I was somehow stunned and surprised to learn his age after watching the latest Star Trek series centered on his character as Jean Luc Picard. I noticed him first as a soldier in a TV production of Shakespeare and how very consistent he’s been since then. How lovely to find out he’s as fine a person as he appears.
‘He’s so strapping and virile’: Patrick Stewart at 80 – by Shatner, McKellen, Tennant and more
Horse rides in stockings, rehearsals in deep freezes, fights in string vests … as Patrick Stewart hits 80, friends from Harriet Walter to Brian Blessed pay tribute to the great actor
Thu 9 Jul 2020 01.00 EDT
‘One night two friends scissored his hair off’
I like to surprise chat show hosts by telling them: “I married Patrick Stewart” – which I did. I married him to Sunny, his mischievous, utterly reliable wife. What he confesses on chat shows is his delight and certainty that he has gone far. Far from his native Yorkshire and at times miserable home life. Far from the young actor who combed his thinning hair over the crown, until one night two friends scissored it off and a noble skull was revealed.
Far, too, from his earlier success as a classical actor with the Royal Shakespeare and National Theatre companies. He’s long forgiven me my advice not to risk a solid career on the British stage by falling for an uncertain future in Star Trek. How he got that job is a prime example of how luck can be a lady and it will be a riveting chapter in the memoir he must write. He has so much to tell. Not just the glamour and the hard work but his politics and his open-hearted commitment to his charity work.
Eighty is, of course, a milestone but he has had so many remarkable achievements in his careering journey from Huddersfield, to Stratford, the West End, Hollywood, to Broadway and beyond, I’m sure there will be no silly talk about retirement.
‘He read Brecht without pomposity’
Working with Patrick is one of the great joys in life. Not only is he kind and funny, but he read a Brecht poem without a whiff of pomposity. Literally. He read Questions from a Worker Who Reads one day, and while sitting at someone’s knee listening to poetry seems to be something of another age, it simply feels right when the knee at which you sit is Patrick Stewart’s.
‘We await his King Lear’
I saw him playing Claudius in a TV version of Hamlet when I was at school. Years later, Patrick and I had two goes at Hamlet together – we did it on stage for the RSC and then reassembled for television. He is everything you’d imagine: generous, a real actors’ actor, loves being in a troupe of players and everything about the life of the theatre. It was his lifetime ambition to play Claudius and the Ghost, as he’d been at the RSC when Brewster Mason did both roles in one production.
Patrick was thrilled to be back where he’d started, at the RSC, after this extraordinary Hollywood life and international success. He’d been released back into the wild almost, enjoying all these parts he had unfinished business with. We all await his King Lear. Patrick still almost looks the same as in that Hamlet I saw at school. He’s fit as a fiddle and so strapping! How many 80-year-olds are the lead in their own science fiction series? There’s nothing of the “old man” about him. He’s very virile – I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that!
‘I said: “Wear silk stockings to avoid chafing”’
He’s a love and he is an intellectual in an athlete’s body. We had a long horse scene to do together once, and I recommended him wearing women’s silk stockings to avoid chafing and he nodded his head as a thank you. When he came out of his dressing room, he was wearing the lace stockings outside of his costume. “No, no, Patrick, underneath your costume!” We laughed, as we ordinarily did. I didn’t know he was so old.
‘I ran into him dressed as a woman’
I joined the RSC in 1981 and was playing fairly small roles. Patrick was at his peak. We were in Henry IV parts 1 and 2 together. I listened every night to him doing “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown”. It was like jazz. I didn’t realise that you could play with Shakespeare to that extent. Instead of clinging on to the way you do it each night, you can throw it up in the air and risk it not working.
There was a big scene at the end, a parade in the streets, with the whole cast on stage in medieval rags. I was milling about and ran into Patrick, who was dressed as a woman, which he had just done as a lark. He said under his breath: “Hi, I’m Jane Nightwork!” He was embodying this old tart who is referred to in an earlier speech. I thought, oh, gosh, grand actors can be a lark too.
Years later, we did Antony and Cleopatra together. He wanted desperately to get back to Shakespeare and the stage, having been a mega film star. That’s quite a message to someone on stage – that what you’re doing is something a lot of people are aching to do, rather than just looking towards film stardom. We somehow hit a great chemistry – the chemistry of two people who want to play together and the pleasure of working through that language and having that banter and the extremes of emotion that you trigger in one another, and night after night doing it differently.
