An actor who writes his own biography

Monday Book Review

October 04, 1993|By John F. Kelly

LOITERING WITH INTENT: THE CHILD. By Peter O'Toole. Hyperion. 198 pages. $21.95.

THIS is by no means your typical show-biz autobiography. The author, actor Peter O'Toole, doesn't blame his parents for all his problems, and the publisher doesn't emblazon the star's name and photograph on the book jacket and underneath, in small print, add "with So-and-so" (So-and-so actually having written the book).

No, Mr. O'Toole, perhaps best known for his role as "Lawrence of Arabia" (but equally as deserving of praise for his part in "My Favorite Year"), actually wrote "Loitering With Intent." And a fine, warm, funny tale it is, this nostalgic little trip back in time to Mr. O'Toole's wartime childhood in Yorkshire, England, where, he writes, his childhood "meant war, barbed wire and sandbags."

It also meant his whimsical Irish father, Pat O'Toole, a racetrack bookie and raconteur; his all-embracing Scots mother, Constance Jane Eliot Ferguson, a nurse who could quote Robert Burns as easily as she could read a thermometer; friends like Big Duggy; and, strangest of all, Adolf Hitler, whom Mr. O'Toole first met in a cinema newsreel in the late 1930s and whose early life seems to have loosely paralleled Mr. O'Toole's.

Hitler pops up frequently in the He pronounced very clearly, 'Father Christmas has just shot himself.'

pages of "Loitering," first as "Little Alf," the precocious son of a German customs official, later as "Alf," the would-be art student in Vienna hired to paint pictures to adorn frames, and still later as "the Fuhrer," the hydrophobic Nazi dictator bent on disordering the world, not to mention the "demi-paradise" of young Peter O'Toole.

But it is his own essentially happy childhood that preoccupies Mr. O'Toole in this volume of his memoirs, and he describes it in liltingly poetic prose reminiscent of James Joyce and Dylan Thomas. Small wonder, then, given those literary antecedents, that some passages in the book (which seems to have been imported lock, stock, spelling and punctuation from its original English publisher) have to be read two or three times to fathom their meaning.

Add to that Mr. O'Toole's obvious delight in the lingo of working-class England and the patois of the track, and parts of "Loitering" are only slightly less difficult for an American to translate than the Rosetta stone. But that is a mere quibble, an occasional and minor annoyance. Overall, "Loitering With Intent" a delight, gracefully, evocatively and intelligently written. And terribly funny to boot.

One quick example: Mr. O'Toole recalls walking into a room at age 3 or 4. His parents, obviously in their cups, are trying to put up the family Christmas tree. "Is Father Christmas coming?" he demands. Gales of laughter. Marching up to his father, he repeats: "Is Father Christmas coming?" Whereupon his father picks up a brown paper bag and leaves the room. There's a bang. The door opens, and Pat O'Toole returns. "He stands above me," Mr. O'Toole writes, "and looks solemnly down at me before pronouncing very clearly: 'Father Christmas has just shot himself.' "

Americans today would have to spend years in therapy dealing with the scars left by such insensitive behavior, but Mr. O'Toole seems to have weathered it without too much damage to his psyche, just as he weathered being called up for naval duty during the Korean War shortly after winning a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

But that's another story. And given Mr. O'Toole's successful debut as an actor who can write (though it could easily be the other way around), one can only hope he won't loiter too long before telling it.

John F. Kelly is a Baltimore writer.

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