A player to the end

The actor Sir Robert Stephens, who died this week, gave his last interview to Georgina Brown. It was, she recalls, an extraordinary performance
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The Independent Culture
It seemed to me to be in bad taste to interview anyone as desperately ill as Robert Stephens. The transplanted kidney and liver, which last year had brought him back miraculously from the brink, had packed up. I suggested that we left it a week or two. "That might be too late," said the publicist, her tone as shockingly frank as Stephens's own in his kiss-and-tell memoirs. She insisted that I would be doing him a favour because he was "frightfully bored and likes distraction". I found myself bossed into it. When I arrived - interrupting his nap - and attempted to bolt, he stopped me. "I'm fine," he smiled. "I like visitors. It's so bloody boring in here." He wasn't fine. He was just an astonishing old pro with a book to sell.

Sir Robert could not have been sweeter or more stoic ("such a fucking nuisance, all this") and could not have put on a more impressive show. Deceiving a willing audience (as well as the four wives and innumerable lovers) was, after all, what he had been doing all his life, and to give that up would have been as unthinkable as giving up his untipped Camels. And yet, if he had felt as awful as he looked, God knows how hellish that must have been. His skin was a phoney teak colour, the slow poisoning that is jaundice; his hair was that so-called mahogany that comes out of a sachet, the silver roots creating an undeserved halo; he couldn't sit up, blaming the bed ("so bloody uncomfortable"), but when he asked if he could lean on me to hobble to the loo, it was clear that he was simply too frail to do more than lie low. Huge head on one side, mouth parched, exquisitely tapered fingers flailing in the dying light, he conjured his lovers, friends, enemies and a life at once giddy, golden and grim. One realised why his illumination of the characters of Falstaff and King Lear, huge men suffering in their decline, had been so truly felt. And all the more so given that every evening he had dragged himself from his bed to go on stage.

It had been a brilliant piece of casting by the RSC's artistic director Adrian Noble. "He was a remarkable talent," reflects Noble. "He could speak poetry as if he were creating it in the instant. He was an outrageous flirt both on and off stage. He brought out the best in his fellow artists, but most of all he could weave a spell round an audience that they would never forget. He made us love life as much as he did. I will remember him as a great raconteur, a great embellisher of the truth, a dedicated smoker, a fearsome drinker, wonderful company for lunch, a wicked silver wit, a great actor and a cat with 10 lives."

When his wife, "my fourth wife, milady Stephens", the actress Pat Quinn, burst into his hospital room, she said he had actually been ill for 11 years and she had only recently stopped him answering the doctor's questions about how he felt with his customary extravagance: "Grand, wonderful, pluperfect." "How are you, darling?" she asked him, as something of a test. "Fine," he lied. "That means he feels like death," she said.

His face lit up like a cliche with her chatter, gossip from Theatreland, the only world he'd ever bothered with and never been bored by. The trouble with real life was that final curtain. "I fight it," he said, and launched into a great list of parts he intended to play yet. Indomitable, outrageous to the last.