‘The joy came oozing out of him’
He is a joy to work with. We did The Tempest and Antony and Cleopatra at the RSC in 2006. It was my first time working at Stratford and I’d watch him from the wings. He’s a very human performer – the text never feels like it’s 400 years old. I always felt he was having the time of his life. The joy he felt about speaking the text just came oozing out of him. His connection comes from the heart and that makes the language so much easier to understand when you’re connected to it. He was like a little kid – he was in the best place he could be at that time. Whatever he does, it’s playtime. He’s a proper get-your-hands-dirty actor.
‘He recited Wordsworth. We wept’
I’ve known Patrick since he was nine. We met on a drama course in the Calder Valley. I’m four years older so he was like my younger brother. I was always wild and naughty; Patrick was very well-behaved. I’ve always taken the mickey out of him. Amateur theatre was everywhere in Yorkshire at that time but we both dreamed of seeing professional theatre.
He’d visit me at home in Bolton upon Dearne and we’d do Shakespeare scenes together in my little bedroom. My Dad would come in and say: “Patrick, you could have done that part a bit better.” I’d say: “Dad, he’s 11!” Years later my Dad said to me how much he liked Star Trek on television. I said: “Do you like the captain? That’s the little boy you criticised in my bedroom!”
I remember we met up once, after not seeing each other for a long time, and we went to see a play at the Old Vic together. Beforehand we were sat on Westminster Bridge, with our arms round each other, and he suddenly recited the whole of Wordsworth’s Composed upon Westminster Bridge. We both wept.
Twenty years ago I went to Hollywood for a premiere. They asked me if I had any Hollywood friends and I mentioned Patrick. As I got out of the limousine at the premiere, I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders and a voice saying: “Hello, hello, hello. I am Brian Blessed’s guest.” There we were: two working-class boys from Yorkshire, walking down the red carpet. It was considered impossible for us to become classical actors and we said bollocks to that. Next year we’re planning a stage show together – we’ll do a bit of Shakespeare, singing, some poetry. Patrick and I will bring the house down. Tell him I still think he’s ugly and has got no sex appeal – how can he be so successful?
‘When you hurt, he said, I hurt’
In high school, I would watch videos of the RSC’s workshops, featuring Patrick as well as Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins: all filled with vim and vigour and happiness, all extremely fastidious and having in-depth arguments about iambic pentameter. In acting school, I became addicted to Star Trek. When you put somebody with that kind of capacity in an arena like a sci-fi drama they become the cornerstone.
By the time I had the chance to work with him, it seemed impossible to me that he was a real human being. But in 2013, I joined a touring production of No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot with Patrick, Ian and Shuler Hensley. They pursued day after day such incredibly challenging pieces of material without any give. That Pat in his 70s still had that level of rabid curiosity was the most wonderful news to me; I feel exhausted and I’m barely 50. He and Ian were both thriving in what anyone else would consider the end of their career; instead it felt like it was the middle. They continue to have the appetite to pursue the kind of material that makes them relevant.
One day in tech, I was having a particularly miserable time: I had just lost a loved one and was grappling with other painful things. I was doing the best that I could, and my best was just terrible. At the end of the rehearsal, Patrick came up as I was packing my belongings and put his hand on my shoulder and said: “Billy, oh Billy. When you hurt, I hurt. If you need anything, I’m here.” I just burst into tears. I have found his kind of love and big-heartedness uncommon in the industry.
‘We danced together on Frasier. He led’
I’m so pleased Patrick is turning 80 and still looks about 35. I can’t say he’s changed at all since I first met him on Star Trek; we’ve also done an X-Men film together and he guest-starred on Frasier. I do see a little of myself in Patrick and vice versa. We both like to turn a phrase. I think we both share a devotion to trying to play new characters, to staying connected to the thing which got us here in the first place, which is our imagination.
We were both Macbeth a year apart – he was lauded for his performance; I was attacked for mine. And yes, we are both very comfortable with an element of camp in our heterosexuality. He led when we danced together on Frasier and he was a lovely dancer. In my house we still quote his line in that show where he picks up his phone in Frasier’s apartment and says: “Placiiiiidoooo!” And David Hyde Pierce [Niles] and I gasp: “Placido Domingo?!” That voice of his is pretty extraordinary.
