It was unmistakably him. On the adjoining balcony of my Venice hotel, a large glass of amber liquid in his hand, stood Richard Burton. Jaysus. ‘Mr Burton,’ I said.
‘Richard,’ he said. From him I would learn the meaning of fame.
The following day, an explosion of cameras flashed on the quayside. Photographers from all over the world jostled each other to capture the actor’s every move. They fell over each other, and one across the bonnet of a moving car.
‘Richard!’ they shouted. ‘This way! Look here, Rich! Is it true you’re getting back with Liz?’
Actor Gabriel Byrne would learn about fame from Richard Burton. (Gabriel pictured with Glenn Close pose backstage during the 62nd Annual Tony Awards at Radio City Music Hall on June 15, 2008 in New York City.
He was helped into a gondola, where I sat nervously waiting to rehearse our scene together.
It wasn’t much of a part, in truth. My role was that of Karl Ritter, patron of the composer Wagner, in a made-for-TV mini-series. It was just ten lines, but it was money and I was broke. Out of the past 18 months, I had been unemployed for 17. Richard was playing Wagner.
We were punted away from the main canal to a quiet place with no crowds. A larger boat drew up alongside with the director, camera crew, make-up, hair and technicians aboard. My false moustache had begun to itch and was now detaching itself from my lip. I tried to push it back into place with my tongue but succeeded only in sucking it into my mouth.
‘Where’s make-up?’ barked the assistant director through a megaphone. A nervous girl, Sally, was lowered gingerly into the boat. She produced a pair of scissors and began to snip delicately. In silence, the entire crew watched. The producer looked impatiently at his watch.
Suddenly a rogue wave rolled under the boat. The swell unbalanced Sally and the blade of her scissors went through my lip. Within moments, blood was dripping on to my starched white shirt. ‘Get the nurse!’ shouted the megaphone. I was led ignominiously up the gangplank. The nurse applied a bandage and I was dismissed for the day.
I returned to my suite and attacked the minibar, although it was still mid-morning, sucking brandy through a straw. Some time that evening, the phone awoke me from my coma.
‘Hello, Lippy,’ said Burton, ‘come and have a drink.’
We sat on his terrace, me with my bandaged lip, drinking late into the evening until I felt at ease and drunk again, realising that the shame of a split lip was nothing, especially if it meant you could spend time in the company of one of the world’s great actors, his voice directed at you alone.
I remarked on the chaos of the photographers that morning.
‘Fame,’ Burton said, ‘doesn’t change who you are. It changes others. It is a sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps. Then you come to loathe it.’
I’d been watching his performances in the picture houses of Dublin for years, and now here I was getting drunk with him on Jameson whiskey. ‘How’s your lip?’ he asked, as we bade good night at the door.
‘I think Doctor Jameson has me sorted,’ I said.
Richard Burton (pictured) warned Gabriel Byrne fame is a ‘sweet poison you drink of first in eager gulps. Then you come to loathe it’
‘Give it all you’ve got but never forget it’s just a bloody movie. That’s all it is,’ he said. ‘We’re not curing cancer. Remember.’
I was at the start of my career and he was at the end of his. I’ve made more than 80 films since then and I’ve never forgotten those words.
More than a decade later, I attended the Cannes Film Festival in 1995 for the premiere of The Usual Suspects – not my first major role, but the one that would change my life overnight. As I walked up those red-carpeted steps, hundreds of photographers shouted, the clicks of their flashes sounding as if we were being shot at.
The audience gave the film a ten-minute standing ovation and we also stood to acknowledge the applause.
‘You are in a f****** hit, dude,’ someone said. At the after-party, there were crowds of hand-shaking, hugging strangers and beautiful women. Dawn came up over the Croisette. I staggered back to my hotel with a pocketful of phone numbers, ignoring the feeling of dislocation rising in me, the sense of being physically there but somewhere else in my head.
‘You know this changes everything,’ a famous producer had said at the party, bear-hugging me and whispering in my ear. ‘You’re a f****** star.’ I had recoiled, embarrassed at the word.
Billionaires’ yachts bobbed on the water in the dawn light. I ran in the empty streets, hoping to give the slip to the darkness spreading like a stain inside my brain. I ran and ran, past fluttering flags, the billboards for a thousand movies, running up into the hills of gated villas hidden by bougainvillea and cypress trees.
But when I stopped, there was still such tumult in my mind I was afraid I would fall down and be found weeping in the street.
I returned to the hotel, sweating, the foyer already filled with journalists and publicists and television cameras. There was a poster featuring our film, a review printed large and a photograph of us all with the heading: ‘Best film of the festival.’ A triumph. Black coffee was put in my hand and I was politely bossed from interview to interview. When we emerged into the sunlight for lunch, the paparazzi were there again, calling all our names. We now needed bodyguards. Toasts were drunk, more phone numbers exchanged. Voices began to echo and I felt myself disappearing, as if underwater, gulping for breath.
