HOW WE MET : PETER O'TOOLE AND KENNETH GRIFFITH

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The Independent Culture
Peter O'Toole, 62, was born in Connemara. He was a journalist and member of the submarine service before joining the Bristol Old Vic. His films include Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter and The Last Emperor. He is working on the second volume of his autobiography. He lives in London with his son. Kenneth Griffith, 73, actor and film-maker, was born in Wales. He is known for his unique one- man drama-documentaries on subjects such as Tom Paine, Napoleon and Edmund Kean; his autobiography is entitled The Fool's Pardon. Married three times, he lives alone in Islington. He has five children.

PETER O'TOOLE: In 1957, I woke up. I don't know where I woke up, but I remember having written down on a piece of paper that I had to turn up to rehearsals for a television play about teddy boys. I can recall that I couldn't find all my clothes, so I had to borrow whatever was around in the room and I got myself a kind of ensemble, hardly one in which to present myself to a first rehearsal, but nevertheless I somehow found wherever this bizarre place was where we were rehearsing. I was a minute or two late so I tiptoed gently in, tripped and fell down the stairs. I found myself opposite this chap, Kenneth Griffith, whom I'd seen often in films and whom I really admired. I was delighted that at least he was there and we got on immediately.

He recognised that I was penniless so he provided me with a cupboard to live in in Belgravia, on top of his postage stamps. He collected stamps, probably still does, he collects every bloody thing. People throw junk away and he picks it up - and he picked up this particular piece of junk, me, and fed me and gave me shelter, and we became friends. And that's how we met.

We're very much parts of the same whole: we can be in the same room and be completely alone. We've never fallen out - it would be unthinkable. We're both hopeless in affairs of the heart; he's even worse than I am. His game is sticking women on altars, and, of course, an altar is a very uncomfortable place on which to be.

What Griffith doesn't know about acting you can forget. We both go very much our own way. He calls it being out of step, but I think everybody else is out of step. We'd love to do Lear together, but we doubt if we ever will - who would finance it? Neither of us would be either welcome at or willing to go to any of the subsidised companies. For openers, who wants to live in all that cement?

Griffith very intelligently saw which way the theatre was going - whether through instinct or intuition or whatever, I don't know. Probably a mixture, plus a great deal of cunning because he is a bitter, twisted Welshman. He is so Welsh he will invariably preface anything he says by saying, quite unnecessarily, "I'm Welsh." I mean, what else could he be? So I imagine that that twisted mind worked things out, and, like Dennis Potter, he became very much a man of our time. He saw that television was a very important instrument for drama and realised that he had this beautiful gift as a storyteller, and he decided that he would both write and be all these extraordinary people he has portrayed in his documentaries.

I mean, he's the most popular historian of our day, he writes these beautiful plays about historical events and he plays everything - Baden-Powell, Gandhi, Michael Collins. He's the most extraordinary raconteur - the effect is hypnotic.

He's one of the bravest men I've ever known. Once, he wanted to make a film on the Magi, so he popped into Iran with a television crew literally hours after the Ayatollah had returned. When they found themselves lined up by the revolutionary guards, fellows with dark glasses and Kalashnikovs, and Griffith started giving a speech saying, "Now, listen my ducks, you may think that in Iran you have a moral dilemma, well let me tell you that in Britain, in Britain, the moral dilemma is greater by far." And the crew were saying, oh my God, shut him up, we'll all be shot. They finally did get him out.

His film on the life of Roger Casement earned him a death threat from the UVF. But it's not a question of Ireland or Iran, Griffith's a moral philosopher, a shape-changer, he's in Merlin's lot, a bit of a Magus himself. He hasn't mellowed with the years, he's got more spiky.

I haven't read his autobiography, he hasn't given me a copy - he's too mean. I gave him a copy of volume one of mine. Volume two will be finished as soon as he lets me off the hook - I should be writing it now instead of doing this interview. We have very different working methods. Mine is a highly disciplined, ordinary way of approaching anything. He has a licence to be a dilettante - before he puts four words down on paper he has to go to Goa, or somewhere, under the sun, in a dhoti.

