You see, this is why I don’t write fan letters – I’m rubbish at them. So, don’t think of this as a fan letter; instead, it is a heart-felt attempt to summarize what you’ve meant to me, to say farewell, because I heard the news the other day that I won’t be seeing you anymore. I’m in a bit of shock, because part of me thought you would go on forever, though of course it makes sense that you would withdraw just now.
I may have missed your final curtain call, but I’m hoping that I can get this out before you’ve left the stage entirely.
A friend of yours once said that, “The only thing in life is language. Not love. Not anything else.” And you, dear Sir,* were my introduction to this beauty of words, the intoxication of language, the power of a voice.
*I know you declined the knighthood. Richard would have taken it, but if it wasn’t your style, then good for you for knowing yourself.
I first encountered you when I was… three? Perhaps four, but certainly no more than five. Your shadow definitely fell over that parameter of years that psychologists now say is so fundamental to the development of a child. Yourself, Errol Flynn, Han Solo, Mr Rochester, Jareth the Goblin King, and Richard as Marcellus were my pantheon of cinematic gods. But you were the one who always made me smile the most — perhaps because it seemed as though you were having the most fun. Never chewing on the scenery, but always with a twinkle in your ridiculously blue eyes.
Also, the way you say the word “pussycat” should probably be outlawed. I wish my last name was Lefebvre just so that you could yell to me outside my window and tell me my face was like the pale autumn moon.
But, that day when I first met you, I was still very small. I remember the frame as if it was frozen on the screen: you were on PBS; it was the middle of the afternoon; glowering over your soup, you told Alice that John was just sixteen, he couldn’t help the pimples.
I was hooked. Certainly by the age of eight, I could whisper your denunciation speech to myself during recess, though the gender roles needed to be tweaked just a bit… and I didn’t have anything near your gravitas.
It is a known fact — at least among some executive members of the Canadian Association for Irish Studies and a few dozen patrons of the bar at the Chateau Laurier — that my first memory, my first ever awareness of the world, was of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, climbing up the tower ivy to seduce Olivia de Havilland. Somehow, to those crowing with laughter at my expense, this explained to them my choice of career specialization, my taste in men, and my love of history all in one.
But you run a close second. I knew your Henry before your Ned, though I think that’s only because my father didn’t buy the videotapes until I was seven-ish (and, yes, I just gave away that I’m a child of the 1980s — so be it). Standing just a slight smidge taller than yourself, my dad had been saving that film for me, knowing that because he enjoyed it so much, I probably would too. I remember, down to my place sitting on the library carpet, when he put the box-set into my hands and said, “I think you might like this.”
I remember seeing Anthony Quinn on the back of the sleeve in his blue and black costume, but you were on the front cover. Things that I appreciate now – like the opening cleaning of the motorcycle, or the blown-out match — didn’t make a huge impression to my child-self. You were louder as Henry and, back then, I knew you by your bellowing. Ned never really bellowed very much, did he?
No, it was the camel walk by the sea after the taking of Aqaba that made me recognise you. I can’t explain it — it was just suddenly there. The Henry of the gnashing about meddlesome priests met with the Henry who had bantered with Eleanor, and then merged with “Aurens” gazing off at the sunset and then scrambling through the waves to chase a garland thrown by a friend. “My God, I love this country.”
And then the sight of you blocking out the sun.
Of any piece of celluloid in film history, that is the one I would want to remember. It still gives me shivers every time I watch the film — and, as my friends can attest, I have seen that particular epic
a ridiculous number of times quite a bit.
The first time — the only time — I almost truly met you in the flesh was in Covent Garden, outside St Paul’s Church, which was ridiculously appropriate, given that you were once Higgins. I, like any good Canadian living in London, always tried to better my accent so that I would no longer be a disgrace to the noble architecture of those columns, no longer a squashed cabbage leaf or an incarnate insult to the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible. If we had met that day and spoken at length, I’m sure you could have passed me off as a duchess at an embassy ball… or even as the Queen of Sheba. I so loved it when I read in your first book that you had used Higgins’ “and the angels will weep for you” speech at your RADA audition. It’s always been my favourite speech in the play.
And you and I almost met there, in Covent Garden, just outside the pillars where Henry first bantered with Eliza (I always have the Leslie Howard version in my mind when I picture that opening scene).
That day, someone told me you were inside the church… and so I fled, feeling utterly afraid. I can’t say why I did it — probably the thought that, if you were inside St Paul’s, it was for a serious reason, like a funeral or a memorial service, and so the absolute last thing you would need that day was for a ridiculously pale Canadian to melt into a pile of goo at your feet. I know I’m not the only person to have this reaction when faced with the chance of meeting a favourite actor in London — a dear friend of mine wouldn’t even go *near* the West End when she heard that Patrick Stewart was doing something with the RSC, because it was just too much.
And, so, we did not meet. We have not met. And we never will.
I’ve heard that, these days, you’re working on the third volume of your memoirs. When you published the first, I was still in grade school. At the time of your second, I had no idea that, within a decade, we would be haunting the same streets of London… just at different times, as it turns out. Obviously, I am waiting, rather impatiently, for the third installment. How’s it coming along???
Then, a few short weeks ago, I heard that you had retired.
I had missed your press release in July because I was moving to Montreal — I lived in a bubble of non-information for much of last month, and so found out about your news after the fact. I couldn’t quite believe that I would never see you again — not the contemporary you, at least — and I never shall, shall I? Not as a new character, a new speaker of mesmerizing words… and I will miss that. I truly will. I will miss you, Mr Peter O’Toole.
Thankfully, most of the world woke up to admire you in 2003 — even amidst the hobbits who were rather ubiquitous that evening. I’ve watched the clip of your films a few times in the past month, and, of all the ones I’ve seen from the Oscars, I think yours is the best:
There’s only one scene missing from that tribute: when Eleanor/Kate grabs your arm and says, “You’re still a marvel of a man.”
You still are.
Thank you so much, for everything.
Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.