Press-Republican

December 18, 2013

Plattsburgh woman recalls Peter O'Toole's break-out film

ROBIN CAUDELL
Press-Republican

PLATTSBURGH — Ruby Hughes’s star-dusted memories of the late Peter O’Toole intertwine with treasured ones of her late husband, James Hughes.

The matinee idol and the decorated World War II veteran’s lives intersected in Seville, Spain, 1962.

ROLE DURING LEAVE

On the set of “Lawrence of Arabia,” O’Toole starred as T.E. Lawrence, a famed British officer who united warring Arab factions against the Turks during World War I. The Arab Revolt (1916-18) led to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire.

On leave from Moron Air Base, Mr. Hughes portrayed an “Arab chief,” who can be glimpsed during the victory celebration near the end of the Oscar-winning film.

The Super Panavision 70 film won Best Picture, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Achievement in Cinematography.

“The one planning the scene there in Spain, they wanted 10 morenos,” Mrs. Hughes said. “That means black men. The commander let 10 of the black men be in the film.”

COSTUMED FOR PART

Horizon Pictures cast African Americans as Arabs and European Americans as Brits. They were paid $1,000 pesetas, plus $1,000 pesetas for a costume fitting.

On the set, Mrs. Hughes took photographs of her laid-back husband as a swashbuckling man-of-the-desert decked in a thawb, with a belted blade at his waist and a cartridge belt strapped across his chest.

“I went to the set and everything,” she said. “It was so different and exciting. They had someone to do the costume and fix them up like they were real.”

Mr. Hughes had no spoken lines, but there is a point in the film where Lawrence (O’Toole) runs right past him.

“He was so tickled,” Mrs. Hughes said.

DANCING WITH OMAR

Directed by David Lean, the film also starred Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn.

Mrs. Hughes and her husband were present with other extras and their wives at the post-production party. She has many black-and-white photographs of the night, including one of her doing the twist with Omar Sharif.

“He had really soft hands,” she recalled.

After the conclusion of their three-year assignment in Spain, the Hughes family was transferred to Plattsburgh Air Force Base in August 1962.

It was just months before the film’s theatrical release in December of that year. Made on a $15 million budget, the film grossed $70 million at the box office. 

Mrs. Hughes watched it in a Plattsburgh movie theater.

“I was excited to see it,” she said.

LOST THEIR MOTHERS

But neither her mother nor her mother-in-law got the chance to.

“When we got there (Spain), it was 1959,” she said. “His mother (Lucille Ford) was sick. We stayed with her until we got ready to come to Spain. He was from Pennsylvania, you know.

“After we were there for a little while, the Red Cross said to him to come because she was sick. She didn’t die until two weeks later, after he got back.

“Then in 1961, my mother (Arlene Koon) died, so me and the two boys came and went to North Carolina and stayed. It was kind of sad.”

Mr. Hughes never got a role in another film, but “Lawrence of Arabia” was a coup like no other.

LOCAL WORK

After 24 years of decorated service, he retired from the U.S. Air Force. As a civilian, he worked for the 380th Bombardment Wing Base Supply Squadron until retiring in 1987.

Locally, he was a member of the American Legion Post 20 and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 125.

Mrs. Hughes had a long career in day care and raised two generations of 10 Plattsburgh families.

The mother of three, grandmother of three and great-grandmother of two is content to remain in her Plattsburgh home, though her daughter, Robin, wants her to relocate to Texas and her son, Alexander, has a welcome mat out for her in Germany.

Her husband died two years ago. Now, O’Toole is gone.

But she cherishes her brush with one of cinema’s most iconic movies and actors.

“This was it … the greatest movie to be in,” Mrs. Hughes said.

Email Robin Caudell:rcaudell@pressrepublican.com