New York Post
November 29, 2009
Sometime after the release of “Lawrence of Arabia,” a newly famous Peter O’Toole collapsed in a drunken heap on the set of the Johnny Carson Show.
The film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, placed the blame for O’Toole’s accumulating indignities squarely on himself. “You make a star,” Spiegel quipped, “you make a monster.” But as the colorful anecdotes collected in this book make clear, some stars are born rather than made.
Born within four years of each other, the book’s four “Hellraisers” are hedonist adventurers whose lives revolve around booze and chasing women.
Their trajectories only intersected occasionally, as in 1963, when Burton and O’Toole starred opposite each other in the historical epic “Becket.” The pair treated the shoot like one long bender. Visiting the set, executives were horrified to see their expensive investments staggering around in medieval costumes, slurring their speech. But the film was nominated for 12 Oscars.
Unlike Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud and the rest of the gentlemen thespians who dominated British stage and screen in the 1930s and ’40s, the Hellraisers were quick-tempered rugby-playing toughs. They did not, in Richard Harris’ words, “want to be the best King Lear or be the new Olivier.” They wanted to be stars.
The oldest and most naturally gifted of the Hellraisers, Burton was their alcohol-soaked warrior king.
Raised in a Welsh village with twelve siblings, Burton’s talent rocketed him past the wildest dreams of his working-class family. When he performed Henry V, critics hailed him as the heir to Olivier, and teenage fans flocked to the theater to hear his beautiful rich baritone.
Whispers of shenanigans, like relieving his beer-filled bladder into his armor on stage, only brought Burton more attention.
When Hollywood called in 1951, he needed to be carried onto the plane for the transatlantic flight.
Wreaking havoc through the movie colony, Burton drank famous tipplers like Humphrey Bogart under the table, smashed sets and broke up nine marriages. He even found time to act, appearing in such stinkers as 1953’s “The Robe,” a melodramatic biblical epic.
O’Toole, the only still living Hellraiser, came closest to realizing his acting talents. His working-class Anglo-Irish upbringing was the antithesis of the commanding presence he exudes on film. As a teenager he boozed in the London gutter with his father, a bookie. His friend Harris lovingly described him as “a poet and a warrior.” As a warrior, he beat up a policeman in a Paris bar. In one of his more poetic moods O’Toole summed up the code of boozy self-delusion by which the Hellraisers lived.
“Never ask what you did,” he said to a friend ruefully. “It’s better not to know.”
Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’ Toole and Oliver Reed
by Robert Sellers