They Lived This Way Because Nobody Else Could

by Sean Murphy

8 April 2010


Imagine... 47 Whiskies!

Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps.

More than a few notable folks offered the opinion that had Burton exerted a bit more control over his vices he may have ultimately become the most revered stage actor of all time, surpassing even Olivier.

  • During one particular scene (in 1966’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold), Burton was required to down a whiskey. The props department brought in flat ginger ale, the movies’ usual substitute for scotch, but Burton waved it away. “It’s only a short scene, won’t need more than a couple of takes. Bring me some real whiskey.” In fact the scene needed 47 takes. “Imagine it, luv,” Burton bragged to a journalist later, “47 whiskies!”

  • Burton had arrived to work on The Klansmen drunk and stayed drunk throughout filming, consuming three bottles of vodka per day, a routine he’d been following for the past six months… when (the director) was filming Burton’s death scene he complimented the make-up man. “You’ve done a great job.” The make-up man replied, “I haven’t touched him.”

  • Staggering home at three in the morning, O’Toole tried to carry Burton… and both men stumbled into the gutter. Somebody stopped beside them on the pavement. It was Alan Bates, O’Toole’s ex-RADA colleague. “Peter,” he said, “today I’ve just signed up for my first commercial picture.” “We both looked up,” recalled O’Toole, and said “You coming down to join us, then?”

  • Exhibit C: Oliver Reed Personal note: I have a special place in my heart for Ollie. I couldn’t have been more than ten the first time I saw the musical Oliver and Reed, as Bill Sikes, scared the living daylights out of me.

    He was the real deal: the kind of face you could smash a torch into, break a bottle on and pour hot oil over and he’d smile… before he killed you. I then enjoyed him as the perfectly cast father in the movie version of Tommy. He was (cliché alert!!) absolutely one of those rare actors whom I’d watch in virtually anything he did just because he had that presence: he loved the camera and the camera bloody loved him. That he ended up dying, in a bar, after drunkenly arm wrestling with a group of sailors four decades younger was… pathetic, predictable, perfect.

  • In an early role (as a werewolf, in a wretched B-movie), Reed enjoyed keeping his make-up on at the end of the day and terrifying fellow motorists at traffic lights.

  • After Tommy, Reed and The Who’s Keith Moon continued their rabble-rousing friendship. Reed enjoyed a game that he christened “head butting”. Each player was required to smash his head against his opponent until one collapsed or surrendered. A regular victim was (The Who’s bass player) John Entwistle who, after being knocked out three times, pleaded with the nightclub owner to either ban the game or ban Ollie.

  • Filming The Great Question (1983) Reed was stuck in Iraq… in what was essentially a war zone. One night Reed joined the crew for numerous drinks in the hotel bar and, looking in the nearby restaurant, saw a Texas oil billionaire whom he knew. Jumping up, obviously drunk as a skunk, he rushed upstairs to his room. “When he came back down he was wearing a western shirt and cowboy boots and walked John Wayne style into the restaurant to see his buddy,” recalls stunt man Vic Armstrong. “Inside he gave this guy a Texas handshake, as he called it, which basically means lifting your leg up and smashing your cowboy boot down on the table.

    So Ollie walked up to this guy’s table, surrounded by women and other dignitaries, and smash, all the cutlery and glass went flying in the air. Suddenly Ollie looked at the guy and it wasn’t his mate at all, it was some Arab with his harem, who was deeply offended that this westerner had come stamping on his table and upsetting everything.

  • Reed had his private parts (which he was fond of calling his “mighty mallet”) emblazoned with the images of two eagle’s claws. Not long after, he had an eagle’s head tattooed on his shoulder, so when people asked why he had an eagle’s head on his shoulder he could reply, “Would you like to see where it’s perched?”

  • Exhibit D: Peter O’Toole
    Personal note: after reading this book I’m more convinced than ever that if I could come back as another person and experience their life, Peter O’Toole would be on the very short list.

  • Interviewer: “Are you afraid of dying?” O’Toole: “Petrified.” Interviewer: “Why?” O’Toole: “Because there’s no future in it.” Interviewer: “When did you last think you were about to die?” O’Toole: “About four o’clock this morning.”

  • O’Toole once arrived late for a ferry back to Ireland, the gangplank having just been raised. When the captain refused him entry O’Toole seized the ship’s papers, without which it couldn’t sail. He was only persuaded to hand them over by the arrival of a policeman. O’Toole then chartered a plane to Dublin, hired a taxi upon landing and raced from the airport to the harbour. When the ferry arrived there was O’Toole waiting on the dock to challenge the officer to a fistfight.

  • O’Toole had never been the most subtle of people and old age hardly dented his un-PC ways. He had little time for the current crop of British stars like Hugh Grant. “Ugh, that twitching idiot! Ooh, I musn’t say that, must I, but he’s just a floppy young stammerer in all his films.” (Personal note: HaHaHaHa!)

  • At the 2002 Oscars, O’Toole was to receive a lifetime achievement award. However, on discovering the bar served no alcohol, he threatened to walk out. Panicked producers had some vodka smuggled in.

  • In the final analysis, these men were geniuses on the screen, and depending upon how one judges such things, geniuses off it, as well. One could maintain that, like Oscar Wilde, they were geniuses at life: they lived life fully on their own terms, and after all the broken glass, bludgeoned livers, wrecked relationships, wounded feelings and untapped potential, the sum shined brighter than the scattered bits and pieces.

    Were they running away from their demons even as they rushed, face first, into a mirror or bar brawl or oncoming vehicle? Perhaps. Yet there was a courageousness to their conviction and intolerance for half-measures that, for better or worse, we’ll seldom if ever see again. They lived the lives they led because they had no choice, and more to the point, because nobody else could.

    The impossibly elegant Peter O’Toole

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