Posting about Patrick Stewart last week made me think of other celebrity stories where I actually met the celebrity. Way back in 1992 Peter O’Toole had published the first volume of his memoirs, Loitering with Intent. I attended a signing appearance here in St. Paul at a bookstore that no longer exists.
Peter was running late, and a crowd of more than a hundred people was waiting patiently. Suddenly the crowd parted, and Peter, a head taller than anyone else in the room, walked briskly through us commoners in his inimitable lanky way. Women from sixteen to sixty swooned, as did approximately 10 percent of men. In his mid-sixties at the time, he still had an amazing aura of energy (metaphorically speaking), the quintessential magnetic personality.
I knew what I wanted him to write in the book. One of my favorite movies of his is the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year, in which he plays a washed-up drunk of an actor riding on the fame of bygone days. There’s a great deal of self-awareness in the role, you could say. In his first scene he shows up in the offices of a Sid Caesar–type show on which he’s the guest star, drunk as a skunk, and passes out. The boss wants to fire him on the spot. A young writer on the show bets that he’ll still be able to do the show later that week. Another writer takes the bet. Then Peter rises up, glares at the guy who bet against him, and says “Double the lad’s bet for me, you toad,” before he slowly timbers to the floor. What a great personalization that line would be.
However, as my turn approached, I saw the sign: “No personalizing.” Peter was just signing his name. When there’s a lot of people, it’s common to keep the line moving in this way. But Peter was chatting with everyone, so it was probably more about sparing him writer’s cramp than saving time.
Finally it was my turn. He focused his incredibly sharp bright blue eyes on me. Even as a straight man I almost swooned. “It’s too bad you’re only signing your name, because I had picked out my favorite line from My Favorite Year that I was going to have you write.” I purposefully didn’t say the line to see what his reaction would be. He leaned closer to me. “And what line is that?”
“Double the lad’s bet for me, you toad,” I said, trying not to do my impression but probably matching the intonation fairly closely from repeated viewings. He sat up straight, threw his head back, and guffawed as only he can. Then he looked back at me, leaned forward again, and said, as he put an elbow on the table, hand in the air, “And then … the fall.” He flopped his arm down just as he had collapsed in the scene.
Well, well. He signed his name and I was off, feeling that I had had a genuine moment with him. What a personable guy. The way he talked to everyone, looking straight at you … he really engaged. The whole thing is incredibly clear in my mind two decades after it happened.
So that’s my Peter O’Toole story.
[Original version posted February 4, 2009]