Peter O'Toole and I were supposed to have lunch Saturday, but the crown prince of British theater and film became ill at the last minute and, under doctor's orders, was forced to stay in London. In his stead, he sent along Roger Michell, who directed him in "Venus," a delightful romantic comedy due out in December that has already made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival. Michell arrived armed with a bevy of O'Toole anecdotes, as well as a note from the actor that he planned to read at an upcoming premiere here.
The note neatly captures the 74-year-old actor's mischievous charm. "The disease that's killing the chestnut trees has felled me," O'Toole says. "Or so I chose to believe until the doctor disabused me of such a grand notion and told me I had a commonplace but severe touch of the gastric nasties. That I was not to travel, go to bed, take the tablets and lay off the turps."
The beautiful, pale-blue-eyed god we saw in "Lawrence of Arabia" is in fragile health these days. But that only lends an extra layer of gravitas to his performance as Maurice, an aged actor reduced to playing corpses in TV dramas who finds new life through an unlikely friendship with a young woman (newcomer Jodie Whittaker) hired to take care of another elderly actor chum, played by Leslie Phillips.
O'Toole's deft performance, which gives him the chance to recite Shakespeare and mutter backstage epithets ("Bloody Peter Hall!") could be a last Oscar hurrah for the actor, who's been nominated seven times without a win, although he got an honorary statuette several years ago. It's poignant seeing O'Toole, jaw slack, hair permanently askew, wheezing up to the bar to order a "whiskey with a whisker of water," not knowing for certain how much of the great show is age and how much is acting.
Michell had never met O'Toole before, although as a schoolboy in Bristol he'd seen him onstage in "Uncle Vanya" and later in shows in the West End. Michell sent O'Toole the script, written by Hanif Kureishi, and arranged a meeting at the Garrett Club, an old theater hangout in London. It was the day of English actor John Mills' funeral and, as Michell recalls, the club -- which serves as the actors' haunt in the movie -- was filled with a host of venerable thespians, all of whom could've played Maurice in the film.
"There I was waiting," Michell recalls, "when up this long flight of stairs, wheezing, groaning ... comes Peter, supported by an old actor friend, laughing and telling outrageous stories as he occasionally paused for breath. Over lunch, he was sensitive, funny, thoughtful, quite delicate and pretty much perfect. I knew the man I met that day should play Maurice."
I'd always heard that O'Toole never got along especially well with directors. As English actor Roy Kinnear once put it: "Peter would just tell the director how he was going to do the scene and then do it." But Michell says O'Toole was far more prepared each day on set than many younger actors. "I don't think Peter likes directors, as a species, because most directors aren't particularly good with actors," he says. "But Peter was a true collaborator. And when we disagreed, he was very forthright."
There was little doubt about O'Toole being the right man for the role of an old man still wondering what makes himself tick. Michell says he needed someone who, in addition to being able to play Hamlet, "was intellectual and profoundly clever but filled with doubt and skepticism. He's also profoundly heroic, in the sense that he's concerned with the world around him but doesn't fully understand it. He's 80, but as Peter says in the film, 'I still don't know anything about myself.' "
For me, the most astounding moment in the film comes early on when O'Toole, as Maurice, learns he must have surgery for prostate cancer. Looking more haggard than ever, he finally rallies, slapping himself hard in the face, saying fiercely, "Come on, old man!" I asked Michell if that was in the script or an inspired O'Toole improvisation.
Michell beamed. "It was in the script. But I had no idea of the intense fury and hatred of age that would come across in the scene. When Peter gives a performance, it always feels like everything is coming straight from him."
For Patrick Goldstein posts from Toronto film festival, see la times.com/entertainment/news/