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The vagabond king

The women he's slept with, the men he despises, the plays he derides: Robert Stephens has some stories to tell, and being laid up in a hospital bed is not going to stop him telling them. By Georgina Brown
Robert Stephens rolls over, smiles sweetly and whispers that he's fine. But he's not. For a start, I've just had to prod him awake. And he's stuck in a renal transplant unit for an indefinite period. The publicist for his memoirs had insisted that he was desperately keen to be interviewed, but it would have to be in hospital. "Can't we wait until he gets out?" I ventured. "No," she replied, "it might be too late. Besides, it's a distraction for him. He's frightfully bored."

Bored or past caring or merely an astonishing pro, determined to shift a few copies of his autobiography? Surely nothing else, beyond a perverse exhibitionism, can explain his willingness to talk to a total stranger while lying supine in hospital-issue pyjamas - it's a pretty pathetic spectacle. Defined by the pillow, his huge head looks bigger, more leonine than ever, partly because of its uniform shade of brown, that phoney tan that severe jaundice produces, partly because it's framed by a thick mane of dyed mahogany hair that stands punkishly on end, revealing a silver halo at the roots. Like a line of picture consequences, the bulky undistinguished head doesn't match the aristocratic, elegant tapered fingers which flutter feebly at the sheets. His furry tummy spills out of his pyjamas and his spindly arms poke out a couple of feet beyond his cuff. There are toes missing from his hideously bunioned feet (feet that just 18 months ago were carrying him through four hours of King Lear). He has a shocking crunchy cough. Neither the role nor the costume of the patient suit him (no wonder he was never cast as Volpone), but the stoicism with which he imbues this part deserves a standing ovation.

Few people would find hospital a greater deprivation than Stephens. "I can't bear being on my own," he says. Gossip, which is the very breath of life to him, is in very short supply. "I don't get as much as I'd like, but there's not much out there these days. My dear, everyone's dying, that's the terrible thing - Jeremy Brett, John Osborne, John Dexter. Maggie [Smith] called Bill Gaskill the other day and he said: "You've only called to find out if I'm still alive." Forbidden as it is, he still smokes the odd crafty untipped Camel - or had been until yesterday. "They've purloined my lighter," he laments. Last year his alcohol quota was drastically reduced to half a glass of champagne. These days, not so much as a sip passes his lips.

He's been marooned here for some weeks now, he's not sure precisely how long - though he's been suffering the consequences of a life of hard-living and heavy drinking off and on for a decade or more. The transplanted kidney which last year granted him a brief reprieve (long enough to enjoy the "proudest day of my life" when he received his knighthood) has packed up, though the liver, another transplant, seems to be responding to new drugs. He has been told that the kidney can't be replaced again and alternative plans will be revealed in a day or two. In the meantime it's tests, tests, tests. Mostly, one imagines, upon his own powers of endurance.

"It's such a fucking nuisance," he understates dazzlingly, and for a moment the thickening gloom of a London dusk seems to come from within. The possibility of not getting better does, he admits, occasionally flash through his mind. "I fight it off," he says. To my astonishment his positive attitude extends to imagining which parts he'll play next. "I'd like to do Malvolio and Shylock - they're not as taxing as Lear - one crack at that is enough. I'd like to do Falstaff again, such an extraordinary part, so comic, so light." (And yet so dark, so sharply political and cleverly ingratiating in his brilliant performance a couple of years ago.)

But then, judging from the robust, jaunty tone of his memoirs, self-pity has always been anathema to Stephens. His mother's revelation that she tried to abort him with a crochet hook shook him but not so hard that he couldn't shrug it off with a "Thanks a lot. Nothing like being made to feel welcome." His childhood had been poverty-stricken, pleasureless, loveless, violent. Cowed by his mother, terrified of his father, separated by some 10 years from his siblings, he learnt early to steel himself against unhappiness. Nevertheless, he believes that it was the downright dreariness that drove him into acting. "Acting for me was always a total escape."

