Peter O’Toole RIP: once a Sunderland fan, always a class act

By Jake
By Jake

Sad to hear the news tonight of Peter O’Toole‘s death in London at the age of 81 after a long illness. As well as being a superb actor – eight Oscar nominations, the most anyone has ever received without winning an Academy award – he was once a Sunderland supporter, as we were able to explain a couple of years ago. That story will now be repeated but let me first quote the words of his agent, Steve Kenis, who features in that tale: “He was one of a kind in the very best sense and a giant in his field.” I should add that I found out about this unhappy news via the excellent medium of Ready to Go

This is how I told the story just over two years ago (so for eight, the first word, read 10):

Eight years ago, I thought I’d cracked it for my series of Celebrity Supporter interviews for Wear Down South. Missing out on Gina McKee, Dave Stewart and – bizarrely given his initial enthusiasm – Glenn Hugill had been disappointing, but an exclusive interview with Peter O’Toole beckoned …

Peter O’Toole‘s connection with Sunderland AFC was, for a very long time, a mystery to me.

I’d heard the rumours, been told of the chatshow asides and wondered about the truth. Couldn’t recall seeing him in the away end anywhere, and didn’t bump into him on rare forays into executive dining areas.

But in 2002, I thought I had made a breakthrough that would lead the a modest world scoop for the newsletter of the London and Southern England branch of the Sunderland AFC Supporters’ Association.

My obscure musical interests had led me to interview Linda Thompson, the folk-rock singer.

She turned out to be one of his closest friends (her American husband, Steve Kenis, was his agent). And she had an idea that the link had something to do with his Irish father playing for us. Wikipedia says: “O’Toole is the son of Constance Jane (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O’Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player and racecourse bookmaker.” But there is no trace of PJ O’Toole in my SAFC records.

So Linda and I did a swap: Tony Benn for Peter O’Toole.

I promised to send Benn a copy of her album, Fashionably Late, which she excitedly signed “from a fan” (prompting an equally effusive reply) and she set to work on O’Toole.

“Normally he won’t do interviews,” she told me as I left her rather desirable pad off the King’s Road in Chelsea (Linda, it must be said, had moved effortlessly from life in a commune with her ex, the fabulous guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson, to a life of luxury.)

“But he’s so mad about sport that I’m sure he’d do this”.

Oh no he wouldn’t. The trail was to lead nowhere in terms of an interview, but did enable me to assemble the story of the O’Toole connection to Wearside.

Failure of the principal mission was announced by Steve Kenis a couple of weeks after his wife’s confident encouragement. “I spoke to Peter who is in Tunisia shooting a picture. But he said that his tie to Sunderland AFC, if you could even call it a tie, was strictly historical and very tenuous.

“It was all really to do with Roker Park. Since they moved to the Stadium of Light, he has not really considered himself to be in the Sunderland AFC group or family or whatever. So he thanks you very, very much but says sorry, it’s not for him. He has not considered himself a supporter since the move. Everything they meant to him was when they were at Roker Park.”

The story obviously still deserved to be told. And I knew that O’Toole had mentioned Sunderland on television some years ago, and perhaps in an autobiography.

A plea for help on the Blackcats e-mail loop brought instant relief: one subscriber, Ian Ewart, said his grandfather had worked as a builder’s labourer in Sunderland “with an Irish fella called O’Toole – and according to my dad it was none other than Peter’s fatha”.

The nature of the work, Ian thought, probably explained the “reticence in recounting his humble origins”.

Another e-mail, from Michael Storey, put flesh on bones. He came up with a story the Sunderland Echo ran in 2002 as O’Toole was pondering whether to accept an honorary Oscar (he did in the end).

The Echo began by confirming the book reference. To quote snippets from O’Toole’s memoirs, his dad – “Captain Pat” – had “served an apprenticeship as a metal plater and shipwright in the North East of England, where my grandmother ran a pair of second-hand furniture shops. At the end of Great War his 20s were running out and he turned to gambling. Captain Pat lived … as an itinerant racetrack bookmaker.”

