IT was books, rather than the stars of the silver screen, that hooked Sir Patrick Stewart as a youngster.
“They were everything to me because we didn’t have any in our house when I was growing up apart from a few war books of my father’s,” he says.
“A while back I found a sealed off box which I opened and it was full of old paperbacks. A lot of them were dog-eared and I was going to give them away but then I realised this pile of books, and there was about 40 or 50 of them, were a record of my childhood reading. I would read books above my age, so there was Tolstoy and Dickens and all kinds of American authors and so forth, and that was the beginning of my cultural education.”
The Mirfield-born actor is back on home turf this evening when he appears at the Huddersfield Literature Festival to discuss his love of books and his distinguished career – which has seen him take on titanic roles in the plays of Shakespeare, Pinter and Beckett and become a Hollywood star through the Star Trek and X-Men movies – with The Yorkshire Post’s theatre correspondent Nick Ahad.
Stewart’s story is as remarkable as it is heartening. He was a pupil at Mirfield Secondary Modern School and, though good at sport, he didn’t excel in the classroom, and it was acting that came to his rescue.
“I was cast by a teacher in a play and it was a means of escapism – I know it sounds like a dreadful cliché, but with me it was true. When I was rehearsing and performing I could be somebody else, not Patrick Stewart, and I much preferred being somebody else.”
He singles out his English teacher Cecil Dormand for helping put him on the road to becoming an actor. “He was one of the greatest influences on my life and without his influence none of this would have happened. He was the first person to say to me, ‘Have you thought about doing this professionally?’
Stewart left school at 15 and flirted briefly with a career in journalism, working for the Dewsbury District Reporter, before enrolling at the Bristol Old Vic where he continued his training for two more years.
His first job out of drama school was with the Lincoln Repertory Theatre as an actor and assistant stage manager where he was thrown in at the deep end. “It was thrilling and intense, you had five-and-a-half days to rehearse a play and every Monday you had to begin a new one.”
From there he spent two years in Sheffield where he performed in more than 20 plays a season, before joining the Old Vic Company which was led at the time by the “wonderful” Vivien Leigh. For a young actor learning his craft here was a chance to work alongside acting aristocracy.
“I found her delightful and very kind,” he says. “In one play we had a scene where the two of us were at the back of the stage where the audience couldn’t hear us. Every night I was alone with Vivien Leigh for seven or eight minutes in total darkness and she would say, ‘Tell me Patrick, what have you been doing today, I want to hear everything.’”
There can’t be many people who can say that Leigh was a guest at their 21st birthday party, either. “We were on tour in Australia and she gave me a birthday card – I found it in one of those boxes I opened years later.”
Stewart went on to join the RSC which was his “ambition from the start” where he worked for the next 12 years. He might have continued in this vein had it not been for a chance phone call that changed his life.
“Out of the blue I was called to a meeting with Gene Roddenberry [creator of the original Star Trek series] in LA. It was completely unexpected and not looked for but I found myself sitting in front of the great man. The meeting didn’t go well and when the door closed he said, ‘He’s not right for the part.’”
However, there was something the studio bosses obviously liked and after further meetings and auditions he was offered the part of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. It made Stewart a household name on both sides of the Atlantic, though initially expectations weren’t high.
“Nobody thought it would be successful. When I talked to people their advice was to get a sun tan, make some money and go back home.”
Instead it proved a huge hit, running for six years and spawning four Hollywood blockbusters. For Stewart it allowed him indulge in personal projects like his one-man version of A Christmas Carol.
“Without Star Trek nobody would have let me take over a Broadway theatre to do a one-man show with five pieces of furniture...”
The stage was where Stewart honed his craft and it was something he maintained even as his Hollywood career blossomed.
“I’d heard of some actors losing their nerve for live performance and never going back to it, so I devised these one-man shows as a way of keeping my feet on the ground.” Stewart lived in Los Angeles for 17 years, but even then he kept his Yorkshire roots, buying a property in a remote village near Grassington in North Yorkshire.
“I would get on a plane and fly to London and then to Leeds-Bradford airport. I’d jump in a taxi and arrive at my bolt hole, close the front door and shut myself away – I loved that.”
Stewart has, more recently, attracted a new generation of fans with his portrayal of Professor Xavier in the hugely popular X-Men franchise. He starred alongside another renowned thespian, Sir Ian McKellen. The pair have since worked together to great acclaim in No Man’s Land and Waiting for Godot, but before X-Men they scarcely knew one another.
“When the first film came out there was no real star. Hugh Jackman was unknown unless you went to the theatre in Melbourne.
“We each had our luxury trailer and mine was next to Ian’s. As is often the case with films like this you spend more time sitting in a trailer than in front of a camera acting.
“Ian and I would drink coffee and tea and later in the day perhaps something a little stronger and we’d chat and found we had a huge amount in common. We’re both northerners – he’s from Lancashire and I’m from Yorkshire – and we both love theatre and have a passion for Shakespeare.”
The pair, both now in their late 70s, have become close friends and continue to blossom at a time when some younger stars have called time on their careers.
It’s not something Stewart would countenance. “I read something the other day from Stephen Hawking amid all the tributes. He’d said: ‘Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it’. I thought, ‘Professor Hawking you are talking about me.’”
Sir Patrick Stewart is appearing “in conversation” this evening at Huddersfield Town Hall. Tickets cost £15. Call 01484 225755 or go to www.kirkleestownhalls.co.uk
Success on and off the stage and screen
Sir Patrick Stewart was born in Mirfield, West Yorkshire, in July 1940.
He was a member of various local drama groups from the age 12. He left school at 15 and worked briefly on a local newspaper before heading to drama school.
Stewart made his professional debut in 1959 in the repertory theatre in Lincoln and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1966.
He has appeared in a plethora of Shakespearean productions and has won a number of awards during a distinguished career spanning almost 60 years.
A lifelong Huddersfield Town fan, he was also Chancellor of Huddersfield University for more than a decade before stepping down in 2015.
He was knighted in 2010.