Sooner or later the children of distinguished parents discover the burden of bearing a famous name. For Kate O’Toole, that lesson came sooner. The daughter of celebrated actors Peter O’Toole and Sian Phillips, Kate knew even as a London schoolgirl that she was not ordinary: “We had kidnap threats and stupid phone calls, so I’d be escorted to school, which was just a block away. I’d walk in accompanied by this chauffeur in uniform, and the kids would point and jeer.”
She is 25 now and in New York, a budding actress who has just completed her first professional stage success in an off-Broadway revival of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. But Kate still feels beholden. “So many people are going to accuse you of trading on your parents’ names,” she says. Still, she will always be linked to a father whom many equate with Lawrence of Arabia and a mother who wowed TV audiences as the malevolent Roman empress in the PBS series I, Claudius. “There is no way that people aren’t going to draw comparisons,” she says. “I have to accept that.”
Kate, however, has had practice in sorting out her life. Even the Georgian house in London where she grew up was divided into domains: “My grandmother had the basement; my parents occupied the next couple of levels—they had separate living rooms and baths. On top my sister [Pat, three years Kate’s junior] and I had this self-contained flat.” A governess took care of the sisters, who saw their parents only as their schedules permitted. Says Kate, “I became very independent.”
Oh, but at home there were also those grandly uninhibjted parties. “Actors and artists tend not to talk down to children,” Kate says, “so my sister and I had madly sophisticated vocabularies; we could discuss Molière without knowing what we were saying.” On mornings after she remembers tiptoeing around drunken bodies strewn on the stairs. “Richard Burton came around a couple of times and got very merry,” says Kate. “And my father used to drink like a maniac.”
She detested schools, in particular the very stuffy North London Collegiate School. At 17, she put in a desultory year in Dublin studying art history. Though Kate vowed she would never become an actress (“Quite right, terrible business,” the parents agreed), in the end she found that the most natural path. In 1982, after her father worked with Yale student Jodie Foster in the CBS TV movie Svengali, he suggested Kate try New Haven. At Yale she immersed herself in dramatics. “I suddenly found myself miles from anybody I knew,” she says, and the anonymity suited her. Next she took acting classes in San Francisco and at Manhattan’s Circle in the Square Theatre school.
Kate’s parents divorced in 1979 (Sian married actor Robin Sachs; Peter has had a son by model Karen Brown). Since then, she remains close to her mother, but her father, it seems, has grown increasingly distant. Because of their busy schedules neither parent has seen Kate onstage. “I’m looking forward to when they will,” says Kate, “but who knows when that will be.” Meanwhile Kate has set up housekeeping in a Manhattan loft with actor Tony Spiridakis (he played the baseball catcher in NBC’s Bay City Blues). And she’s trying to shed her English accent to broaden her future role possibilities. “I could always get work here as some sort of British peculiarity,” she says, “but no, I don’t want to trade on that either.”