The Echo‘s John Howe was helped in his researches by a bit of his own family history.

His grandfather also knew O’Toole senior and worked for him as a bookie’s runner. John found that Pat had been a man who, though well-liked, lived “on the fringes of the law” and may well have been talked into leaving Sunderland by the police.

The family eventually settled in Leeds, where Peter was brought up, but father (and, in turn, son) maintained a “strong affiliation” with Sunderland, through football.

During the 1980s, the Echo added, O’Toole made a low-key return to Wearside, staying at the Seaburn Hotel (now the Marriott), while digging for the autobiography.

Maybe O’Toole genuinely, though just as wrongly as Gina McKee, felt he had nothing to say that would interest us. My Wear Down South series ended a long time ago. O’Toole was just another of those who got away.

Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole is now 77. If the passing of a few more years has mellowed him, Salut! Sunderland Towers remain open to one of the great actors of his generation, a man who holds the unusual distinction of being the most-nominated male lead (eight) not to win an Oscar. Failing that, maybe big Niall could play the Irish card and lure him to the Stadium of Light …

Colin Randall

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7 thoughts on “Peter O’Toole RIP: once a Sunderland fan, always a class act”

  1. I’m always a little sceptical about celebrity ” fans ” Tony Blair who apparently recalled watching ‘Wor Jackie at his ” beloved ” Newcastle comes to mind. [ Milburn having retired before TB was born, I think? ] However O’Toole’s father’s connection sounds feasible.

    From what I’ve read of Peter O’Toole’s drinking habit’s, it may be that he didn’t remember WHO he supported when asked?

    But Gina Mckee.Wow! Surely our sexiest celeb fan?

    • I’ve read a few articles on sites like this that have listed our celeb , media, political fans and you’d be suprised about the numbers and who they actually are. Far to many for me to mention here, but as many or more than the mags, not that the magedia would admit to any of that, thank you very much !

  2. With regards to the article a couple of years ago I recall watching TFI Friday when it used to be on tele and Peter O’toole was asked who he supported and he stated Sunderland.

    • Yes, I remember that as well.

      Some years later standing around in yet another bloody airport I managed to get through the majority of his then autobiography looking for any mention of Sunderland but could not find a single reference.

      The guy on the till was not especially impressed when I just stuck the tome back on the shelf. Still no pleasing some folk!

  3. Drummer. I raise my glass to you on this. One of the most erudite and accurate posts that I have ever read on these pages.

    Peter O’Toole was indeed a fine actor, although I do wonder about this article appearing here given the admittedly tenuous nature of his relationship with Sunderland.

    There are times when watching Sunderland these days is rather like going to see a tribute band to some musical heroes of yesteryear.

    I often wonder what some of the many friends no longer with us who I stood with at Roker would make of the whole business of modern football. I suspect most of them would be rendered speechless, although I suspect few of them would take a sharp intake of breath at our points total and league position. Some things never change, regardless of playing personnel, stadia or management.

    • Cheers Jeremy . I’m off to the Chelsea game tonight and I remember when any quarter final was an exciting time regardless of whatever or wherever we were in the league. Today I fear it’s regarded as no more than a reserve game for Chelsea and a distraction for us. I hope we win and build up some cup fever, it used to be what the game was about and while I appreciate that the premiership/Sky money is essential to our existence, then how are we in such a mess playing wise and financial wise? We’ve had seven years in the “promised land”, something is seriously wrong with us and the whole modern game.

  4. R.I.P Sir. The last of the true acting hellraisers and a damn fine actor to boot. I think he’s honary Oscar was the equivalent of Ryan Giggs sports personality award, the recognition of a life times excellence in he’s chosen field ,therefore equally or even more valid than reward for a single event.Im sure he’s mourning of Roker park is shared by most of us,but as we have no other option to watch our team at home than at the SOL it is what it is. When the crowd and team are roaring its an event , when not you could hear a pin drop at times. You could never say that about Roker Park even though in my era most of it was in the second and even third division . Most of us are braced for the Championship next season, an unthinkable trip even further below could be the end of us, progress eh?

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