June 29, 1987 12:00 PM

The entrance is predictably late, that of a sovereign heedless of his court. “Mr. O’Toole is just finishing a letter. He’ll be right with you,” flutters an aide. Twenty minutes go by, then 25. Finally a gaunt, towering Irishman pushes open the living room door. The face is wan and ravaged, the web of broken blood vessels testimony to his past as Richard Burton’s rival in roistering. The spirit, however, as evidenced by his bright red shirt, green, red and cream blazer and green-and-pink tie, remains undaunted. Waving a hello, Peter O’Toole looks piercingly at his visitor. “If I seem to be staring, don’t mind,” says the 54-year-old actor. “Since I was a child, people have been saying ‘Why are you looking at me that way?’ Also, I have a habit of going off into the middle distance. In Ireland they don’t give a damn. They say, ‘Himself is having a brood.’ Here, it seems alarming.”

Perhaps O’Toole has good reason to brood these days. He descended delightedly on Manhattan in April to make his Broadway debut in Pygmalion, but wasn’t even nominated for a Tony Award—a notable slight. Then the actor had looked forward to spending considerable time with his 4-year-old son during his stay in New York, but that did not please the child’s mother, a former model who lives with the boy in New Jersey. The parents are embroiled in a custody battle that must deeply trouble O’Toole’s Irish soul.

Still, he manages to maintain an insouciant, highly controversial presence onstage. A giant stork in Edwardian finery, he struts about the theater as George Bernard Shaw’s Henry Higgins, “making goo-goo eyes at the audience” (as the New York Times critic observed), drifting off now and then and once even sticking out his tongue. “Shaw called Higgins an imperious baby, and I think that’s a good note,” says O’Toole of his star turn. Have critics complained that he overacts? O’Toole tosses back his head and roars. “They overwrite,” he replies.

He appears equally untroubled by his omission from the list of Tony Award Best Actor nominees. “Not knowing what a Tony was until I had not been nominated, I wasn’t disappointed,” O’Toole maintains, letting go a great whinny of a laugh. The Tony snub, he reflects, is consistent with his luck at the Oscars. (Nominated seven times, he has yet to win.) “There’s a season for glittering prizes and a season for plowing the furrow,” he says. “It may sound dull, but what I am is a jobbing actor. I work fairly constantly. I’ve never lived in Hollywood, and I wouldn’t know how. I do what I fancy.”

His fancy during his Broadway run was to have his son, Lorcan, come live part of the week with him in his Manhattan hotel. But Lorcan’s mother, who calls herself Karen O’Toole (though the actor claims he never married her), raised an objection. When Peter enforced his visitation rights by serving her with papers last April, Karen, 39, promptly filed suit seeking sole custody. The matter is now in the hands of a court in Monmouth County, N.J. “It’s a life-style question,” explains Karen’s attorney, Raoul Felder. “One parent is an international movie star, and the other is a homebody. She wants her son brought up as a typical American boy. You don’t have to be Freud to see the child is better off with roots.”

While the case is pending, according to Felder, O’Toole sees the child at least once a week. O’Toole, when asked about the custody suit, puts on his best middle-distance face and says, “I’ve gone selectively deaf.” But there is no doubt he dotes on his only son. His Pygmalion co-star, Amanda Plummer, says, “Oh, God, to see those two together. Peter’s eyes shine when he’s with Lorcan.” Still, Felder describes Karen as “very sensitive” about the custody question, and well she might be. Three years ago Peter suddenly ran off to Bermuda with Lorcan. He took the nanny as well to help care for the child. “My first reaction was that Lorcan had been kidnapped,” Karen said at the time. Learning that her son was with his father in Bermuda, she initiated legal proceedings there and soon got Lorcan back. O’Toole returned home alone.

Battling for time with Lorcan is only the latest of O’Toole’s skirmishes with life, the fates and himself. The son of an Irish bookie and a nurse, he grew up in Leeds, Yorkshire, where the betting was better than in his native Connemara. After three years at Leeds College of Commerce and two years in the Royal Navy, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1953, later joining the Bristol Old Vic.

In 1960 David Lean took a chance on the handsome, 27-year-old actor and cast him as the enigmatic hero T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. Other screen triumphs followed, including Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year. “There’s a magnetic field here,” explains O’Toole. “I’m attracted to these larger-than-life roles, and they to me.”

Offscreen, Peter was living a life that made some of his characters look almost jejune. Drinking and carousing, he became a mythic figure at home and abroad. “I didn’t have a hangover until I was 30,” he recalls. “From 30 to 40 I had many.” After his marriage to Welsh actress Sian Phillips in 1959, he even took their two daughters (actresses Kate, now 26, and Pat, 24) into pubs under his coat just as his father had done with him. But when he hit 40, O’Toole stopped playing bad boy. “It was becoming a bore,” he says. “The pleasure wasn’t worth the pain.”

Virtue, however, went unrewarded. In 1977 Phillips, then 44, moved out on O’Toole and in with Robin Sachs, 26, whom she later wed. “I was very happily married,” says O’Toole. “I can’t expect that twice. I’ll probably never marry again.”

Also plaguing him were health problems he has resolutely refused to discuss—until now. “All right,” he blurts unexpectedly, “I’ll open up. I’ve been troubled with my stomach since I was a child. From age 19 on, I would have great flare-ups of pain. Then, when I was in my 40s, I was hemorrhaging very badly and nearly died. So a surgeon opened me up like a purse and had a fiddle around my innards. Something was removed.” Malignant? “It wasn’t benign,” he says tersely.

Though O’Toole now claims to be “all right,” the once-stalwart actor looks frail and has missed three performances of Pygmalion due to throat problems. His daughter Kate admits he is quieter than he used to be, but adds, “He’s much happier in himself.”

When his time on Broadway is up on July 19, O’Toole will return to Ireland (he has asked to have Lorcan with him for a month or so) and tend to his horses, his garden and his books. “I’ll have a think,” says O’Toole, who has received no film or stage offer that intrigues him. A writer of poetry, he once started a novel and keeps a journal. “Acting isn’t my entire life.” he says.

As he retreats to his homeland, presumably to reappear in family court, O’Toole leaves behind a collection of legends. It has been variously reported that he left school at 14, that he had his nose fixed for Lawrence of Arabia, and that like his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth, he never carries money. “Fairy stories. Fairy stories,” protests O’Toole, who digs out a wad of greenbacks to disprove at least the currency tale. “But I certainly don’t discourage these myths,” he says. Might this blarney-loving Irishman even enjoy them? He takes a sip of tea and answers, beatifically: “Quite.”

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