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The Camels Were 'Impossible': Peter O'Toole Remembers 'Arabia'
Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 2:19 pm
"I have a host of memories which I see very clearly," actor Peter O'Toole told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in 1993. "And though I'm very aware of the tricks of memory, I'm also aware of the concrete nature of these brilliantly lit pictures in my mind. They're ineradicable."
O'Toole, who died Saturday at the age of 81, was instrumental in making many "brilliantly lit pictures" for movie lovers during his decades-spanning career. Nominated for eight Oscars, the tall, blond, blue-eyed actor captivated audiences, on-screen and onstage.
O'Toole grew up in northern England during World War II and began his acting career after two years in the Royal Navy. He became best-known for his starring role in the 1962 film epic Lawrence of Arabia.
"I can't imagine anyone whom I'm less like than T.E. Lawrence," O'Toole admitted, but he suspects director David Lean wanted "someone who could act it rather than be it."
O'Toole's other roles ranged from the three angels in John Huston's The Bible to a washed-up, drunken movie star in the comedy My Favorite Year. He starred in the historical dramas Becket and The Lion in Winter. When he spoke with Fresh Air, he had just published a memoir about his early life, called Loitering with Intent.
On being cast as the attractive "juvenile"
I remember one man saying, "You'll spend your life or your early years popping through a French window with a tennis racquet saying, 'Anyone for tennis?' " But that didn't prove to be the case. I've never popped through French windows, with or without a tennis racquet, and invited anyone to play tennis or not. ... Young men, if you're given a certain cast of physiognomy, you'll find yourself playing the juvenile, and juveniles can be crucifyingly boring. The producer will often say, "Don't forget, he gets the girl." But one doesn't want to get the girl; one wants to be covered in wigs and humps ... being villains or being anything other than the juvenile.
On getting into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
A chum of mine — who intended to be a painter — and I hitchhiked our way into London to begin our lives and we jumped off the lorry, the truck, at a station called Houston and we were aiming for a men's hostel. ... And we were plodding down [the street] and I looked on my left and it said, "The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art" and my chum said, "Well, if you're going to be an actor this is the kind of shop where they deal with such matters, so why don't you pop in?" So I popped in and I saw a bust of Bernard Shaw, and I was looking at the bust of Bernard Shaw and ... the sergeant commissionaire joined me at the bust and we started yawning about Bernard Shaw telling stories. ... And we were joined by a joined by an elderly, burly, gruff gentleman and he turned out to be the principal of the Royal Academy. He asked me if I was a student, and I said I wasn't but I was thinking of being. And one thing led to another and I found myself, that afternoon even, turning up for the first interview and then I did an audition and [another] audition, and found, to my surprise that I was in.
On filming Lawrence of Arabia
It took nine months in the desert of Jordan. ... We lived in tents; occasionally I had a caravan. We'd shoot for about 10 to 12 days and then we'd have two or three days off and I would go to Jerusalem or to Beirut, [fellow Lawrence actor] Omar [Sharif] and I, where we'd squander our pieces at poker.
On gambling during filming
I did gamble, quite a lot until I was about 30 or so, then it petered out. I mean, for instance, Omar Sharif and I ... we were in Beirut — Beirut in the better days and we were playing cards and we lost all the money we had earned in nine months, we lost in one night in Beirut. Then a year later, we were in Casablanca and all of the money we had earned in that year we had lost in two nights. ... We weren't sober, but neither were we unconscious. We were fully aware of the pain and agony of watching all of our pennies going down the swanny.
On learning to ride a camel
I loved the desert, I really did. ... I was there three months before filming started and the idea was to learn to ride a camel. [It was] impossible. What you see is a European perched uneasily on the top of this huge brute, snorting and galloping. ... I found after a while my bottom was bleeding from bouncing up and down on this snorting great dragon.
I went to Beirut — not to gamble this time — but to buy sponge rubber and it was, I remember, mucous membrane pink. And I arrived back to my Bedouin friend with this lump of thick, thick rubber and I stuffed it, shamelessly onto my saddle. ... But after a while they looked and they saw it was quite comfy, too, and they could bounce more easily on sponge rubber than you could on wooden hump, so they began to ask me to buy more. So I was requisitioning tons of this damn stuff, yards of it. I think I introduced sponge rubber into Arabian culture. ... They called me [in Arabic] "the father of rubber."
