Why Do Actors Drink?

Like the rest of us, they have more than enough reasons. But because they're actors, their reasons are more attractive and more dramatic. If you want to fully justify your next bender, read these pensees and go get a SAG card.


There's no reason to suppose that this is going to he coherent, so I'm just marking the sections to give the appearance of some kind of order. It's like keeping a tab. And I'm telling you that one of the editors of this magazine, a decent woman generally (apart from her thinking about movies 14 hours a day), proposed that I write this article--for you--with a bottle at my side, its level presumably declining as I pile the words up. Of course, she meant this as a pleasantry, a nice joke, not an ounce of malice in it. Isn't it a marvel how decent people reckon they can make sociable jokes about booze? So here's a first answer, don't you think, to the question of why actors drink: There's an imp of humor in booze.

From Roget (a poetic list-maker--it's my experience that such fellows are steadily on the sauce), and I quote this so that you can feel the imp (say it aloud to yourself--say it on public transport): imbibe, tipple, nip, tope, swizzle, tun, soak, souse, bib, booze (slang), bouse, guzzle, fuddle, swill, toast, carouse, wassail, debauch, liquor up (slang), raise the elbow, wet one's whistle, hit the bottle, go on a bender (slang).

Why do actors drink? Is there the remotest chance of an answer? I had told the editor that I had been reading a biography of Robert Shaw, the English actor (Quint in Jaws, Doyle Lonnegan in The Sting, Henry VIII in A Man for All Seasons), and I was recounting the sheer wreckage of Shaw's life--a good novelist, a truly frightening actor, a father of 10 children, a monstrous drinker, dead of a heart attack at 51. I said how terrifying yet compelling the book was, and how it somehow explained the menace Shaw had onscreen, his helpless pact with the comedy of self-inflicted disaster. Why do actors drink? I asked aloud--never meaning all actors, of course.

So she said, "Which actors would you think of?"

And I said, "Well, Barrymore, Burton, W.C. Fields. Then there's Lee Marvin and Robert Mitchum, Robert Newton, Wilfrid Lawson--my God, wait till you hear Wilfrid Lawson stories."

"Who's Wilfrid Lawson?" she asked. And there was another answer, straightaway: Actors seek glory, they want the world to declare what many people in the business said of Lawson when he was alive--that he was the greatest of actors--and here was a decent woman, one who could recite Harrison Ford's filmography from memory, who'd never heard of him. That would make a man like Lawson drink. [Ed. note: While I confess to being inordinately familiar with Mr. Ford's screen career, and insufficiently mindful of Mr. Lawson's achievements, Mr. Thomson, readers should appreciate, is inordinately familiar with Angie Dickinson's career.]

And by the time you finish this article, you'll more likely remember tall stories about Lawson the boozer than that he was Doolittle in the 1938 film of Pygmalion, or that he was in The Long Voyage Home, War and Peace or Tom Jones.

"Who else?" she said.

"Peter O'Toole, Buster Keaton, Dean Martin, Sterling Hayden, Robert Ryan, Bogart, Errol Flynn, Rita Hay-worth, Richard Harris, Anthony Hopkins. Did I say Barrymore?"

Actors drink to help them get onstage. I use the word "stage" here in more than the theatrical sense--the stage is the place wherever they do it. And what they do is so rare, so difficult and perilous that they are in knots about it. They've had to learn their words; they have to know their blocking and their moves; they have to be in character. They have to give you a new reality. Then they have to do it precisely, on time, whether they like it or not, when the curtain goes up with that sigh it has, or when someone in the dark calls "Action!"

They need courage for this. A great baseball player, a Barry Bonds, may be paid $7 million a year, for which he has to come up to the plate and get a hit one in every three at bats. An actor must get it right every moment, every line, every pause. And while a movie actor has takes, or chances, to get it right, still his entire act consists of that "perfect" take. Making movies is always about being perfect and extraordinary--there's nothing normal to it--and sometimes it is being perfect late in the day, with murmurs that the light is going, and the co-star being gently, passively resistant, because he or she wants his or her perfect to be better, and they changed your great line at four o'clock so now you don't even understand the line, and everyone is getting a little tense.

Being perfect and beautiful and the only person in the world who could or should have played this part, that is a strain. But being perfect is not showing the strain, no matter if the location makeup guy is a bitch and out to get you. Do you want to get a reputation for asking if difficult scenes can be held over till tomorrow?

Onstage they call it stage fright. You have a dread of going on. You believe, if you are playing Othello, that Othello's pants will slide down, exposing the private parts of your body that you did not make up. Late in his career, Laurence Olivier--"the greatest actor in the world"--succumbed to stage fright (which only means that for 40 years previously he had beaten it back every night--for, know this: if you're not afraid about going on, you shouldn't be there). "My courage sank, and with each succeeding minute it became less possible to resist this horror. My cue came, and on I went to that stage where I knew with grim certainty I would not be capable of remaining more than a few minutes. I began to watch for the instant at which my knowledge of my next line would vanish. Only the next two now, no--one more... and then--NOW. I took one pace forward and stopped abruptly. My voice had started to fade, my throat closed up and the audience was beginning to go giddily round..."

What breeds that sort of apprehension in someone so accomplished? Olivier believed it had to do with a deep streak of self-loathing that had lasted through the years and triumphs of an art and a business made of vanity, narcissism and self-glorification. It may also have to do with a feeling that acting is trivial, or an evasion of actual life.

I promised you a Wilfrid Lawson story. This happened in London in the 1930s. Late in the afternoon, an actor who had been away bumped into Lawson on Shaftesbury Avenue, a street of many theaters. They were old friends, and since it was 5:30 or so they repaired to a pub to celebrate reunion.

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