It is odd, given my predilection for men with blue eyes, that I developed my giant crush on him watching black and white telly. I remember him in the series Rogue Male when I was little and really, really, rooting for him. And I was bewitched by him when Lawrence of Arabia was first shown on TV. It wasn't just his beauty, it was the nervous, dangerous energy that dripped off the screen whenever he was on it. He was thrillingly alive, even when his roles were poor and his performance overblown. To me, he is the opposite of Robert Redford, whose youthful beauty was so static and lifeless it atrophied, grotesquely, in early middle age. And he is different from the equally beautiful Paul Newman, who holds his power in reserve, and uses it in performance, in precise doses. Redford is completely devoid of that magic energy, Newman is completely in control of it, and O'Toole leaked it as casually, as pungently, as sweat.
I met his first wife, Sian Phillips, when I lived in Wales. I had a friend who was close to her, and knew her throughout her marriage to him. There is a large body of Welsh luvvies who are convinced that she could have been the female Richard Burton - in terms of celebrity and wealth - if she had wanted to, and if she hadn't played second fiddle to O'Toole. In person, she has phenomenal presence, but it's glacial, inscrutable, with sudden flashes of vivid, sensual fire. I was too young and self-absorbed when I met her to know what to make of her; to discern whether she wasn't aware of quite how compelling she was or simply chose not to trade explicitly upon her beauty. Perhaps it simply went too far under the radar of those who could have made her famous. Female beauty and charisma are so essentially performative that when they are not actively displayed, they go unremarked, even in an actress. I'm thinking now of the story about Marilyn Monroe, at the start of her fame, walking down the street with an old friend, quietly being Norma Jean and saying 'Shall I be her, now? Shall I be Marilyn?' and turning up the wattage and affecting the wiggle and slipping into that role. Possibly the only men whose masculine charisma was so forcible assumed were those in the same sorry position as Rock Hudson.
I met Peter O' Toole once, in Cardiff. 'Met' is something of an exaggeration. He was in Wales filming Rebecca's Daughters and we had both just got off the London train. I discovered him standing behind me in the taxi queue outside the station. I turned round and there he was, swaying slightly like a poplar in his Crombie(?) coat, lazily emitting a force field of thrilling magnetism, with those eyes boyishly sparkling over a yawn like a ancient lion's. I couldn't speak but I kept opening and shutting my mouth and some syllables must have fallen out. 'How do you do?', he said, and he took my hand and shook it. My lucky, lucky hand. And then he said - projected - as if I were hard of hearing or foreign - 'I'm Peter O'Toole. I'm in Wales making a film called Rebecca's Daughters'. He said ' in Wales' as if he couldn't quite believe it himself. Then he swept past me, into my taxi, and disappeared, leaving only a faint odour of cologne, wet dog and magnificence behind him. Even old, and way past his heyday, he had that quality - in spades - that all stratospherically sexy people have, that renders one unable to take them in one, or a dozen, or a hundred glances. You just have to keep on looking, and wanting. That's why they are so compelling on the screen, because the camera is never sated.
I can't think of any 21st century men who are nearly as exciting as him. My female friends all seem to have the hots for David Tennant or Benzedrine Crumpetsnatch. Perhaps I am just old, but Tennant just seems too eager and twitchy and side-kickable to be a sex symbol. Besides looking a spaniel carved out of scone dough, Cumberbatch always seems a bit dreary. If you snogged him he'd probably taste of bile disguised with toothpaste, not fags and whisky and wickedness. The internet as I know it creamed its collective jeans over him when he held up a hand-written sign telling the paparazzi to stop taking pictures of him, and go and take some in Syria. That seemed to me, at best, the self-important posturing of a sixth-former and, at worst, as pompous as a man who pays to get into Spearmint Rhino and them berates his lap dancer for not performing Swan Lake. Tool, not O'Toole.