It began with the youth drama group where, aged 16, he discovered "the lethal cocktail of theatre and sex and it seemed like a very good idea indeed. In my life sex and theatre were always bound up together. It's the way it is, but not for everybody. You're thrown in close contact with people very quickly and it's hard to deal with. I just love the company of women as opposed to men who get on my nerves a bit."

Even horizontal and sick, he's an incorrigible old flirt, looking me over with a practised eye and mumbling something about "the toute ensemble, very nice". (Perhaps the flirting faculty is the last to atrophy.) Stephens was never a looker, never the devastatingly handsome leading man, but he has always been an terrific charmer and an incurable romantic. It seems he only had to look at a woman and he was in love and she was seduced. He never merely fancied someone, it was always love, be it just for that one afternoon. "An actor's life is hedged around with what I choose to call romances," he says. And if it proves more than a romance, he marries it. In January this year, following a romance of 20 years, he married the actress Patricia Quinn.

His first marriage, a shotgun wedding to Nora, whom he met at drama school in Bradford, lasted until their son was bornand she returned to Ireland. "It was a mistake," he says. "I'd just bumbled along in my usual, amiable manner. I had no plans to be a good husband, or a good father." At the time, all Stephens wanted was to be a good actor and at that task alone he was prepared to work as hard as he must. "I'm a capricious person," he says. "I don't see anything wrong with that. But I've never been capricious about my work."

His not-so-private life may render him a stereotypically rakish, reckless, pissed and garrulous thesp but, as Irving Wardle once wrote, line up his performances and you find a massacre of stereotypes. The English Stage Company spotted his talent and his first big hit was the lead in John Osborne's Epitaph for George Dillon in 1958. Kenneth Tynan's notice ran: "One could not wish for a better George than Robert Stephens, one of the 'red brick' actors [ie not a RADA man], neither actorish in aspect nor conventionally po-voiced. This is the cleverest portrait I have seen of a certain kind of neurotic artist." Irving Wardle noted that Osborne's play "had aligned the truth of stage acting with the falseness of our performances in everyday life. And he found a devastating ally in Stephens, who knew about cringing, knew about treacherous secret thoughts, and looked so ordinary that when his apologetic mumble gave way to that raspingly derisive voice, he spoke for the buried lives of all the nondescript people out front".

By now, Stephens lived in Chelsea with his second wife, the actress Tarn Bassett, "who was and is the sweetest, loveliest person in the world". They had a baby daughter and he was very happy as long as he could enjoy an endless whirl of "romances" with Tammy Grimes, Margaret Leighton and anyone else he could squeeze in (except for Marlene Dietrich, who frightened him too much, and Vivien Leigh, whom he adored, but "at that time she wouldn't have had an affair with Jesus Christ"). Professionally he was doing extremely well, working at Olivier's National Theatre, developing a thrilling acting partnership with Maggie Smith - who eventually became his third wife and with whom he had two more sons. From the start Stephens idolised Olivier. "He was my role model, I suppose. A wonderful man. But he was a mystery. I loved him but never knew him at all, except that he was impossibly jealous. If you cleaned the windows better than he did he was jealous. I never understood what went wrong between us. I think he was paranoid, I never wanted his job or anything like that. Apart from anything else, I couldn't have done it."

You believe Stephens because a face so guileless would seem incapable of anything short of total emotional honesty. What you get is what there is, off-stage and on. Again it is Wardle who puts his finger on this quality in his description of Stephens's best performances in The Recruiting Officer, in Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen and as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing - in which he demonstrated "a genius for confession, for playing without a mask. There are actors, among whom Stephens is supreme, who express their power by giving everything away. Every action takes you by surprise; every action lets you see to the roots of the character."