I was taken by car to have my photograph taken. I remember the photographer ordering me to look this way, chin up, look that way. Now down. How about a smile?
I must have then packed. Made some excuse, though I don’t recall what. I remember the hot wind coming through the car window as we sped along the motorway towards Nice. I must have checked in to the hotel, shown my passport and credit card, but the next thing I recall I was in bed. It was the afternoon, the curtains were closed. I could not leave the room, or the bed. I was behind enemy lines, free-falling in a soundless hole, the thin light above disappearing.
To a God I no longer believed in, I prayed. Have pity on my lostness. Don’t let my days bleed into each other like this. I am unravelling inside. Can you not see the terror that consumes me? I was without even a spark of hope. Why did I feel so worthless, of no merit, superfluous to the world?
Gabriel Byrnes spiralled into drink and depression as he realised fame was not what it was hyped up to be. (Pictured Gabriel with Andie McDowell attending The 50th Annual Cannes Film Festival 1997, Cannes, France)
I had no desire to eat, and stared in a stupor at the television. I felt unable to care about anything. I sought refuge only in sleep, but even then I couldn’t escape. I dreamt I was standing on the banks of a frozen lake and someone was telling me not to cross it. I woke struggling for breath. Nobody knew where I was.
Then, in that room in a French hotel, I awoke one morning several days later and the black dog had left. I opened the curtains, the light poured in like a blessing, and I emerged weak and tentative, ashamed of fleeing a moment of huge success. Ashamed, but determined again to join the world.
My depression, it seems, was often linked to my drinking.
I started young. I remember Christmas morning of my eighth year. There had been a glass of whiskey on top of the piano, and our neighbour, a huge man who had trouble breathing, held the glass to the light, then swirled it around in his mouth before he swallowed. The firelight shone in its yellow liquid. I watched him like a dog watching a rabbit.
‘Jaysus,’ he said, low groans coming out of him.
‘That’s a man can drink,’ said my father.
Someone gave me a sup from a glass of porter. It tasted bitter and I shivered as I swallowed, but even then, although it tasted like medicine, I wanted more. They pulled the glass away from me.
‘He’s a divil for the drink,’ they said, laughing.
Later, as an altar boy in the suburb of Dublin where I grew up, part of my job was to pour the wine into small glasses from one of the bottles in the sacristy cabinet. I twisted off the cap and filled them to just below the brim.
But once, by accident, the liquid splashed on my hand and I licked it, tasting its dull flavour. I took a swig from the bottle. After a few minutes I began to feel joyful as it spread through me, warming all my insides.
Soon I was replacing what I took with water. My friend Clukko and I stole a bottle now and then, and drank it in the field. I washed my mouth out with my father’s aftershave. One day we had finished a bottle between us before Mass. During the service, I knew I was drunk. I heard myself sighing loudly, desperately trying to focus and speak the responses normally, though it felt like I was chewing wool. I rose unsteadily to serve the wafer, staggered on the steps, grabbing for the altar cloth. Sacred vessels, candles, chalice and book of scripture in its golden cover followed as I tumbled on to the marble floor, landing in a heap.
Sour vomit sprayed from my mouth before I passed out. I was not an altar boy after that.
THE men would go to the pub in the evenings to get out of the house. Sometimes they brought their wives on Friday or Saturday nights, a gin for her and a pint for him, and there might be a bit of a singsong, and it would be a roaring madhouse with sweating bartenders by ten o’clock. Then the barman would drive them all out.
‘Have youse no homes to go to? The guards will be in on top of me and I may wave goodbye to me licence. Come on now, last orders.’
Then there’d be more singing back in someone’s house.
‘Shh! A bit of reverence for the singer now.’
‘Don’t wake the children, for the love of God.’
‘Take care he doesn’t fall down the stairs and break his neck.’
I longed to be one of them and have no school but go to work instead, where I would get a brown envelope with money in it called wages. I wanted to be a man and have a gargle with the men at the bar, pints in their hands, stomachs straining over belts, the barman knowing me and what my poison was because I was a regular.
After I was thrown off the altar, my mother had said: ‘If I ever smell drink on your breath, you need never darken this door again.’ So I drank lemonade as my friends stood around fires in the fields drinking cider, and they called me a mammy’s boy.
‘Are you a man or a mouse?’
All right, f*** it. I took the flagon from them, skulled most of it. I felt a fire of power inside myself and I let out a wild roar that made them all laugh. Later, I was doubled over, vomiting on my shoes. Rather than go home with the smell of drink on me, I slept in the field and awoke hours later, shivering, a blacksmith inside my head pounding my brain with a hammer.
I made an oath that I would never let a drop pass my lips, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the smell of alcohol. When I passed a pub, I sometimes opened the door and pretended I was looking for someone – but it was only to breathe in the smell of drink.
