Young Lion Peter Strauss and Old Tiger Peter O'toole Tangle in Abc's Epic 'masada'

updated 04/13/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/13/1981 01:00AM

In A.D. 72 some 5,000 Roman soldiers besieged 960 Jewish resistance fighters in a cliff-top fortress called Masada. After a brutal two-year struggle, the defenders committed suicide rather than surrender. Flippantly put, a similar fate may await a beleaguered group of ABC vice-presidents this week if their eight-hour, $25 million dramatization of those heroic events fails to become a Jude-an Shogun. If there is any justice, it will make it. Masada is visually stunning, and both Peter Strauss, who plays the Israelite leader, and Peter O'Toole, his Roman counterpart, give brilliant performances despite the epic difficulties of the location itself. "It was easier for the Romans to take Masada than it was for Universal to make it," cracks Strauss, who was felled during filming by stomach parasites and 130-degree temperatures. Lawrence of Arabia veteran O'Toole, who came prepared with salt tablets, special food and an agreement that a stagehand would follow him with an umbrella, was one of the handful who stayed healthy. Perhaps thanks to those travails, both men triumph. Masada offers a rare look at two gifted actors in peak form who are as articulate about their own lives in the following pages as they are resourceful in their art.

Strauss: young, rich, respected—and unhappy

This is going to be my year," Peter Strauss exulted good-naturedly after finishing Masada, and he was almost right. As an actor, he had won his first Emmy, for The Jericho Mile, and added a lucrative movie deal to a TV contract granting him a ton of money and enviable creative control. Domestically, he finished work on his rustic 64-acre $600,000 retreat northwest of L.A., complete with an aviary, trout-stocked stream, a world-class botanical garden of 520 cacti and an intimate theater-in-the-round. Romantically, his heralded wedding to knockout Wilhelmina model Shana Hoffman, 24, was slated for April 4, the day before his blockbuster, Masada, was to air. Then the bubble burst. "I just realized I had a beautiful home, financial security and the ability to do meaningful work," says Strauss, 34, "and still I was extremely unhappy."

So he canceled the banns. "For me to have married under those circumstances would have been like a couple having a child in hopes of holding together a crumbling marriage," says Strauss, whose first marriage ended in divorce in 1978. "I was getting married in hopes that it would make me happy. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. If you're miserable, you tend to spread it around. It wouldn't have been fair to Shana." So after three years together, Shana has moved out.

Though highly articulate, Strauss expresses mostly puzzlement over his predicament. "I don't want to get psychological, but I wasn't a terrifically happy child," says Peter, who grew up the disciplined son of a German-American wine importer in New York. "My happiest moments were when I began acting and directing plays at Hackley School for Boys in Tarrytown when I was 13," he continues. "It's so much safer to act out rage, despair, grief and longing when you're hiding behind a role. Almost all actors are lonely, come from unhappy homes, and are devoted fantasizers."

Despite his convincing portrayals of sensitive, contemporary males (Rich Man, Poor Man and A Whale for the Killing), Strauss suggests that his traditional upbringing has actually left him adrift in a sea of changing sexual roles. "The shift in male-female relationships has been tremendously confusing for me," he says. "I understood the male concept of securing home and hearth. A man providing. Now I'm not sure just where a man is supposed to stand, and I suspect women are suffering the same confusion. Each couple makes its own rules, but even that can get tricky. Sometimes," he notes, "I think I'd like to go to an island and contemplate my place in the infinite chain of being."

He did spend five months in prime spiritual territory—the Judean desert—filming Masada, but there was little time for cosmic inquiry. "It was not a party set," he understates. "The excitement at the end of the day was drinking bottled water and falling asleep." The wrap party, held later in L.A., was equally exciting. "After all we had been through, the illness, the lack of sanitation and the unspeakable conditions, they served beer," marvels Peter, who spent two weeks hospitalized in London in the middle of the Masada ordeal. "I've seen fancier do's after one episode of The Streets of San Francisco."

Ever the professional, Strauss kept his personal problems to himself when filming, notes ABC executive Brandon Stoddard. "If Peter felt unhappy, few who worked with him would be aware of that. He expends tremendous pains and passions in his work. People with that kind of sensitivity tend, I suppose, to have emotional highs and lows."

Such a stickler for quality that he keeps lists of makeup artists, propmen, script people and costumers who "have pride in what they do," Strauss concedes that such perfectionism may contribute to his troubles. "I'm learning to be less hard, less demanding of my friends and myself, without losing that integrity I think I have for the creative process," he says. That in mind, Peter plans a break from his usually driven schedule "to run away from home, just vagabonding around the Mediterranean for a while, to try to come back with an understanding of what 'happy' really means." Better understanding of his romances, he suggests, may be a big part of it. "My relationships with women tend to be so intensely intimate that I expect to give and get total commitment," Strauss observes. "And I'm still trying to figure out whether that's neurotic—or Utopian."