On the long distance shots in the desert
I had a stunt man doing ... all those shots that are miles and miles away, and [director] David [Lean] said, "Look through the lens, Peter. Look at the stunt man." So I did, and he said, "You see? No poetry." So I found myself being the poet and I was the one bouncing up and down miles and miles away. But it was all right. I had a transistor radio plugged into my ears and I had a cigarette going and I had a little bottle of something in the saddle bag. I was quite comfy.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're going to listen back to our interview with actor Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. His New York Times obituary described him as, quote, "one of his generation's most charismatic actors. Blonde, blue-eyed and well over six feet tall, he had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man," unquote.
O'Toole was best known for his starring role in the 1962 film epic "Lawrence of Arabia," based on the story of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who tried to unite Arab tribes in their fight against the Turks during World War I.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")
PETER O'TOOLE: (as T.E. Lawrence) So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel as you are.
GROSS: Peter O'Toole's other roles range from The Three Angels in John Huston's epic "The Bible" to a washed-up drunken movie star in the comedy "My Favorite Year." He starred in the historical dramas "Beckett" and "The Lion in Winter." When I spoke with Peter O'Toole in 1993, he had just published a memoir about his early life called "Loitering with Intent." He grew up in northern England during World War II. His father was a racetrack bookie. I asked O'Toole what it was like to have a father who gambled.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
O'TOOLE: I loved it. In the pre-war years, when he was on top, when he was flush, I loved it. I loved going to all the tracks, meeting all the people, learning how to count by understanding the odds, memorizing the names of the horses and the jockeys, looking at the colors, the silks, looking at the animals, looking at the countryside. I loved it, and I loved being with my father and my mother.
Times got a bit more grim when the war came and racing ended. But they cheered up again at the end of the war. Yes, in short, yes, it was lovely.
GROSS: Did your father ever expect you to go into the gambling business?
O'TOOLE: No, he didn't. Well, he might have expected me to, but he didn't encourage me to, and neither did I, though I did gamble quite a lot until I was about 30 or so. Then it petered out. I mean, for instance, Omar Sharif and I - do you know Omar Sharif?
GROSS: Well, not personally, but I certainly know his roles, and he was with you in "Lawrence of Arabia."
O'TOOLE: Well, he's a lovely man. Yeah, well he's - not only was he in "Lawrence of Arabia," but we've remained friends ever since, and he's a graceful and intelligent man, a lovely man. We were in Beirut, Beirut in the better days, and we were playing - well, I don't know what we were playing, cards. And we lost all the money we'd earned in nine months we lost in one night in Beirut.
And then a year later, we were in Casablanca, and all the money we'd earned in that year we lost, but in two nights.
GROSS: Well, did you have enough money that you could afford to gamble away a whole year's earning in one night?
O'TOOLE: Certainly not. But we did gamble it away in one night and then in two nights.
GROSS: Were you drunk that night, and how did it feel to wake up the next morning knowing all that you'd lost?
O'TOOLE: Well, we weren't sober, but neither were we unconscious. We were fully aware of the pain and agony of watching all our pennies go down the Swanee.
GROSS: Well, when you were a young man, you went into the navy. Then when you got out of the navy, you got yourself an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. You kind of talked your way into the audition. How did you do it?
O'TOOLE: A series of accidents, circumstances, blunders. A chum of mine who intended to be a painter and I hitchhiked our way into London to begin our lives, and we jumped off the lorry, the truck, at a station called Euston, and we were aiming for a men's hostel. And the street, which goes from the station to the hostel, is called Gower Street. And we were plodding down it, and I looked, and on my left it said the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
And my chum said, well, if you're going to be an actor, you know, it's the kind of shop where they deal with such matters. So why don't you pop in? So I popped in, and I saw a bust of Bernard Shaw. And I was looking at the bust of Bernard Shaw, and the commissionaire, the sergeant commissionaire, joined me at the bust, and we started yarning about Bernard Shaw, telling stories.
And he'd tell me his stories, and I told him my stories. And then we were joined by a gentleman, an elderly gentleman, a burly, gruff gentleman, and he turned out to be the principal of the Royal Academy. And he asked me if I was a student. I said no, I wasn't, but I was thinking of being, and one thing led to another and I found myself, that afternoon even, turning up for the first interview.
