May 6, 2024

FTV: Patrick Stewart – (the Younger)


     The name Patrick Stewart no doubt connects with SciFy fans through the resume of characters he has played in recent times:  Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek:  The Next Generation TV / movies / and now streaming with the newest iteration Picard), Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men movies and other Marvel movies like Dr. Strange and the Multiverse of Madness), and even the voice of the Poop emoji (in the animated Emoji film).  When TNG debuted in 1987, there was considerable buzz around the Picard character because a) he was older than people pictured for a dashing starship captain, b) he was balder than expected for a dashing starship captain, and c) his character was of French heritage but clearly spoke with an English accent.  Many viewers at the time were not aware of Stewart’s origins in the Yorkshire area of Northern England or of his training at the very English Bristol Old Vic Theater School.  Patrick Stewart  had a long career in theater before he became a starship captain including a fourteen year tenure with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC).

     His most notable achievements between 1966 (when he became a member of the RSC) and his introduction into the world of Star Trek were many.  He made his Broadway debut in 1971 appearing in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  His performance in the 1979 adaptation of Anthony and Cleopatra in London’s West End earned him the Laurence Olivier Award for the Best Supporting Actor.  Between that role and his second Laurence Olivier Award (and his first Tony Award) in 2008 (for reprising his role as King Claudius in Hamlet), Stewart began appearing in television shows and movies.  When the original run of TNG ended in 1994, he became kind of a ‘go to’ actor for a host of TV miniseries, movies, and even sitcoms.

     Stewart’s bonafides are too numerous to list here, but suffice to say at the age of 84, he has created a vast legacy of work in every type of entertainment media one can think of.  A passing reference to his book Patrick Stewart – Making It So – A Memoir (Gallery Books, Camm Lane Publishing 2023) led me to find a copy via interlibrary loan.  The tales of his long and storied career are fascinating, but in this brief space, I would like to concentrate on young Patrick Stewart’s life.  I have often written about the similarities in the upbringing of British rock stars who grew up in post-WWII England so it was time to put an actor’s life under the same lens.

     One of the first times I really thought about my parent’s life during the Great Depression and World War II came courtesy of one of my elementary school teachers at the Willard Whitman School in Marquette (now owned and renovated by Northern Michigan University into  Whiteman Hall).  During our daily reading time, she would read us a chapter of a book entitled Rufus M.  Written by Elenor Estes and published in 1943, it was the first in a series simply called The Moffats.  Each chapter of the book recounts another story about Rufus and his family.  Set during 1918 and the final year of World War I, I was intrigued by the tales that told about  shortages of things like food and coal and how the family survived these times.  It was, of course, a fictional tale but my parents lived through similar times (my father and mother were born in 1919 and 1924).  I started peppering them with questions about what life was like ‘back then’.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have also been interested in the stories of musicians who grew up in Great Britain as the country slowly righted itself from the devastation and deprivations of war.  As I said, it is high time I gave an actor their say in the matter.

     Patrick Stewart’s parents lived a simple life during and after the war years.  His father, Alfred was an older veteran who had twice been sent on tours of India in the 1920s and 1930s as a member of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (or KOYLIs).   When World War II broke out, Regimental Sergeant Major Alf Stewart saw combat and was twice air-dropped into battle.  Alf was also used to help recruit  paratroop volunteers:  he would stand next to the recruiter who would at some point, pull of Alfred’s beret revealing his bald pate and say something along the line of, “If this old geezer can jump out of an airplane and parachute into battle, so can you.”  When he was ‘de-mobbed’ (demobilized) from the army after WWII, Patrick was five years old and finally having both parents at home would impact the rest of his life.  

     Having earned a great deal of respect while serving as an RSM in the Army, Alf Stewart had a hard time adapting to civilian life.  It took many years for Patrick to realize much of his father’s abusive behavior toward his mother was probably fueled by ‘shell shock’, the old term for what is more widely known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Regardless of the source of his frustrations and anger, Patrick and his older brother Trevor often found themselves inserting themselves between their father’s raised fist and their mother.  This difficult parental  relationship never broke up the family unit, but Trevor did leave for military service as soon as he was old enough.  This left Patrick as his Mam’s sole shield and the feelings that lingered can be summed up by Patrick’s recollection of their passing.  