Above all, I'd describe him as the staunchest of friends. For Griffith the word "love" is a verb - or it's nothing.

KENNETH GRIFFITH: I remember the details very vividly. I was doing a television play about a gang of teddy boys. I was the leader, but by the third day of rehearsals I only had eight of my gang of nine and I said to the director: "Where's this other chap, then?" (I have to emphasise that I take my work very seriously and when I'm working no one dares drop a book or a newspaper - or they'll get a bit of lip from me.) The swing doors suddenly opened, and there was what appeared to be a tall young tramp. He looked down at us and said, "Sorry I'm late, darlings." Now remember, he was a small part player, and there is a certain hierarchy in the theatre and you don't get out of line. Then his eyes fixed on me, he came thundering down the stairs, picked me up, kissed me (we'd never met) said: "I think you're bloody marvellous," put me down, and retreated to a corner - where, unlike the other young actors, who went off to gossip or play pinball, he sat with his long legs draped over a chair, his eyes never leaving me. He had one little scene with me and I suggested we run it. Bang! He gave a performance which was devastating. I knew immediately that this was the most formidable competition I'd ever come across.

I felt as if I had just met the young Edmund Kean. I had no doubt whatsoever. It wasn't only his acting ability, because acting ability and who you are are indivisible. It is very ignorant of people who admire an actor and complain about his private behaviour, because they are not divisible. Whatever drives them to interest and excite people while performing is what they are. Of course, now he is the most solid teetotaller, but in those days he was a very wild young man, although in 30 years he has never said one word, drunk or sober, out of place to me.

He's so much larger than life in every possible way. We once went on a grand tour of Italy. We found ourselves in a hotel on Lake Como. O'Toole had some news which distressed him and he dashed out into the night and leapt on to a wall overhanging the lake. "Griffith!" he said, "It's got to end!" and into the waters he went - feet first. "My God, I can't swim!" flashed through my brain. At that moment, Lawrence of Arabia, The Ruling Class, The Lion in Winter, My Favourite Year, to mention only a handful, were in mortal jeopardy. However, fate is fate, and at that particular point - unknown to either of us - Lake Como is only 2ft deep.

When he and Sian Phillips announced they were going to be married, I collared Sian and said, "You can't marry him, he's not like the rest of us. He's not normal." They remained wonderfully married for 20 years. While I went through a succession of divorces, they were solid.

I was once on the Parkinson show and the first question he asked was: "Why aren't you a star?" I spent my entire 20 minutes telling him a story about O'Toole, how he became a star, because it isn't entirely up to being a great actor, it's how you handle those bastards. On O'Toole's very first day on a feature film, the film company rang to say: "Where is Mr O'Toole?" I told a lie. I said, this is a very large house, I'll see if I can find him - and I popped my head round his door. He was fast asleep, and I said, "O'Toole, you are 45 minutes late," and he said, "Has my car come? No? No car, no me." And he went back to sleep. From that day to this, there has been a Rolls waiting for him. As I said to Parkinson, that's why I'm not a star. I'd have been there on the dot.

Now he has a son around whom his whole life revolves, so he is extremely responsible, and - dare I sail close to the wind and say? - respectable. But what he still has, as he always did, is devastating honesty. I do believe that that is what all great acting is about: how to tell the truth, effectively.

The tendency for journalists is to paint the entertaining vices, but he has had an enormous influence on me for good. Whatever he's doing, he's so sharply focused that I sometimes feel relatively inadequate. In his total dedication to his son - there I would be very conscious about my own inadequacies as a father. It's very interesting that an introspective Welsh puritan can be so close to this enormous Irish Catholic. For me he is a human broadcasting revolution. In every way he has been a light in my life. !

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