And then I did an audition, and then I did another audition, and I found, to my surprise, that I was in.
GROSS: What did you do for your audition?
O'TOOLE: The first one was a bit of Chesterton and a bit of Bernard Shaw.
GROSS: What did you choose from Shaw?
O'TOOLE: "Pygmalion," Higgins.
GROSS: Do you remember the lines?
O'TOOLE: Do you want to live here for the next six months, learning how to speak beautifully, like a lady in a florist's shop? Yeah, that bit.
GROSS: Now you weren't from the kind of background where you grew up speaking, you know, proper English or the queen's English, were you?
O'TOOLE: Well, it was the king's English in my day.
GROSS: The king's English, that's right, excuse me.
O'TOOLE: He popped his clogs later on, but yes...
O'TOOLE: My mother always spoke rather beaut - she was a Scotswoman. And as you probably know that the best English is spoken, I am told, in Edinburgh. And she always spoke rather properly and then corrected me every time I was improper.
GROSS: Did you see a particular niche for yourself on stage when you were at the Royal Academy?
O'TOOLE: No, no, I didn't. I just rather enjoyed being a student in London and messing around, doing what students do and thoroughly enjoying the life. Then I was given a job at the end of two years. I was given a job at the Theatre Royal in Bristol, at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company, a repertory company. And at the end of the first year, having done about 12 or so plays, playing comparatively minor roles, I began to believe that I could do it, I could act.
GROSS: Were you given any advice about what type of character you would likely play?
O'TOOLE: Yes, I was. I remember one man saying you'll spend your life or your early years popping through a French window with a tennis racket saying anyone for tennis?
O'TOOLE: But that didn't prove to be the case. I've never through French windows with or without a tennis racket and invited anyone to play tennis, or not.
GROSS: And that's a lucky break, too, isn't it? Well, after - yeah.
O'TOOLE: You see the young men, if you're given a certain cast of physiognomy, you find yourself playing the juvenile, and juveniles can be crucifyingly boring. The producer will often say don't forget he gets the girl. But, you know, one doesn't want to get the girl. One wants to be covered in wigs and humps and being villains or being anything other than the juvenile.
The whole world of the juvenile changed in 19- what - 56, 57, when John Osborne wrote "Look Back in Anger." And there was a juvenile, he was 24, 25, who had all the good stuff, all the practical pudding that usually the character actors had. So the world changed then, and that was lovely. I enjoyed playing Jimmy Porter.
GROSS: Well, not only didn't you make your career saying anyone for tennis, but your first real big movie role was in the epic "Lawrence of Arabia." Were you kind of surprised to get the role?
O'TOOLE: Astonished. I can't imagine anyone whom I'm less like than T.E. Lawrence. But that's what David wanted, I think, someone who could act it rather than be it.
GROSS: David Lean, the director.
O'TOOLE: That's right, David Lean, the director, my master, the man I really do admire, did admire enormously.
GROSS: So the movie was shot on location, obviously. Which parts of the desert was it shot in?
O'TOOLE: You tell me.
O'TOOLE: We were in Jordan, and between Jordan and the Saudi Arabian border. I think sometimes we nipped over the border, but we didn't know. It was uncharted desert. And what we would do, we were based in Aqaba, and there was a big DC-3, which would take off with the cameras and us in it, and then we'd find a mud flat and land and pitch tents and generators and all that and film.
GROSS: So where would you live during the shooting, which I imagine took a very long time?
O'TOOLE: It took nine months in the desert, in the desert of Jordan. Where would we live? We lived in tents. Occasionally I had a caravan, and we just - and we'd shoot for about 10 to 12 days and then have two or three days off, and I would go to Jerusalem to - which I love, or to Beirut - Omar and I, where we'd squander our pieces at poker.
GROSS: Was it hard to learn to ride the camel?
O'TOOLE: Impossible. I - what you see is a European perched uneasily on the top of this huge brute, snorting and galloping.
GROSS: Well, it looks so uncomfortable the way you're positioned on there, with one leg over the side of the camel and the other leg crossed over the hump.
