The lady’s air of mystery is just a put-on now, but as Mrs. Peter O’Toole she was a well-kept secret for almost two decades. That was before Sian Phillips said goodbye to her Mr. Chips, moved in with a handsome actor 18 years her junior and emerged, splashily, from behind the arras in PBS’ I, Claudius as the Empress Livia. Her fiendish skulduggery has viewers panting between episodes of the classy historical soap even in summer reruns.
“I had to psych myself into it,” says Sian, but director Herbert Wise put her in the mood to play “the personification of evil” with a description of the Walt Disney cartoon character Cruella de Vil. At 46 Phillips’ own pleasures are less Romanesque—plots mean the garden or books. The one exception is, of course, her own domestic drama. “My wife has left me for another man,” O’Toole moaned publicly in 1977. Sian retorts, “It wasn’t that simple.” Indeed, the marriage was strained by Peter’s impromptu absences and legendary boozing. (“Drinking problem? Why no, drinking is the easiest thing in the world,” he once quipped, though lately he has dried out.) As Sian puts it, “I don’t like great drama and exciting times.” She met Robin Sachs, now 28, in a play four years ago and found his personality refreshing—”rather equable and fairly similar to my own.”
The two years they’ve shared her London quarters have been “very happy,” says Sian, but marriage is moot until her divorce comes through. That Robin is closer in age to the O’Tooles’ two daughters doesn’t concern her. “It would have been a great deal more convenient if there wasn’t such an age gap,” she admits. “But Robin couldn’t see what the problem was, and I forgot about it eventually.” Sachs finds it “too mawkish and gauche” to talk about “corny things like being in love—but it’s all true.”
Sian (Welsh for Jane, and pronounced sharn) grew up in a puritanical household in Carmarthenshire (35 miles from Richard Burton’s home). Her first acting was to read the Bible in church at 4. “I loved the audience,” she recalls, and by 10 she was emoting Welsh poetry in pubs and “coping with jolly half-drunk men.” Her parents, both educators, kept urging her on to the University of Wales. Already established in the Welsh national theater, she took honors degrees in English and philosophy, which she found, professionally anyway, “a waste of time.” So was her first marriage, to an academic. “A terrible mistake,” she says. “I got bullied into it.”
London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art was next, as well as some terrific stage notices that led only to marriage to O’Toole in 1959 (they also met in a play). “People thought it a little eccentric for the wife of a superstar to do rep for peanuts,” she notes. She did anyway, between roles in his movies (Goodbye Mr. Chips, Becket). “I felt no pain being subservient,” Phillips adds. “Women always have this problem.”
Not any longer. These days Sian is filming The Clash of the Titans with Lord Olivier, following up on the BBC with Crime and Punishment and doing a London revival of Shaw’s You Never Can Tell. The actress whom theater chums call “Stan” (from typos of her name on telegrams) hankers for a Broadway play. In the meantime she’s settled in an eight-room Victorian town-house near daughter Pat, 16, who lives with Phillips’ mother in O’Toole’s Hampstead home. Their other child, Kate, 19, is in Peter’s cottage in Ireland, while the old man spends time in Mexico with a 24-year-old ex-waitress. This summer he shoots an ABC mini-series, Masada. Sian reads (“the back of sauce bottles if necessary”), writes magazine columns, listens to Vivaldi and practices scales to keep her Bacall-like smoker’s mezzo in training. She also maintains a cautionary attitude about “the completely unpredictable roller coaster” that is her career. They don’t make agents like Empress Livia and, as Sian says, “I’ve been discovered lots of times.”