      Trevor had called to tell Patrick their mother Gladys had passed away in 1977 at age 76.  She had a difficult life, “marked by poverty, spousal abuse, and exposure to chemicals in the mill [where she had worked], and there was only so much her heart could take before it gave out,” according to Patrick.   Upon visiting her the final time, the undertaker left him alone with his mother and as he moved toward the open casket he recalls, “Just before my eyes fixed on her face, I heard her say, ‘Oh, hello, Patrick, love.’  I know I heard it.  I did not imagine it.  I kissed her on the check, told her I loved her, and bid Mam farewell.”

    Three years later, Alf Stewart passed away and Patrick felt a much different set of emotions on his final visit with his father:  “As I now inched toward his coffin, I prepared myself for Dad, like Mam, to speak to me.  But no such supernatural greeting was forth-coming.  Nonetheless, I felt a charge in the room, as if he might, at any moment, sit up and hit me.  I wasn’t filled with sadness as I had been when saying goodbye to Mam.  My primary feelings toward him – still – were of anger and fear.  I did not offer him a final kiss, but I did say goodbye.”  I should note that neither parent survived to see Stewart reach the pinnacle of his acting career, but they were supportive of his chosen profession even when he himself was not sure it was the right thing for him to chase.

     Becoming an actor was an unconventional choice for a Northern lad from Yorkshire.  Schooling never really interested young Patrick much but he did enjoy the sporting opportunities it brought.  When time came for him to take the dreaded ‘11 plus exams’ that would shape his future educational options, Stewart took a different path, literally.  Near the end of his stay at Crowless Boys’ School, he was in sight of the grounds on testing day when he decided to turn  left and take a different path to the other side of the valley.  Upon entering the Bluebell Wood, he sat against a stone wall and ate his lunch:  “I even took a little nap,  I look on this day as one of the happiest of my childhood, as if I had given myself a wonderful gift.  Remarkably, there were few repercussions for my going AWOL.  There was talk with my form master about me sitting the exam the next day, but in the end, my parents didn’t force me to, and I simply never took the exam.  Nor was I punished for my avoidance of academic duty.”

     In September of 1951, Patrick would begin his next level schooling at Mirfield Secondary Modern.  He wondered later if his little act of rebellion against the 11 plus exams landed him exactly where he needed to be.  “I was never very academic but I was well read.  The price for me to attend grammar school upon passing the 11 plus would have been considerable.  Why did I cunningly and truly walk away from an opportunity for advancement?  What was my problem?”   

 The art master at the secondary modern school he attended did stir a passion for working with clay when Mr. Haycock persuaded the school to buy a potter’s wheel and a small kiln.  Later in life Patrick became a collector of Inuit pottery, the quality of which he now says far surpasses his own efforts, but no doubt his appreciation stems from Mr. Haycock’s class.   English literature classes from Mr. Dorman were also a favorite and his instructor was the first to bring the works of William Shakespeare into his life.  Mr. Dormand would also play a pivotal role in steering Patrick into the acting field.  

     Mr. Dorman and the headmaster, Mr. Bassett, sensed something in young Patrick Stewart that he himself had not yet felt.  The two summoned him to the school office one day and offered him an opportunity that he would not have stumbled upon on his own:  The West Riding County Council’s Department of Education was organizing an eight-day residential drama course for the spring bank holidays.  The course would be taught by theater professionals and all expenses would be paid.  They even suggested they would ‘alter his paperwork’ so the 14 year old Patrick would appear old enough to qualify.  It was 1953 and the first door to the future was opened.   With his parent’s blessings, he stepped through it.  

     He thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience and met fellow artisans who would become life-long friends.  One of the instructors, Ruth Wynn Owen, invited him to travel to her home in South Yorkshire to continue studying with her on weekends.  Patrick jumped at the chance even though it was a three-hour one way trip with bus changes and a final mile and a half walk form the station to her home.  She charged no fee for these sessions and Stewart was thrilled to learn some of his new friends from the eight-day course would also be in attendance.  Staying in a guest room at Owen’s home provided another insight Patrick had not been aware of.  There was a portrait hanging in the room in which he stayed.  It frightened him that the portrait appeared to glow.  Curiosity finally compelled him to ask Ruth about it and she said, “Oh, you noticed it.  Yes, it has always been there.  It was with us when we and the painting lived in another house.  The mist has followed us around.”  Owen went on to explain how she was often visited by the spirit of a young girl who would appear to her and had become an accepted part of their household.  She told Partick very few people had picked up on the ‘glowing mist’ attending the painting, meaning he was sensitive to such things.

