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Patrick Stewart: The Lucky Knight

Patrick Stewart, globally famous for his roles in TV’s “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and Marvel’s X-Men movie series, took a seat on the Mayer Theatre stage Nov. 1 and gave SFTV students a career retrospective. He was interviewed by Stephen Galloway, executive features editor for The Hollywood Reporter. In his smart, well-paced conversations with actors, directors, producers and writers, Galloway, who hosts The Hollywood Masters series that takes place on the LMU campus, often guides his guest down a path marked by major milestones, tactically aided by a few clips from past productions. Stewart, too, accompanied him there, but the actor’s most memorable reminiscences had to do with his childhood.

Knighted by the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II in 2010, Stewart described a childhood in which he grew up in a two-room house that had no kitchen, no heating system, and no inside bathroom. The family home, for two parents and two sons, was a “one-up, one-down house,” with just one bedroom and a fireplace. The family members took one bath a week. “The outside lavatory was my library,” he said. He’d go there and read for hours: Dostoyevsky, Dickens and more, along with magazines and comic books.

“I never had big ambitions,” Stewart said, adding, too, that he left school at 15 and his bathroom reading was the closest thing to an education. “The first exam I ever sat was for my California driver’s license.”

Stewart, today, is well known for his work on behalf of abused women. His mother was one, the target of vicious attacks, he said, at the hands of his father, a “dangerous weekend alcoholic,” as Stewart portrayed him. In 2009, the actor described the violence in his childhood home in an article published in The Guardian:

“I knew exactly when the shouting was done and a hand was about to be raised – I also knew exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and her face, a skill no child should ever have to learn. Curiously, I never felt fear for myself and he never struck me, an odd moral imposition that would not allow him to strike a child. The situation was barely tolerable: I witnessed terrible things, which I knew were wrong, but there was nowhere to go for help. Worse, there were those who condoned the abuse.”

Those memories he shared with his LMU audience as well. Stewart long had castigated his father for his abuse, he recalled, but one day he learned that the man who beat his mother had almost certainly suffered from a terrible case of post-traumatic stress disorder, acquired in World War II. His father’s behavior could not be justified or dismissed by that disorder, Stewart said. But Stewart came to understand the horrors that war could inflict, and today he acts both on behalf of abused women and veterans suffering as his father did.

With a home filled with chaos, Stewart didn’t experience stage fright. He found the stage to be his place of respite. “I became an actor because the stage was the safest place I had ever been on. I felt physically safe — ‘Nothing bad can happen me here,’” he remembered.

Stewart gradually built a career that established him as a theater actor, yet brought him little international fame. When he auditioned for the role of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Stewart found his reputation was a drawback: Gene Roddenberry, creator the Star Trek franchise, was uninterested in, as Stewart described it, a bald, Shakespearean theater actor as his lead. He even auditioned while wearing a toupee.

Yet, the role drew him, as did the part of Charles Xavier, mentor and leader of the X-Men. He chose parts that presented an opportunity “to learn something,” he told students. He admired both characters, he said, for their morality, kindness, sensitivity, compassion and intellectual capacities.” When Galloway asked if he saw some of himself in those men, he said that the considered those characters both smarter than he is.

Having achieved what some actors dream of, and others dread, by playing characters that have become indelibly imprinted in the mind of millions of viewers, Stewart said of his career, one in which he holds the same honor of knighthood with legendary actors such as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness and his great friend Ian McKellen, “I was lucky.”

Photo by Jon Rou