I was 15 the first time I got drunk by myself. Although it was well into autumn, the evening light could have been mistaken for a summer’s evening. I bought a six-pack of Macardles and drank it on Howth Head, a beauty spot, out of the way of the hill-walkers.
Suddenly the eternal dullness of my days shifted to brightest colours, and I had a great love for the world and an excitement about my place in it. I wanted to share myself with everyone, and when the bottles were gone I wanted more.
I found a pub, and as I sat on the stool it was the first time I felt truly myself, at ease, equal to the world which had, up to then, made me feel that I didn’t belong in it.
Later, I would drink in every city and every town across the world. With famous actors and down- and-outs, I had bottles, glasses of the most expensive wines, or I finished other people’s leavings. It was all the same.
Alcohol had become my most trusted friend, before it betrayed me and brought me to my darkest days.
By the mid-1990s, it had taken a terrible grip. I remember awakening one morning, cursing the sunlight stinging my eyes. My tongue was thick. I was hungry and sickened by the thought of food, but I needed to drink to cure myself, to quell the racing, random thoughts. A hair of the dog, whatever that meant, to restore calm to screaming nerves.
I strove to recall where I’d been the night before; despair when nothing after noon took shape. Twelve hours in a blackout: Where had I been? Whom had I met?
I moved parts of my body, checking for broken bones and bruises.
I reached for the water and tried to hold the shaking glass, afraid my teeth would shatter it. The slaking of the thirst was almost thrilling – cold liquid on the fire in my throat. I had spent so many days and nights like this, seeking the lonely room or the roaring pub, the bliss of oblivion. The songs sung, arguments begun, the broken glass and vomit and blood. What passed for a life more dead than alive.
Remnants of pizza and upended bottles surrounded me that night. On my hands and knees I drank the dregs.
Then I found – miraculously – unopened whiskey. I gagged as I forced it down. The fire spread in my chest and the trembling eased, and I could light a cigarette.
I cursed not the drink, but reality. Reality was the problem. There was a groan from under the sheets, and a naked girl emerged. ‘Christ, I’m late,’ she said, panicked, searching for her underwear.
I had no idea who she was. I thought she had no idea who I was either, from the way she tried to make sense of me and of where she was. She dressed quickly with her back to me. A bumblebee costume was strewn on the floor, then I remembered: it was Halloween. We’d met in a pub; I had admired her costume. Mascara was on her cheeks – was she crying? Had I offended her? I recalled something about her saying how lonely she’d been, but that was all I could remember.
‘What about your costume?’ I asked.
‘I can’t go out dressed like a f****** bee.’ She asked to borrow an overcoat to get home.
‘See you around,’ she said, backing out of the door. And the place was suddenly empty.
I looked over at the bee costume on the floor and was flooded with despair and shame, and anger and remorse, and hatred for who I was.
And I decided the best thing was to get drunk again. My body was trembling and though my teeth were chattering, sweat poured off me. I had spilled something on myself, then realised, without surprise, it was blood, which covered the sheets and my clothes. Almost bemusedly in the mirror, I took in the blue and black of my own bruised face. My eye was shut with dried blood, and when I opened my mouth, a tooth hung, comically broken in my gums.
I drew a breath, and a viscous pain enveloped my entire body. I sank to the floor, seeking comfort in the cold tiles. I hoped that this time the eternal bacchanal had ended. But I knew it hadn’t. There would be so many days and nights of suffering to come.
Eventually, I found the courage to call someone. ‘I can’t go on dying like this,’ I told my friend Teri.
‘I’ve known for a long time,’ she said. She arranged for me to go to a hospital specialising in alcohol and drug addiction. Before I left, although I was still shaking, I wanted to have a last drink. In a pub where I wasn’t known I ordered a large whiskey. And another. Then gin. But nothing happened.
It was early summer. Drinkers stood chatting outside the pub. I envied them their ability to enjoy life. They seemed so at ease with each other. I’d never felt that. Always on the outside looking in.
At the clinic, they gave me a sleeping pill. I was exhausted. I just wanted to sleep for weeks. Not have to see or talk to anybody.
‘Time to get up,’ said a nurse the following morning. I brushed my teeth. Nausea rose in my throat.
A sea of people looked up as I entered the breakfast room. Every instinct bade me turn around and flee but I fought it off. I joined a table. A man shook my hand. ‘It’ll get better,’ he said.
And it did. Day by day I gained courage. The veils of denial and delusion lifted. I wanted my life back again. With the kindness of my fellow patients and counsellors who encouraged me to be ruthlessly honest with them and especially with myself, I began to see how sick I was, and that the disease of alcoholism was not a moral weakness. I was powerless over it.
But I took it one day at a time. Today, I am over 20 years sober.
Abridged extract from Walking With Ghosts, by Gabriel Byrne, which is published by Picador on November 12 at £16.99. To pre-order a copy for £14.44, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before November 16. Free UK delivery on orders over £15.