     Near the end of his schooling, Mr. Dormand again surprised Patrick when talk turned to what he would do once he exited school and entered the world outside.  Having professed to having no ideas about the future, Mr. D asked, “Have you thought about acting?”  Stewart reminded him that he was acting (in local amateur dramas, or am-drams) but Dormand persisted, suggesting a career in acting.  Patrick did not see acting as his future.  When he told Mr. D, “That is not a job for people like me,” Mr D retorted, “You are wrong.  ‘People like you’ include Albert Finney and Richard Harris.  Theater is changing.”  When he could not be budged in that direction, the teacher and the headmaster talked him into taking a job at the local paper as a fifteen year old cub reporter.  Again, they encouraged him to not reveal he was not yet 16. 

     On the advice of an older woman reporter, the totally unqualified Patrick set up a routine of visiting local offices, pubs, and churches to gather news.  In the pre-cyber age, he did his networking the old fashioned way – face to face.  The secretary at one of the churches told him over tea that he was but the second person she had met who had a light blue aura about him (the other having been a visiting minister).  He shared this information only with his Mam and Ruth Wynn Owen.  Owen told him, “Oh yes, I saw it the first time I met you and I see it now.  You must not be afraid,  Your friend was right – it is beautiful, but I didn’t see it when you were acting.  I wonder why?  Perhaps we should work with that in mind.  It could be a very important asset to you when you are onstage.”  His career as a reporter would not be long, but this paranormal gift would remain with him.  

     While he worked as a reporter, he continued to act in local am-drams.  Stewart was fired from the paper when he missed a scoop on a fire because he was across town rehearsing for a play.  The fire occurred at a mill very close to the council meeting he was supposed to be covering so he had to fess up why he missed the story.  Patrick was given an ultimatum:  “Give up all these stupid amateur theatricals and you can stay on the job.”  Stewart replied, “Mr. Wilson, thank you for your offer, but I am going to try and make a career in the theater.”  His search for new employment landed him at Hudson’s Furniture where he worked his way from the bottom of the rung into a position in sales.  This job also left him free to continue with his’ amateur theatricals’. 

     One comment Stewart makes several times is the inability of actors to remember their successes but to never forget their failures.  While he was getting quite a reputation for his performances among the local theatrical groups, he did not get accepted by the Dewsbury Drama Club.  “Honestly,” he writes, “I have never quite gotten over [the rejection].”  The next move for Patrick came about when his friend Brian Blessing was discharged from his National Service for having flat feet.  Blessing was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School.  A bit jealous of this turn of events, Patrick shared his desire to apply to the same school with his mentor Ruth Wynn Owen.  She advised him to first apply for a West Riding County Council grant (the same group that had paid for his previous 8 day residential school where he had originally met Brian Blessing).  As they waited to hear about the grant, she helped him fill out an application for Bristol.  His audition at Bristol took place in the spring of 1957 and he fully expected to do the interview and be told, “Thank you for coming, we will be in touch.”

     The director of the school, Duncan Ross, inquired about his age (16) and his prospects for being called to National Service (which was no longer required for all young men).  Patrick was a bit gobsmacked when Mr. Ross told him, “You are very young, but you seem quite a lot older.  All right, we will offer you a place, starting in September, and you will receive the offer in writing.  Make sure we have your address.  Thank you for coming.”  The next hurdle, an interview with the West Riding Council, would prove to be the final piece of the puzzle.  His future as an actor hung on how he would pay for the Bristol School.  Patrick ended up being the first West Riding scholarship recipient who was not a graduate of Oxford or Cambridge.  His lack of education at a prestigious house of learning had not prevented him from being accepted at a school that would profoundly affect the rest of his life.

     Having covered a good share of young Stewart’s life, we will turn our attention to the older version of Patrick in Part 2.


Top Piece Video – Why Aqualung?  It happened to be playing on WOAS as I was posting this . . . and the album cover art kind of reminds me what Patrick Stewart may have looked like in some of his roles!