Meeting Peter O'Toole
by Elizabeth, ReelClassics.com
September 24, 1999
Shortly after arriving in London to begin school, I picked up a London Theatre Guide and noticed that
"Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell" was playing for two more days at the Old
Vic. I'd read that it was the hit of the summer theatre season, and of course,
since Peter O'Toole was the star, I wanted to see it. I called the box office
but there was no answer. I called Ticketmaster, but they were sold out. I went
to bed determined to try again.
This morning when I called the Box Office about 10am, a lady told me that
both the remaining performances were completely sold out, but that if I wanted a
ticket for standing room, I could come and queue at the box office door.
Standing room tickets would go on sale at a quarter to twelve. I grabbed my
backpack, my umbrella and my subway card and headed down to Waterloo.
It took me a little while to get oriented, but when I finally reached the
theatre, I was ninth in line. After waiting about forty-five minutes, the box
office opened and the woman at the ticket counter announced that there were
twenty-five tickets for standing room available -- but that although you
would be able to hear the entire show, the position of the tickets would only
permit you to see at best 20-30% of the stage.
After a slight scandal in the queue involving two British girls who hadn't
arrived until 11:30am but pushed their way up to the front and demanded
"previously promised" tickets (they were refused), I bought my
standing room ticket for £7.50 and thanked the nice old man from Wales who had
talked with me while we were waiting in line and told me a little about the play
and about Jeffrey Bernard himself.
When the woman at the Old Vic opened the door for the queue, she had put
out a sign on the walk indicating that those queuing for returned tickets should
line up to the right of the door. I didn't know what return tickets were
exactly, but after the lady explained, I decided that seeing 20-30% of Peter O'Toole
was one thing, but getting to see all of him would be an opportunity for which I
would shoot myself in later years if I ever passed it up.
After learning that Wednesday's queue had begun forming at 3pm and that
there had been only 5 tickets, I debated to myself about taking the subway back
to my dorm to get my camera since I still had a little time. I decided a
photograph wasn't worth the risk of not getting a real ticket.
I had promised to call my dad about 1pm, so I walked up to the National
Film Theatre to check out the schedule and call home. I told Dad of my plans and
he was jealous. I could hear over the phone how much he wanted to be there with
me. On my way back to the Old Vic, I laid in a few supplies -- chips from a
burger stand (which I didn't end up eating -- I'd forgotten how bad they
are), and a bottle of water and an apple from a little grocery stand.
By the time I got back to the Old Vic my little excursion had cost me not
one, but two places in line -- the man who beat me for the #1 spot in the queue
was waiting for 2 tickets. I was now #3.
It was a quarter to one and I got myself settled. I moved the "queue
here" sign forward a little and parked myself on a piece of cardboard in
the doorway of the theatre. It had been raining all morning and my shoes and
jean bottoms were soaked. Although the doorway was covered, I was still getting
a lot of spray from the passing cars, so I opened my umbrella and laid it on its
side as a barrier.
I tried but gave up on my "chips," cleaned and ate my apple, and
then began to read my course guide for school. After about an hour, I realized
how dirty I was getting, and tied the hood of my jacket on tight in an effort to
at least keep my hair clean. I also switched books, from the course guide to the
equally dry A History of the World in the 20th Century by J.A.S. Grenville. In the remaining six hours, I only got 40 pages read, if that
tells you anything.
About 2:30, another gentleman arrived to wait behind me, followed by
others, and three hours later when his girlfriend came to change places with him
so he could get a bite to eat, she also offered to save my place in line for me
while I went across the street to a pub to use the toilet. (I will be forever
grateful.) About that time, it stopped raining.
After rejoining the queue, I read a little more, but then began to get
anxious. What if there weren't enough returns? Although I still had my
standing room ticket, after eight hours, it was no longer good enough. I wanted
all of Peter O'Toole.
As it turned out, I was lucky. At 7:30pm, one of the ticket ladies came
and brought the first three of us in. We had tickets. And not just any tickets
either -- stall tickets. I didn't really know what that meant, but it was
supposed to be good. And even better, for some reason, although it was a £32.50
seat, I only had to pay £25 for it -- and the ticket lady promised to resell my
standing room ticket for me! Whoopee!
On my way up the stairs to find the toilet and clean myself up (my hood
had only done limited good), I marveled at the pictures of the great
Shakespearean legends on the wall -- Olivier,
Burton; Peter O'Toole was there twice. My
heart started to beat a little faster.