O'Toole: 'I can still deliver the goods'

Since sweeping unforgettably across the screen 19 years ago in Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O'Toole has labored in hits (1968's The Lion in Winter) and flops (1975's Rosebud), but rarely in anonymity. Only this past year, however, has the Irish bookie's son from County Sligo approached his former glory by scoring a showbiz trifecta: a scandalous and sold-out Macbeth on the London stage, an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for The Stunt Man, and a starring role in TV's Masada, one of the benchmarks of this or any season. "I feel delighted and renewed," sighs O'Toole at 48. "I was referred to in Hollywood the other day as a veteran, and the idea of a leathery legionnaire sprang to mind. It suits me and I enjoy it very much."

No doubt. For more than two decades he has battled cheerfully and unrepentantly on all fronts. Personally, "Anything people like to say about me is probably true," admits O'Toole of the boozing, brawling years that followed Lawrence, when he proudly claimed, "I can drink Richard Burton under the table. And have." In 1970 he gave up spirits—and later endured a series of stomach operations ("possibly tumors, but it's over now")—but not flesh. "I've had a life—what is it Dylan Thomas said?—'sardined with women,' " assesses O'Toole, most recently linked with actresses Sarah Bullen and Trudie Styler, both decades younger.

Professionally, O'Toole has gracefully endured more than his share of slights—from the London critics' savaging of Macbeth ("MacFlop" was the kindest cut) to his sixth winless Oscar nomination last week. "Oh, it's a way of going insane quietly, isn't it?" figures O'Toole of the Academy Awards, though he says he's not "flip or contemptuous about them. Some odd people have won Oscars at odd times, but it is the glittering prize."

The bounce of that statement is typical, though the charm that fairly radiates from O'Toole has been subdued recently by the death of his mother, Constance. "It's odd to feel like an orphan at 48," grieves Peter, whose father, Pat O'Toole, died five years ago. "When it happens, it just takes the legs off you." His mum's passing, he says, has left him free for the first time to talk about his own picaresque childhood. "The single most difficult hurdle I had to leap was being my father's son," says O'Toole, who paints his father admiringly as the Wilkins Micawber of turf accountants. His family had since the 18th century run two used furniture firms as fronts for illegal bookmaking and the recruitment of mercenaries. Then O'Toole's father lost both businesses, was disinherited and became a full-time professional gambler. "He was a dandy, in a billycock bowler hat, dark suit and spats, and he refused to go anywhere without my sister, myself and my mother," O'Toole recalls. "So I was brought up in Ireland, Britain, Scotland, France—Thirsk, Wetherby, Doncaster, Towcester, Brighton, Kempton Park, wherever the racetrack names are. Until I was 30, I was better known as Spats' son than as Peter O'Toole."

Mom saw to his more genteel education. "My mother was my literary conscience. Her knowledge of literature and language was tremendous," he says. "At 5 I was reciting Border ballads at the drop of a hat, and it still rolls off me like a tape recorder. She was my ear. Daddy was the persona." Bouncing through "15 bloody schools" and three years part-timing on a Leeds newspaper enlarged his experience, but O'Toole says he learned most of his theatricality from his father. "Daddy was an act," says O'Toole. "He stood on a stool, and he made losing money seem attractive. He dressed the part. I never felt an urge to compete with him, but I did feel an urge to compete with the rest of the world." Spats was killed, O'Toole reports, when struck by a car while "coming out of a bookie's and going into a pub. Eighty-six years old!" exclaims Peter. "Can't be bad."

O'Toole's own children, Kate, 21, and Pat, 17, by actress Sian (I, Claudius) Phillips—they divorced in 1979—share his five-story London townhouse and have had an equally colorful upbringing. "Dad introduced us to a vast range of actors, writers, alcoholics, crooks, you name it," says Kate. "And he gave us great freedom to believe we could do what we wanted to do." O'Toole may rue the day, but never for long. When Kate recently dropped out of college to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, "I wanted to strangle the cow," he grumbles. "But I had done exactly the same thing."

O'Toole passes his days with visits to his remote compound in County Galway (each family member has his own cottage, "like Zulus"), playing cricket or the horses, studying scripts or archeology, frequenting jazz clubs, "running or skipping" to stay limber, and fighting insomnia: "Sleep has always been a bitch." There's also work, most notably an upcoming untitled Mel Brooks comedy film and plans for a King Lear to top his Macbeth. "Lear is a Celtic king, and there's a Celtic treasure under there," he muses.

But his own trove, he suggests, is simply the present. "Happy? That's a funny thing to want to be," figures O'Toole. "I don't go chasing it. I'm a working pro with a diverse and interesting life, and that's all."

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