O'TOOLE: Sidesaddle, precisely, and that - there are two things that stick up like nails on the pommel, the pommels of this wooden saddle. And if you've - if you ride a horse, you're finished because you can't post or anything like that. You just bounce. I found after a while that my bottom was bleeding from bouncing up and down on this snorting red dragon.
And I went to Beirut not to gamble this time but to buy sponge rubber, and it was, I remember, mucous membrane pink.
O'TOOLE: And I arrived back to my Bedouin friends with this lump of thick, thick rubber, and I stuffed it shamelessly onto my saddle. And of course they were saying, ah.... But after a while, they looked, and they saw that it was quite comfy, too, and you could bounce more easily on sponge rubber than you could on wood and hump. So they began to ask me to buy more.
So I was requisitioning tons of this damn stuff, yards of it. And I think I introduced sponge rubber into Arabian culture.
O'TOOLE: The Bedouin call me Abu - they couldn't say sponge so they called me Abu Svingh(ph), the father of rubber.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1993 interview with Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my 1993 interview with actor Peter O'Toole. He died Saturday at the age of 81. He's best known for his role as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 film epic "Lawrence of Arabia." When we left off, we were talking about riding camels in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)
GROSS: There are a lot of scenes in "Lawrence of Arabia" where the camera seems to be almost several miles away from the people being shot.
O'TOOLE: And that - you're quite right, and that soul on the camel all those many, many miles away, is invariably me.
GROSS: Well, what was it like to know that you were being shot by - at such a great distance? And of course then, you know, the camera could like zoom in for a closer - I mean, they could zoom in with the lens, you know, for a closer shot. But that must have been pretty disorienting.
O'TOOLE: Initially, one was peeved. I remember David Lean saying to me - I had a stuntman doing it, all those shots that were miles and miles away. And David said look at me through the lens, Peter. Look at the stuntman. So I did. And he said, you see? No poetry.
O'TOOLE: So I found myself being the poet, and I was the one bouncing up and down miles and miles away. But it was all right. I had a transistor radio plugged into my ears, and I had a cigarette going, and I had a little bottle of something in the saddlebag. I was quite comfy. And the man who taught me to ride and who did all those shots of the - those amazing shots of the desert was a man called Kutafin Abu Tayi, who was the grandson of the man whom Antony Quinn played, Auda Abu Tayi, Auda Abu Tayi.
GROSS: What was it like to be in the middle of some of those chaotic battle scenes. Is it pretty frightening knowing that even though it's just a movie, things can still go wrong?
O'TOOLE: Well, there was the charge at Aqaba, which I shall never forget because we were then in Spain. We'd left Aqaba, and we'd built Aqaba in Spain. I know, this is the logic of filmmaking. And it was downhill on shale about a mile and a half to the cardboard Aqaba we built, cardboard minarets. And we'd imported from Morocco plow camels.
Now, your camel may look just like a great, humped brute to you, but there are fine distinctions. In Arabia proper, we'd had camels called Values, which are bred for racing purposes, and they're bought in Damascus, and they cost a great deal of money.
And here we were with Moroccan plow camels, who had never, ever had a thing on their backs and had never, ever gone quickly in their poor little lives. I thought this is going to be a bit tasty. So I looked at Omar, a gambling man, and said what are you going to do?
He said I've been working out the odds. I said have you really? He said yes, I've been working out the odds about whether or not I fall off the camel or whether the camel falls over.
O'TOOLE: And I've decided that the odds are very strongly on me falling off the camel. So I said, yes. He said, so I've decided that I'm going to tie myself on. I thought, really, tie yourself on to a camel. Because we were surrounded by 400 horses. We had to lead, Omar and I had to lead on a handful of what, a dozen or so, 20, 50 camels with 400 horses galloping behind us.
And we had to lead this charge. And Omar said I'm going to tie myself on. I thought, well, I don't want to tie myself on, not really. Tie yourself on a camel, no. I said no, I'm going to get drunk. He said, oh, I'm going to get drunk, too. So we both got a bottle of brandy, and we shoved it into milk, and we swallowed back the milky brandy, which made us feel not a lot of pain, hopped on our beasts and did it.
And I was described in one newspaper as having a look of messianic ecstasy on my face.