He’s effervescent, always polite and – like most actors I know – very bright. In some ways he does seem quintessentially English. A little phlegmatic, perhaps, a bit removed; that language and accosting profile. Yet he’s got great warmth and charm, which is not of course foreign to Englishmen and women. But Patrick can project a traditional stiff upper lip Brit while underneath being a very receptive and self-effacing and accessible guy, with a kind of American openness. I’ve never heard a word spoken against him.
‘He had a lovely, tough-looking chest’
When Patrick played Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatrain 1973, he was wry, wise, sensible, sensitive. His Enobarbus was a soldier with a heart and even better, a mind; Patrick Stewart the man still sees through bluff and nonsense with his canny northern eye and his teasing half-smile. He has kept his cool sense of proportion even though as a huge franchised star of television he can take his pick of anything going.
Actually, as I dredge through the jumble of the memory drawers, he and I go even further back than that wonderful Trevor Nunn production. He played Antonio the sea-captain who helps Viola (me) survive being stranded on a strange seashore, and I can still see him doubled up with laughter in the wings as I exited the stage on the opening night of Twelfth Night at the Library theatre in Manchester. “Why are you laughing at me?” I hissed at him in the darkness of the wings. “You should have heard yourself,” he chortled back at me, “you said ‘What country friends is this?’ in a thick South African accent!” “I didn’t!” “You bloody well did!” Oh the shame.
More shame when in the same season he and I played a husband and wife in an early play by David Mercer called The Buried Man – all bickering over the proverbial sink in faded floral frocks and string vests. Patrick had a lovely tough-looking chest through the string, I recall. He was perfectly at home in his native accent, while once again this South African did her worst to murder a speech in a broad Lancashire accent and got giggled at for her pains by a home-grown audience. The glottal stops did me in. He was kinder to me this time, and only laughed a little bit.
From those humble beginnings Patrick has conquered LA and most of the world while keeping his essential Shakespearean inner actor firmly close to his heart. I would trust him with the dearest secret, this local boy made very very good, because besides all this acting stuff he seems to me to be a very good man.
‘I wore five jumpers. He wore shorts’
I was asked to direct The Tempest and Patrick was going to play Prospero. I went to meet him, essentially to be auditioned. I wanted to set the play in the Arctic and pitched the whole concept to him, talking sweatily at great length. He sat there totally silent, inscrutable. I thought it was going terribly: this guy is coming back to the RSC to play Prospero and we’re going to put him in polar bear skins! He said at the end: “Well, what you don’t know is that I have for a long time been a collector of Inuit art.” It was quite the icebreaker.
We worked on The Tempest in hot rehearsal rooms, pretending it was the Arctic. One day I asked stage management to persuade the local supermarket to let us into their deep freeze store to rehearse some scenes and get into the sprit of it. I was asking Patrick to spend hours in the freezer. That day, I was in five jumpers; Patrick turned up in shorts. He was so Yorkshire about it.
What I had underestimated about Patrick – which is the great thing about Picard – is that you can put him in anything and you still feel like you are watching something real. You could put him in a vat of jelly and surround him with grinning, blue-bearded Martians and somehow it would feel real.
For a lot of bright actors, as they get older, the playfulness of acting becomes less important to them and they want to get more involved in causes and advocacy. So often they lose some of the sheer self-absorbed virtuoso madness that you need as an actor. Patrick manages not to do that. He is very involved with lots of important causes and yet he can be impish and mischievous and make great fun of himself.
‘He made us yell: INTIMIDATION!’
The first word that comes to mind when I think about Patrick is “respect”. Going into meeting PStew, I already had the natural respect you have for a legendary actor of his calibre, but it quickly evolved into the respect you have for an old friend. That was due to how obvious his respect for me was. He opened up to me about how he was a very timid young actor and, when he made his first film, there was an actor who made sure he felt supported and respected. Patrick wanted to be like that.
He made sure I felt we were equals, simply there to create. Patrick worries that people think him to be “intimidating” which he never intends to be. So he told us that from now on, whenever we feel it necessary, we should yell out “INTIMIDATION” to keep him in check. Let’s just say we all cannot wait to get back to work and annoy the hell out of him with that.