How it happened
Speaking about my first break gives me a strange feeling of nostalgia. Though I am Irish by birth, my diction in the initial days was not correct. I feel like laughing about myself when I remember my lacunae with my language which is after all my mother tongue. At the Royal Academy Of Dramatic Arts, I learnt a lot about performing. The most important aspect of acting that was taught to us was behaving exactly as a character, de-dramatising yet ushering in a spontaneous emotion in the form of drama. Too much of de-dramatisation makes a performance soul less. By watching the inimitable performances of stalwarts like Sir Charles Laughton and Sir Lawrence Oliver I came to understand depths of cinematic acting which was very different and more subtle compared to performing on stage. I also started admiring the mystique of Vivian Leigh and the determination of Ingrid Bergman. My real first break came in the form of “Lawrence Of Arabia” in 1962. I do not want to boast but I have been very fortunate to be a Sir David Lean discovery and receive a classic character like Lawrence in my maiden venture as an actor. During the shooting of the film there are innumerable experiences I recollect with fondness.
How it felt
I will make a special mention of the scene where I dress myself in an Arabian garb for the first time after Ali (Omar Sharif) asked me to wear it. I was thinking of putting forward a static look and no body movement. Sir David Lean coolly advised me to give a dance like motion in solo and express my joy with just two looks. I obeyed my mentor and the result was fabulous on screen.
I missed the Oscar to Gregory Peck for his unforgettable performance in “To Kill A Mocking Bird”. I had no bitter feelings as I always held Gregory Peck in high esteem and felt he truly deserved the Oscar. At the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, the same year my performance received accolades from the likes of Sir Charles Chaplin, Satyajit Ray and of course Francois Truffaut.
How life changed
Acting with Omar Sharif I developed a special rapport with him and we again rubbed histrionic shoulders in “Night of The Generals”. Omar never believed in over or underplaying but performing straight forward, his asset as an actor. My toughest histrionic challenge was to face Richard Burton in “Becket”. No actor could ever score over him in delivering dialogues. So I concentrated fully on my expressions and lip movements to react to him. A gentleman to the core, he used to joke with me saying that my looks represented that of a Russian secret agent. We would laugh out our hearts and enjoy every moment of the humour. I concentrated on my sense of timing to match the unpredictable Audrey Hepburn whilst working with her in the comedy, “Breakfast At Tiffany”. Films like “Goodbye Mr Chips” and “Lion In Winter” earned me a lot of critical acclaim. I will be very partial if I do not mention my emotional encounter with Dalia Lave in Lord Jim one of my truly memorable performances. I was kneeling down; Dalia Lave delivered her dialogues and knell in front of me emoting silently. Her looks pierced my heart and I unconsciously hugged her delivering a look of sympathy and understanding to which she cried in joy after the take. “Peter you speak volumes with your eyes,” she said hugging me again.
(As told to RANJAN DAS GUPTA)