Revisiting Shakespeare's Sonnets With Peter O'Toole

Peter O'Toole announced his retirement from show business on Tuesday. The actor is best known for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia 50 years ago. Melissa Block spoke to O'Toole in 2007 and offers this look back.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

It's time for me to chuck in the sponge. That's how the legendary actor Peter O'Toole began a statement announcing that he's retiring from films and stage at age 79. O'Toole, who famously played Hamlet, King Henry II and Lawrence of Arabia, among dozens of roles, wrote this: It's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.

BLOCK: Well, that news sent me back to an interview I did with Peter O'Toole five years ago. We talked about how he first got into acting in the '50s. He'd been serving in the Royal Navy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PETER O'TOOLE: I served with men who'd been blown up in the Atlantic, who'd seen their friends drinking icy bubbles in oil and being machine gunned in the water. And I mentioned that I wasn't particularly satisfied with what I was doing in civilian life, which was working for a newspaper. And the skipper said to me one night, have you any unanswered calls inside you that you don't understand or can't qualify? I said, well, yes, I do. I quite fancy myself either as a poet or an actor. He said, well, if you don't at least give it a try, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.

BLOCK: And so a career was born. Now, speaking of poetry, the most memorable part of our conversation had to do with Shakespeare; in particular, with Shakespeare's sonnets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

O'TOOLE: I'm afraid I know all 156 of them.

BLOCK: You don't.

O'TOOLE: I do. They're my life companion. They're at the side of my bed. They travel with me. I pick them up, and I read them all the time. I find them endlessly informing, endlessly beautiful, endlessly - they say, they hit the spot so many times on so many things.

BLOCK: Could I ask you to tell us one now?

O'TOOLE: Tell you one? Any one in particular?

BLOCK: Whatever you'd like.

O'TOOLE: Oh, my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. Coral is far more red than her lips red. If snow be white, why then her breasts be done. If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks. And in some perfumes is there more delight than on the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know that music hath a far more pleasing sound. I swear I never saw a goddess go. My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. And yet - anything - but I've forgotten the last couplet.

BLOCK: That's just wonderful to...

O'TOOLE: Just popped into my head.

BLOCK: Well, you did very well. It's...

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: And you're going to remember that last couplet as soon as you leave the studio, I know.

O'TOOLE: And yet I believe my love more fair than any she belied with false compare. There.

BLOCK: Done.

O'TOOLE: Not a very good couplet, is it?

(LAUGHTER)

O'TOOLE: That's probably why I can't remember it.

BLOCK: I love that, Robert. Now, ready for the part of this that really still makes me smile?

SIEGEL: This doesn't make you smile already?

BLOCK: They all make me smile, but I love this part in particular.

SIEGEL: All right.

BLOCK: Are you ready?

SIEGEL: Yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

BLOCK: Well, Peter O'Toole, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.

O'TOOLE: You're Melissa, aren't you?

BLOCK: Yes.

O'TOOLE: All right. Thank you, Melissa.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: I love that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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