Here’s my Peter O’Toole story

Peter O’Toole died today at age 81.

I was lucky to have a chance to hang out for a bit with O’Toole back in 2004 when he was honored by the SCAD-sponsored Savannah Film Festival.

The film festival was remarkable that year. Besides O’Toole, guests included Kathleen Turner, Roger Ebert, Norman Jewison, and Jason Patric.

In agreeing to come to the festival, O’Toole insisted on an evening screening of a film of Keith Waterhouse’s stage play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, which told the story of the famed English journalist and columnist. (I’ll embed the entire film below.)

In a Q&A after the Wednesday night screening, O’Toole “told the audience that the most important talent for an actor is ‘unobserved, uninhibited, private study.'”

I’m quoting my own piece wrapping up the festival: That’s A Wrap: ‘Finding Neverland’ Brings Film Festival to a Fitting Conclusion. By the way, in looking over that piece tonight, I’m struck by how much more energy the social scene around the festival used to have and also by the uncomfortable realization that I’m probably not any better of a writer now than I was a decade ago . . .

Anyway, I also had this to say about O’Toole:

The attendant local gossip was fun – O’Toole and Patric hanging out until 2 a.m. on Wednesday night at Venus De Milo, Roger Ebert and his wife eating at The Lady & Sons, Kathleen Turner chatting graciously with fans on Broughton Street.

And there was some bigger gossip too. A reporter from New York quoted Peter O’Toole calling “Troy” director Wolfgang Petersen a “kraut.” The ensuing mini-controversy splashed across the Internet and gossip columns for a couple of days. And everything mentioned Savannah.

The official party on that night was held at Gottlieb’s on Broughton Street. Publicist Bobby Zarem, the man largely responsible for the festival’s successes, ushered me into the semi-private area where I had a chance to talk to O’Toole for a number of minutes. He was in a grand mood and was fascinated by the fact that I was both a journalist and a college instructor. He talked so much about the importance of those things that I could barely get in a word before other acolytes warranted his attention.

Back in those days, the filmfest after-party was just the beginning of the night. Sure, there are some late nights these days at the festival, but they just don’t have the same zing. The after-after-party that night was at Venus de Milo, the narrow, hip, wildly popular bar on MLK between Congress and Broughton. Jason Patric and O’Toole were ensconced in a corner on the second floor overlooking MLK, but O’Toole (who seemed, to be honest, pretty drunk by this time) was frustrated that it was taking so long to get a drink. I knew that Bobby Zarem’s colleague Bill Augustin had already gone to the downstairs bar, but the crowd prevented any sort of fast service.

And then O’Toole grabbed my eye and waved me over. “You seem like someone who can get things done,” he said to me. “I need a glass of wine.” That’s what I remember him saying, but surely he specified red or white? Or a brand?

I told him I would take care of it and headed for the steps. At just that moment, Bill came up the steps with as many drinks as he could carry. I took the glass of wine and handed it immediately to a delighted Peter O’Toole. Yes, his eyes lit up in person just like they did on screen.

a public domain photo of Roger Ebert, Peter O'Toole, and Jason Patric in Savannah in 2004

a public domain photo of Roger Ebert, Peter O’Toole, and Jason Patric in Savannah in 2004