When the usher finally led me to my seat, I was overjoyed. Not only was I
in the stalls (down front), I was smack in the middle -- row K, seat 15. A huge
smile spread across my face as I took off my jacket and sat down. I felt a
little under-dressed in my Nikes, jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt, my hair all a
mess, not to mention my face -- but I didn't care really, and I knew Mr. O'Toole
wouldn't either. I spent £3 on a program and read it until the house lights
When the curtain went up, the stage was dark with the exception of one
spot light focused on a woman who gave a brief opening monologue. Then all the
lights went out and furniture began to movie on the stage. "Shit!"
said a familiar voice. "Fuck!" the voice said a few seconds later. I
knew now I was not in for one of the wholesome classic movie performances I had
been used to up to this point. Suddenly a match was lit on stage, illuminating a
white head attached to a disorderly body crawling on the floor. Then all the
lights went up -- he'd found the switch -- and there he was: older than I'd
seen him before (obviously), taller than I'd expected, looking very much the
part of the drunkard he was playing. As he opened his mouth and began to speak,
I noticed how very bright pink the inside of his mouth was -- something I'd
noticed before in his movies. I was awestruck that Peter O'Toole himself,
whose talent I had admired in more than a dozen films, was live, in the flesh,
and acting in front of me.
Though there were times the British humor was a little over my head, I
enjoyed the play very much. And when it was over, and Mr. O'Toole came out to
take his bow, I was the first person in the theatre to jump up out of my seat
and join -- or start, actually -- the ovation. My heart was pounding a mile a
minute, the smile on my face was so large, I was almost crying, and I was
clapping so hard, my arms were numb from the elbows down. What a thrill!
During the intermission, I had gone to the ticket counter to collect the
money from the sale of my standing room ticket and had asked the coat check
woman if there was "any hope of getting to meet Mr. O'Toole after the
performance." She told me that he usually exited by the Stage Door in the
alley to the left of the theatre, and sometimes stopped to sign a few autographs
if he wasn't soon engaged elsewhere. Thus, when the show was over, I headed
for the Stage Door.
It had started raining again and there were about 20 people alongside me
waiting to see him. A few were special people (I recognized one as Alan Rickman
from SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1997)) who were permitted to go inside and up to his
dressing room, but the rest of us just stood outside in the rain and waited.
Fifteen minutes became twenty, and thirty, and forty, and still it rained and he
didn't come. Gradually people began to drop off and go home. I had already
made up my mind, seeing all the pen-wielders about me, that I was not going to
ask him for his autograph. He had already given so much of himself for my
enjoyment, I didn't feel it right to ask for any more. Finally, about 11:30pm
he appeared. He walked slowly down the stairs ("He's had a few," the
man next to me whispered.), but his appearance was much improved -- slacks,
shirt, sweater vest and a brown fishing hat.
The first man who approached him handed him a book to sign, but Mr. O'Toole
declined. (I suspected it was an unauthorized biography or something he didn't
approve of.) He did sign a piece of paper for the man though. A lady from France
was next. She had about five pictures for him to sign and a pen that didn't
work. "I've come all the way from Paris," she told him. "Il ne
marche pas," he said, obviously a little annoyed. The man behind her
offered his pen and Mr. O'Toole tiredly signed both their pictures.
Finally it was my turn. I approached him, put out my right hand and he
took it. "I just want to say thank you," I told him. He looked at me a
little bewildered. "I've seen most of your movies, but this is the first
time I've ever seen you live and it was a great joy." My heart was
pounding, my eyes were beaming and he was still holding my hand. Slowly a smile
spread across his face. He let go of my hand and reached out, touching my left
cheek with the back of his fingers. "Thank you." he said.
Suddenly, I remembered the little piece of paper on which I'd written
the address of my homepage about him. I handed it to him and asked him to take a
look at it if he was ever curious. "A homepage," he said, obviously
surprised. I smiled and told him he had now conquered a new medium.
He signed a few more autographs and got into his car. "Good
night," I told him, and I waved as he drove away. He waved back though the
rain-spattered window. As I walked up the alley and crossed the street, I knew
this had been a day I would always remember. I couldn't wait to get back to my
room so I could call my dad and tell him all about it. In my excitement however,
I headed the wrong way up the street and it was a good five minutes before I
realized I didn't know where I was. Luckily, I had my map and soon reoriented
myself toward the Waterloo station. As I trudged back up the wet street and past
the theatre again, I knew it had been a day I would never forget.
© 1999 Reel Classics, LLC