Peter O'Yoole tells Eileen Condon about working with dogs and children...
It's an old cliche, but "Never work with children and animals" is definitely a true one for veteran screen legend Peter O'Toole, as he discovered on his latest movie Lassie.Not only does the former hell-raiser play second fiddle to a dog, but he's also sharing the big screen with a bunch of kids. Not surprisingly he found the whole experience a little chaotic.
"Don't act with children and dogs?" He smiles. "Well, try children, dogs, horses and hounds, coal miners and a fox. Try acting with that lot. Very tricky. It's painstaking and you need a lot of patience. Which fortunately our director Charles Stur-ridge did have."
Despite the mayhem, the 73-year-old admits Lassie did turn out to be man's best friend on set, as did his young co-stars, Hester Odgers who plays Cilla, the part made famous by Elizabeth Taylor, in the original 1943 movie Lassie Come Home and Jonathan Mason, who appears as nine-year old Joe, Lassie's best friend.
"Hester's a delight," remarks Peter. "She's an intelligent young girl and a great mischief," he adds smiling.
"Her concentration is exemplary. How she does it, I do not know. And the little fellow, Jonathan, he's a charmer. The children really were a delight."
Filmed on location in Ireland and the Isle of Man, the latest Lassie adventure adds to a remarkable roll call for the iconic mutt. Already, ten Lassie movies have been made along with a two-time Emmy award-winning TV series, which became one of the longest running shows in television history.
The latest movie outing, also starring Nottingham-born actress Samantha Morton, sees Lassie (played by three dogs, Mason, Carter and Dakota) being forced to live in a remote Scottish castle belonging to the Duke of Rudling, played by Peter, after being sold by his hard-up Yorkshire mining family.
But soon the fed-up canine decides he wants to go back home to his best friend (Jonathan Mason) and sets out on a perilous, lone journey across the country.
Despite the enduring, worldwide appeal of Lassie, Peter admits he'd never seen any of the previous movies or read Eric Knight's best-selling 1940 novel Lassie Come Home, on which the films were based.
"Charles Sturridge sent me a script entitled Lassie and I chuckled," he smiles.
"Charles and I have done a few films together but another thing we have in common is that neither of us have seen the other Lassies and, unlike Charles I have never read the book though I read Charles' script and liked it very much. I rang him straightaway and said, 'I'm on'."
He might not be that familiar with all the Lassie adventures, but the talented star does have one thing in common with his four-legged co-star - a very long and successful career.
Regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation, Peter, who was born in Galway, Ireland, and raised in Leeds, has performed in some of the most acclaimed movies of all time, such as Lawrence Of Arabia, The Lion In Winter, Goodbye Mr Chips and Becket.
He's also enjoyed a distinguished theatre and TV career, recently stealing the show as the dying Casanova in the hit television drama of the same name.
And he's appeared alongside some of the biggest names of all time and fondly recalls working with screen legends, such as Katharine Hepburn in The Lion In Winter.
"That was actually one of the highlights of my life," he says.
"I loved working with her and working with Richard Burton in Becket was another great joy."
Yet, despite the enviable track record and still being as busy as ever, Peter regards himself as a jobbing actor foremost and loathes any association with celebrity.
"Acting is my job, it's what I do, it's what I'm on earth to do and it's who I am," he states.
"I don't like premieres and things like that. I'd rather just do my acting and then clear off."
Three years ago, the reformed alcoholic received a lifetime achievement award, an accolade he admits came as a huge surprise.
"I was shocked and deeply honoured," he says.
"It was the highest honour that the motion picture industry can pay to anybody. I joined people like Charlie Chaplin."
The award hasn't been an incentive to take things easy though. The busy star has no plans to retire, but does admit he won't be treading the boards again any time soon.
"Playing a leading role in the theatre is too exhausting and I won't shuffle on as an old butler. I won't," he says with a wry smile.
The star who has three children, Pat and Kate by his ex-wife Sian Phillips, and son Lorcan, by model Karen Brown, says he doesn't fear growing older and relishes his rare moments of solitude.
"I love good company, but I'm never less alone than when I'm on my own," he says simply.
And though he may be approaching his mid-seventies, he's proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
"Lassie isn't about me, it's about the dog, but admittedly the dog isn't all that good an actor - with the right cuts and the odd lamb chop we got the job done," he says, those famous blue eyes twinkling mischievously.