What Drink Did

On the Great Knights of the Theatre:

Sir J

Whereas EVERYTHING about Ralph Richardson is quaint and adorable and a thing of wonderment, the main attractive quality of John Gielgud’s personality, to me, is his habit of putting his foot in it. It clashes marvellously with his slightly dessicated air of dignity.

John Gielgud went to see a play with a friend. His friend was not taken with the lead actress. “She’s terrible, isn’t she?”

Gielgud whispered back, “Oh, dreadful. Even worse than Margaret Leighton.”

Then he realised that Margaret Leighton was sitting right next to his friend, and could not possibly have failed to hear.

“Oh, I didn’t mean YOU. I meant the OTHER Margaret Leighton.”


Richard Burton went to the theatre to see the play his friend, fellow drunkard Wilfred Lawson, was acting in. Lawson insisted on accompanying Burton to his seat and watching the start of the play with him.

“Shouldn’t you be going backstage and getting ready?” wondered the Burton.

“No, no, plenty of time,” said Lawson, who had had a few ales.

The play wore on. Burton would occasionally nudge Lawson and suggest that maybe he should head for his dressing room, but the older man was unconcerned.

Some time into the play, Lawson gripped Burton’s arm and whispered, “Ah, now, watch here. This is where I come in.”

Sexual Cowboy and friend

When you’re depending on Burton for your reality checks, you know you’re in trouble. Sue Lyon reported that he was unpleasant to be near on NIGHT OF THE IGUANA because he sweated booze. Later he had an operation to remove crystallized alcohol from his spine, which left him with curiously weak arms. On 1984 his arms had to be operated from below by a stagehand. A classically-trained actor reduced to the status of a muppet.

I love drunken actor stories. I don’t know what they’re supposed to prove, but I can consume an unlimited number of them at one sitting. I myself drink only rarely, of course. I remember getting very tipsy at a Film Festival party held in a funfair (Mark Cousins was running the fest and he threw the best parties) and, after a game of long-distance-arm-wrestling with a mime artist (real), I staggered off through scenes that looked, to me, like something out of MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME, and was adopted by a tribe of fire-eaters.

But I think it’s safer and preferable to enter states of altered consciousness by an act of will, and inspiration, and possibly with the aid of some art (music is good). With the aid of a particularly windy Genesis concept album on my Sony Walkman, I was once able to half-convince myself that I WAS GOD which, surprisingly enough, felt quite nice.

10 Responses to “What Drink Did”

  1. While we now live in a world of ruinous proscription drugs, the past is littered with bottles of alcohol. The degree to which people used to drink — and think nothing of it — staggers the mind. Christopher Isherwood’s memoir The Lost Years, recounting his time in America before meeting Don Bachardy, is filled with stories of him and his friends getting blinding drunk, night after night. Jack larson tells me Monty Clift was likewise disposed but was “a happy drunk,” and therefore seens as being quite OK — until the disatrous car crash of 1957 that ruined his life forever.

  2. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, as the saying goes.

    Just as amazing are those who lived long lives, like John Huston, despite indulging in almost every kind of excess. I asked a medical friend about this. “Nobody’s ever proved,” he said wisely, “that smoking and drinking will actually shorten your life, IF they don’t kill you outright. What they probably WILL do is adversely effect your QUALITY of life in old age…”

  3. apintofbeer Says:

    I too love drunken actor stories. I have heard the Burton and Lawson story before only it involved Peter O’Toole in the Lawson role after a lunchtime session at the Coach & Horses with an old friend. I can’t help but think many of todays actors would be so much more fun if they had similar alcohol regimes.

  4. Well, O’Toole is still with us, amazing as it seems.
    Mel Gibson falls off the wagon occasionally, but I’d hesitate to describe the results as “entertaining”.
    My favourite drunken actor stories tend to involve Oliver Reed.

  5. O’Toole was actually set to star in Fellini’s Toby Dammit until he took a closer look at the script and realized it was about him. Terence Stamp stepped into the role and acquitted himself perfectly. (It’s one of Fellini’s very best films.)

  6. Stamp has some funny stories about it. He in turn was supposed to star in BLOW-UP until Antonioni started to feel jealous about Stamp’s relationship with his Mrs.

  7. muriel lherme Says:

    Hello ,
    I am writing a biography of Margaret Leighton” the right” one… and I don’t know the anecdote you tell. Would you mind giving me your source?
    Thank you

  8. Good luck with the book! Sorry, I’m not sure where I heard the story — possibly from a friend, David Wingrove. And I’m not sure where HE heard it from. The source is likely to be a Gielgud book — you could try the most recent biography… Most writing on Gielgud includes some mention of his many memorable faux pas, and that’s a particularly nice one.

  9. […] provide cockney comedy (yes, I know Sid was South African but still…) and then there’s Wilfred Lawson, sporting a form of speech previously unknown to the world, combining RADA, Bradford and malt […]

  10. […] written before of Wilfred Lawson, character actor and celebrated inebriate. One of the few actors who could function quite well with […]

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