Years ago, when I was still learning how to do comedy, there were times when my big closing bit would not quite get the response that I’d hoped it would. That is to say, I would conclude my set with (what I considered to be) my best, most hilarious piece of material, and, more often than I found comfortable, be met with a breezy, airy, dead silence. Occasionally this wall of non-sound would be breached by a forced, dry chuckle from some dear soul in the darkness who just couldn’t bear to see an animal suffer.
The ejector seat I’d employ to punch out of this profoundly mortifying situation was an impression of legendary actor Peter O’Toole reciting “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” (known in some circles as “The Inky-Dinky Spider;” I feel this regionalism lacks elegance). The recitation started off with a crisp, clear reporting of the spider’s ascent up the water spout, segued into a world-weary recounting of the deluge that led to the spider’s return to Earth, then abruptly shifted into a messianic eruption celebrating the promise of the dawn of a new day. It concluded with a wry aside that hinted at the prospect of the cycle beginning anew.
In 1993, Peter O’Toole was not exactly unavoidable on movie screens. I mean, he was still working, to be sure, but this was hardly an era of pop culture prominence for him. So my bit wasn’t what one might call “timely.” It didn’t even sound much like Peter O’Toole, truly, except for the yelling part. So it’s not as if this bit were a home run on the heels of the whiff that was my standard closer. The only reason I ever pulled out this impression was because the accent and the yelling made it seem as if something was going on, even though no one was laughing, and at the end I could say “Thank you,” and draw out a Pavlovian “ta-da” applause from the audience. It worked every time; I tricked myself into thinking I’d gotten off stage with some sense of dignity intact.
That year, Peter O’Toole released the first of a promised three autobiographies. I had always loved the stories he’d tell on talk shows, of his debauched days with Richards Burton and Harris; he was a raconteur par excellence, and I couldn’t wait to experience him in print. I bought the book as soon as it came out, devouring it immediately. No sooner had I put the book down than I read that Peter O’Toole was coming to Philadelphia WHERE I LIVED to do a signing at the Borders Books in Center City. On the appointed day, I got to Borders early and was among the first dozen people in line. After we’d all been there for about a half hour, The Man Himself walked in. I see him now as clearly as I saw him then: tastefully tall, aristocratically thin, sumptuously lined face, navy suit, cream vest, light blue shirt, gold tie (of course I remember the clothes, the clothes, the clothes). Just watching him walk to the table they’d set up for him was thrilling. He was unlike any creature I’d ever seen. He seemingly stepped directly from a movie screen, Purple Rose of Cairo-style, and into that Borders. He was unreal. He was mythological. He was not merely an actor. He was a movie star.
He sat and began signing. No reading. I didn’t care. I was a pilgrim in The Presence. The line inched forward slowly, ever so slowly. I was getting closer! But then, after only ten or so people had gotten their books signed, a Borders functionary told the rest of us waiting in line, “He’s getting kind of tired, so he’s not going to be able to personalize any more of the books. Signatures only.”
I felt sick. I wanted him to personalize my book. I had a plan. I wanted—I needed him to quote and to dedicate, to me, that part of “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider” where I, attempting to sound like him, would yell at the top of my lungs (“UP COMES THE SUN, AND DRIES UP AAAAALL THE RAIN!”). This had to happen. Failure was not an option. I thought to myself, “I better come up with a bullshit story fast.”
Another ten minutes passed and I found myself in front of him. I have never been, to this day, that nervous. Voice quavering, I began:
“Mr. O’Toole, I’m a huge fan of yours, and so was my father. He passed away this year [my father would not pass away for another twenty years], but when we were kids, he’d do this impression of you [my father barely spoke in his own voice, much less said anything in anyone else’s]‘The Itsy Bitsy Spider’ that always made us laugh [though had this ever actually happened, I bet I would have laughed].”
Peter O’Toole smiled. He turned his blue, movie-star, otherworldly eyes on me. Gently, serenely, graciously, he replied: “Really!”
I stammered ahead. “It would mean a lot to me if you could sign my book, and address it to me, and quote the ‘up-comes-the-sun-and-dries-up-all-the-rain’ part.” I was pushing it but this was the time to push it!
Peter O’Toole readied his pen and eyed the title page before him. “I’ll just write ‘Up comes the sun,’” he murmured politely, definitively.
And then he did.
Peter O’Toole announced his retirement last month. I was sorry to hear it, not just because I would like to see him work forever, to see what the man could do with his magnificent skills ten years from now, or, yes, even twenty (“Hear me, God”), but also for a reason even more selfish than that already horribly selfish reason. Because although I have made my dream of a show business career come true, inside my dream there has nested a little dreamlet, not one I’ve had much occasion to confide to people, just a little thing I’ve held inside me. That one day I’d work, if only for the duration of a single line of dialogue, with my favorite actor of all time. But at least I got to meet him. At least I got to meet this great artist who brought me so many moments of joy and wonder and inspiration. However brief our exchange was, it meant the world to me. I got to meet Peter O’Toole.
And lie to his face.