Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Peter O'Toole

As a general rule press photographers shoot the more nouveau, flavor of the month type celebrities. The durable, living legend kind don’t really make news much, and if they do, they don’t have to put up with the local press, so it’s rare to get a one on one.
Coming into work one day, the Examiner assignment editor met me half way to his desk and said that a last minute assignment came in to photograph Peter O’Toole. One of the other photographers standing nearby asked if he was the former police chief. I told her, "Lawrence of Arabia, Lion in Winter, you know, Peter O’Toole." "Oh, THAT Peter O’Toole", she said.
The reason he was doing a press tour was the re-release of Lawrence of Arabia. I didn’t care; I just wanted to shoot him.
The interview and photo shoot was at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco. I went up to the designated room; a large corner suite with good light.
A well-worn publicist answered the door. He looked like he had been chasing a five-year-old around all day. His formerly neat blue oxford shirt now had wrinkles and the beginnings of pit stains. He said only “Examiner?” I told him yes. He said to come on in, the reporter was already there interviewing Mr. O’Toole, and would be right out. He saw the bag of lighting equipment I had with me. If I was going to get a chance to shoot Peter O’Toole; I was going to do it right. He gave me a “Do you know what you are getting into” look. Regrouping, he said, “You should know that Mr. O’Toole does what he wants, goes where he wants, and smokes where he wants”.
I'd never heard a publicist issue this kind of warning. I've heard; "He likes to be shot from the left side", and "Don't shoot her from behind", but this was a different, more prophetic warning. Then I remembered how worn down he looked. Publicists, in this situation are not so much publicists as babysitters. They make sure the publicizee gets to where they have to be at the right time, looking good, and with a basic knowledge of with whom they are speaking. Sometimes they have to do this in several cities across the country, and if the tour starts in New York, it usually ends in San Francisco, and if this is the case, explains why the publicist looked so tired.
There was a high-back wing chair in the living room of the suite, and I thought it had a decidedly British, Peter O’Toole look to it. I started setting up my lights around the chair. I though that if I use my large white umbrella, he will look very stately; add a grid-spotted hair light, and he will retain some Hollywood glamour. I used the ragged publicist as a stand-in and managed to get the light about where I wanted it. I would fine tune on the real subject.
San Francisco had just passed a no smoking ordinance a few months earlier. It prohibited smoking in most public places, bars and restaurants and the like. While we were waiting for him to emerge from the other room, the publicist started to open up about working with Mr. O’Toole. He said that he was a local publicist, not from New York, and that he would be doing this just for today. Since it was barely 2pm, and he looked so tired, I asked if the day had started early. No, he said they had started at about 10am, when he picked Mr. O’Toole up at the airport, and had only left the room for lunch. He then told the story about the airport and the lunch. “Mr. O’Toole does what he wants, goes where he wants and smokes where he wants”. These words came back to me. Apparently, Mr. O’Toole, while walking through the non-smoking airport decided to light up, causing all kinds of attention, both from Airport Police and then adoring fans, some of who wanted to defend his right to smoke, no matter what the cost. Getting to the hotel was another adventure, as anyone or anything that caught his attention from the car window had to be investigated, including interesting street people. The publicist thanked god he didn’t want to actually stop and talk to anyone, just go around the block once or twice and get a good look. Lunch was, once again, a non-smoking nightmare. Eating at the Redwood Room of the Clift Hotel, Mr. O’Toole continuously lit up between courses, causing restaurant management to threaten them with ejection, but finally moving them to a private dining area.
As worn out as the publicist was, this was his first day and we were his first round of interviews.
The door opened before what he had just told me had a chance to sink in. Peter O’Toole walked out, smiling and nodding, holding a loaded cigarette holder and wearing what looked like 1920’s Englishman’s leisurewear; a pink striped shirt, pink tie, pastel blue pants, and a rough linen sport coat, all that was missing was a straw hat. I was a little disappointed, I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe showing up dressed as Arthur Chipping, from Goodbye, Mr. Chips, or Henry II from either Beckett or Lion in Winter. But here he was dressed more Great Gatsby than T.E. Lawrence.
He did seem to have an aristocratic bearing though, acknowledging me, but not making eye contact. He walked by the nicely lit high backed wing chair and acknowledged it too, continuing on to another chair at the head of a conference table at the other end of the room. I asked him if he would mind coming back to the area I had lit for him, and he kind of mumbled something like; “hahyessshumph”, and remained sitting at the head of the conference table. I looked over at the publicist, who had now passed beyond tired and exasperated onto a kind of Nirvana. He didn’t seem tired anymore, he just smiled at me, and gave me a “you handle it, I’m done” look.
It occurred to me to go over and force one of the greatest actors of our time to get up and sit where I wanted him to. After all, I was in my thirties, almost late thirties, I had been a photographer for more than 10 years at the second largest newspaper, in the fourth largest city in the most populous state in the union. I'd even won awards for shooting portraits, for Christ sake.
What had he done? Worked with the likes of Lord Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, and Katherine Hepburn, appeared in dozens of movies, in the theater and on TV over the course of the last 35 years.
I took another look at where he was sitting. He sat just close enough to the window that the light was as soft as what I had been trying carefully to do with my expensive lighting equipment. He sat in such a way that his hips were pointing away from the light, but his shoulders were pointing slightly towards it, causing the light to emphasize his face. The greenish wallpaper contrasted perfectly with the pink leisurewear shirt. And finally, he was reflected in the conference table that I would never have sat him at, giving a placid, yet formal feel to the picture. The photo he had seemingly walked into blindly was much better than anything I could have created. Maybe working with David Lean and some of the world’s greatest directors had rubbed off on him. Maybe he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked past my lighting setup. Maybe he wasn’t a strange man in odd clothing who had worn a publicist
down to a nub in four hours. Maybe he was the genius I had thought he was to begin with. Maybe.


Anonymous said...

The Peter O'Toole pix is a rare beauty. Captures him exactly the way one would think he would like to be seen--regal, elegant, a bit snobbish yet showing a faint vulnerability, and detached from most mortals.

You are an excellent photographer. I am looking forward to seeing more of your work on this site.

Elise Kazanjian

Unknown said...


Two terrific stories. Caught and held my attention all the way through - and I laughed out loud at the Russian phrase. Getting the inside scoop on life in the photo pool is great. With a wee bit of polishing, you have some classic anecdotes here. A sensible editor will jump at it, if one hasn't already.


Unknown said...

"Lawrence of Arabia" is my favorite movie of all time. Pete O'Toole is a genius in my book. Loved the photo and the story.

friend of Nooooman

authenticpretender said...

Oh man... You are an amazing photographer. I can't wait to get home from work so I can look at more.

You captured the very best of Peter O'Toole. It makes me want to go back to smoking. Damn.


Anonymous said...


Ken Newman threatened knee-capping if I didn't provide some input to help you make some editorial decisions. Listen, you don't need nor want my help. Your work is wonderful and I enjoyed reading every article and viewing each image. My favorites: Palin, Eastwood, and O'Toole.

The eventual book will be a smash!

Lory Ratner

Unknown said...

I really enjoyed this! Thanks for the glimpse of a very eccentric man.


Maxology said...