoate. But something's happening. Something very rare, solid is happening. don't know what, but I sense it. I trust my senses. I trust my intuition. I'm looking at things in a slightly different way. Above all, I'm enjoying writing. It's a love affair. And they aren't always easy, are they?"

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