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A Rumbling, Tumbling Riot of Words : LOITERING WITH INTENT: By Peter O'Toole (Hyperion Books: $21.95; 198 pp.)

April 18, 1993|Charles Champlin | Champlin is Times Arts Editor emeritus

"Eight months on a camel with only a Dunlopillo," Peter O'Toole was saying with a groan, the Dunlopillo being a kind of shrunken inner tube to cushion ailing posteriors. This was 1962, "Lawrence of Arabia" was just finished and O'Toole, lounging after noontime closing hours in his neighborhood pub in London, would be on his way to a country spa in the morning for a series of high colonics he prayed would unwind his knotted innards. "Next week," he said with a further groan, "it's all got to get organized."

But even in 1962, a visitor could suspect it never would get organized; it was too much fun the way it was. The legend was just beginning: O'Toole the flamboyant, extravagant, wonderfully talented, blue-eyed, fair-haired lad with the Irish gift of gab, who was also self-destructive to a point just short of self-destruction. His "Hamlet," the most swashbuckling ever, would later inaugurate the National Theatre with a grandly untraditional flair.

And now O'Toole has commenced an autobiography. It is, to no one's great surprise, a cascade of language, a rumbling, tumbling riot of words, a pub soliloquy to an invisible but imaginable audience, and the more captivating for it.

"So, come with me now to ramble up and down these steep familiar stairs, to wander and to muse in and out of all the rooms, to truffle and to shuffle through the drawers and the cupboards, to give a glower and a gaze at the pictures on the wall," he begins, and the lilt in the voice leaps off the page.

Along with the Gaelic-flavored banter, the voice of Damon Runyon and the race track is also to be heard. His bookmaker father's mates included the likes of Jack Jack the Levantine, The Fancy, Blue and Big Duggy and Zulu. A wondrous company, even if eventually the old man is skint and times are chancy.

O'Toole vividly recreates a moment from earlier, better days: a wee lad riding on his father's shoulders, en route to the milk bar for a shake and thence to the pictures, where "(m)usic bombasted mightily out, a huge cockerel ecstatically crowed, a grand camera spun whirlingly about, time marched to drums and trumpets." Alas for the world, and for the book, Mussolini and Hitler are in the newsreels--jeering boos for Benito, a more fearful kind of hissing for Adolf.

The war is at hand; young Peter and sister Patricia are, with the tens of thousands of others, evacuated to the country to stay with foster families. The Steeples were quite nice, not always the luck of the evacuees, and Sherwood Forest was not far off, to inflame the lad's imagination.

At length, although in mid-book almost as an out-of-turn insert, O'Toole and a pal go off to London to seek their fortunes and, by a sequence of events that a scriptwriter might reject as improbable, he is auditioning for a place at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA). This is wonderful stuff: the RADAns briskly and amusingly sketched, the confrontations suspenseful, the experience suggesting that kindness as well as good fortune are to be found in life as well as in fiction.

But the career, the years in provincial rep when, as O'Toole remembers later, he should have been knighted for service to crepe hair, for playing so many old men--all that will come in successor volumes. And not a moment too soon, because O'Toole as author (or, as it reads, as dictator) is never less than engaging and often enchanting in his barefoot romp through language and memory.

Yet, for reasons that might have been challenged by an editor, O'Toole cannot leave the fascination with Hitler that was first experienced at the newsreel theater after a milkshake with dad. He has obviously researched Hitler's life and career from birth forward, and presents it in great, slangy gobs; but there's little we don't already know. This material occupies too much of a volume slim enough to begin with at 198 pages, leaving us to guess what additional things O'Toole might have had to say about himself.

It is the more tantalizing because O'Toole as raconteur is grand company, celebrating his (one suspects) long-suffering mother, capturing the brutalities of rugby football and the horrors of his service in the Royal Navy, and remembering the dreams and fantasies of childhood. He refers to his former wife, actress Sian Phillips, as "my widow." The book is dedicated to his son Patrick, who was born, to O'Toole's immense satisfaction, on St. Patrick's Day.

In the end, for all the earnestness of the Hitler material, the heart stays on the sleeve and the charm at the surface, as if the story-teller were afraid anything darker might lose his audience.

As it is, "Loitering With Intent" joins a small shelf of notably idiosyncratic--that is, definitely not ghost-written--show-business autobiographies: Alec Guinness, Dirk Bogarde, Frank Capra come to mind. The next volume will be awaited with what could be called mixed anticipations: eager if cautious enthusiasm and the hope of a little deeper digging.

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