O'TOOLE: What it was was terror compounded with slightly - being a little bit pissed. It was rather nice, really, on the whole. And we made it. We got to the other end all right, right to the sea. And I stood on my camel, we stood in the water, and I looked, and to my right was Omar. And he was still tied to the camel but hanging on upside-down.
GROSS: Was it easier to stay on the camel being slightly inebriated? I'd think it would be harder.
O'TOOLE: It was less - it was less - look, the prospect was being trampled to death by 400 horses. So it seemed to be - if one was going to be trampled to death by 400 horses, at least have a smile on your face, I thought.
GROSS: Be a little more relaxed about it.
O'TOOLE: A bit more relaxed.
GROSS: One of the films of yours I especially like is "My Favorite Year."
O'TOOLE: That's good fun.
GROSS: Yeah, and you play a washed-up actor from the swashbuckling era, ala Errol Flynn, who's making a guest shot on a Sid Caesar-type variety show. And you walk in, and you're soused all the time. Were you able to play off your image of having been a real drinker?
O'TOOLE: The first thing to say that he was not an actor. As he points out very clearly, as he going into the television - I'm not an actor, he says, I'm a movie star. That's the first.
O'TOOLE: The second thing is that, yes, it did provide an opportunity for hilarious self-caricature, which I enjoyed thoroughly.
GROSS: How - you were telling us about how you drank during the battle scene in Aqaba. How often did you drink when you were performing back then?
O'TOOLE: Never, never. You can't do it. You can't act and drink or whatever. You can't do it. It's impossible. You need every - all your faculties clear and pure and spinning. You can't have it fuddled and muddied.
GROSS: So it was only like for stunt-type sequences that you would do that?
O'TOOLE: Oh yeah, yes.
GROSS: You stopped drinking a while ago?
O'TOOLE: I did.
GROSS: Was it hard?
O'TOOLE: Not at all.
GROSS: It's usually hard for people. That's why I ask.
O'TOOLE: No, no I didn't - if - no, no, no, I stopped because I didn't like it anymore. I didn't like the effect anymore. If I fancied a drink right now, I'd have one, but I don't fancy one.
GROSS: How much acting are you doing now?
O'TOOLE: None at all.
GROSS: And why is that?
O'TOOLE: I'm not acting. I'm not in a play. I'm just me, droning on with a pair of earphones onto this furry mic in front of me.
GROSS: Oh, I didn't mean right this very second how much are you acting. I mean, at this point in your career.
O'TOOLE: How much acting am I - oh, I see what you mean. Not a lot. I'm doing more scratching, scribbling, writing.
GROSS: And what led you in that direction to start writing?
O'TOOLE: An urge.
GROSS: An urge to write or an urge to tell your story?
O'TOOLE: No, an urge to write. I tried a novel; that was a failure. I had written a few things, and a publisher saw it and suggested to me that I write my story. So I said I don't think I can do that. And they - and then I began to try, and I'm doing it.
GROSS: What did you go back to, to spark your memory about the early days that you're writing about, your childhood?
O'TOOLE: Well, I have a host of memories, which I see very clearly, and though I'm fully aware of the tricks of memory, I'm also aware of the concrete nature of these brilliantly lit pictures in my mind. And they'll never go - they're ineradicable. I'll give you an example. I had written a bit about my childhood, and the - I got a hint of how to do all this from a line spoken by a Spaniard many years ago.
I don't know who he was or when he was, but he said: I am I and my circumstances, (speaking foreign language). And that clicked with me. If I could describe the circumstances of my life, as well as me being in them, that was the clue to how I set about writing. But I had written a passage. And I thought hang on, you've very described very clearly an abbey and stepping stones and this, that and the other.
I put the pen down, having finished that particular passage, and I jumped in my car, and I drove the 200 or 300 miles to the spot, which I hadn't seen for 40 years. And as I got there off the motorway, along the little boreens that led to it, I found myself just chuckling all alone in the car, chuckle, chuckle, chuckle because it was exactly as I remembered it.
Oh, certain things were different, but the colors, the shapes, everything. The water, the abbey, the stones, they were all there.
GROSS: My interview with Peter O'Toole was recorded in 1993 after the publication of his memoir about his early years. He died yesterday at the age of 81. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.