In other compartments of his life, however, honesty has often been the worst policy. It was his confession - albeit forced - of his many affairs that finally destroyed his marriage to Maggie Smith (she ran out of the room and vomitted). Doubtless she will be less than thrilled to find the revelation in his book of her diet of uppers and alcohol, how she chewed the Caprice's finest food and spat it out rather than swallow it, how she snapped at him constantly and became, in his opinion, intolerable to live with. Lady Antonia Fraser ("the bubble in the squelch and squeak of daily life,') must have hoped that most people had forgotten the less than devout period of her life pre-Pinter. His one-night stand with Vanessa Redgrave made it to the gossip columns at the time, but that was more than 20 years ago and she probably didn't need reminding of it. But it's the ordinary people who might suffer most - his secretary, the dentist's receptionist, the make-up girl... "Oh, she went back to Bristol to be head of make-up there, but her marriage was on the rocks. She wasn't doing anything she'd regret," says Stephens. "Regret's never worth it. If you're going to regret it, don't do it, it's foolish. The only point of doing my autobiography is to tell the truth. I don't think anyone will be upset by it. Maggie says she never reads anything about herself so she won't know."

His iconoclasm, irreverence and total absence of sentimentality are, on the other hand, wonderfully refreshing. In his memoirs he cheerfully dismisses plays (Ibsen's The Lady From the Sea is "the most awful claptrap"), and characters (Pastor Manders in Ibsen's Ghosts is "the most boring part in the world"). He merrily slags off other actors: Hugh Grant and Anthony Hopkins are accused of giving "a one-flick trick, always the same. It's not acting." Every time he mentions the director Tony Richardson a tide of venom seethes out. "He was a monster, so devious you could see it coming out of him," he adds, his lips curling in remembered disgust and his eyes glinting with loathing. "He was always up to something, always after something. He couldn't give a shit about anybody in the world. He couldn't direct either." Most surprisingly, he rails against almost everything about the RSC in Stratford, the poor pay, the parochialism, being "stuck with 'actaws', who are for the greater part frustrated by somebody or something. It's so boring." In his book, he writes: "You don't have anybody who knows anything about acting at all, apart from Adrian Noble himself, who is an immensely patient and considerate director, though not in the genius class. You could not begin to compare any of them with Tony Guthrie, Olivier, Gielgud, Dexter, Ingmar Bergman or Gaskill. I can't explain it, because I don't know where the magic comes from. It is something to do with imagination, tenacity, bullying, examination of how best to help an actor. A good director works 10 times as hard as anyone else on the production, and you hardly meet anyone like that these days at the RSC or, to my mind, at the National Theatre." In spite of the fact that Adrian Noble cast him as Falstaff and Lear and re-established him as a heroic actor at the peak of his interpretive powers, he can't forgive our big theatrical institutions for having none of the glamour of the National under Olivier's reign.

But the most extraordinary and striking aspect of his memoirs is that it reveals a life entirely immured from the world outside the theatre. In the course of 200 pages Stephens doesn't mention a book, a political event or, with the single exception of "Oh, oh Antonia!", any person not directly connected with the theatre. The ordinary obscure lives of nobodies, normal families, he knew nothing of. His hospital room is similarly bereft. There's not so much as a magazine, nothing but an invitation to a reading of The Ballad of Reading Gaol which Stephens won't be well enough to perform. While Stephens's brilliance stems from a most astonishingly ability to plug into the raw experience of a role, paradoxically, he seems capable of treating real life as a performance from which he can easily detach himself and for which he feels no responsibility. It perhaps explains why, for example, he claims to feel no guilt at his absence from his children's upbringings ("I was always working, I would have been a lousy father"), and why he can skim over his suicide attempt (a bottle of whisky and a pile of pills following a terrible crisis of confidence when he was shooting Sherlock Holmes with Billy Wilder), and his later breakdown (the failure of his marriage to Maggie Smith made him desperately depressed) without a moment's self-analysis.

"For me there is no life outside the theatre," he says. "Never has been. Somehow I avoided it. For a lot of my life I had no time for it, it was just theatre, theatre, theatre. I was never bored of it. It's a very rare thing and probably not good. One should have some golfing friends. I never did."

Nurse comes in to attach him to some serious-looking monitors and suddenly a flock of eight doctors swoop into the room. As they leave, milady Stephens bursts in, bearing a new lighter and a steak-and-kidney pie and Sir Robert lights up, attempts to drop the ash into his cup of water but flicks it all over the sheets. Not his best performance, perhaps, but under the circumstances, a triumph.

'Knight Errant, Memoirs of a Vagabond Actor', Hodder and Stoughton, pounds 18.99