HAIRCUT 100: Day 70, No. 70. Sir Patrick Stewart: Actor, Socialist, Humanist, Yorkshireman, Knight Bachelor and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, X-Man, Captain of the Enterprise, and the other Captain Ahab. Like his old friend Sir Ian McKellan, Stewart is quite simply one of the greatest British actors of his generation, a proper luvvie, whose presence and voice recalls the age of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Laurence Olivier. Stewart comes from a poor, working class background, which has informed his politics ever since; his mother was a weaver, and his father was a postman. During the war, his father was a Regimental Sergeant Major in the Parachute Regiment, and was shell-shocked during the Dunkirk Evacuation. Suffering from undiagnosed depression and combat fatigue for many years after, Stewart’s father had a volatile temper and the children grew up in an atmosphere of oppressive domestic violence. Stewart has been very candid about his childhood, and memorably and movingly explored the causes of his father’s behavior in the BBC genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? I found this particularly relatable. My dad was a D-Day veteran with similar issues, who imposed a tyrant’s rule on my family and was subject to long periods of depression punctuated by bursts of uncontrollable rage. Like Stewart, as I have grown older I have come to understand his poor, damaged soul, and the pressure he was under.
Old farts like me will remember the rise of Patrick Stewart as a powerful supporting British character actor on the telly in the seventies. He was Sejanus in I, Claudius, John Thornton in North and South, and George Smiley’s KGB opposite, the enigmatic Karla, in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It was no surprise when he moved into film, making an impression as the booming Leondegrance (father of Guenevere) in John Boorman’s Excalibur in 1981, and as Paul Atreides’ mentor, Gurney Halleck, in David Lynch’s Dune (1984), his Shakespearian background translating well to epic fantasy and science fiction. I remember thinking at the time that Stewart’s subsequent casting in Star Trek: The Next Generation was inspired, bringing a very different authority figure to the bridge of the Enterprise after William Shatner’s maverick Jim Kirk. In Captain Picard, we see a more advanced Federation, away from the frontier thesis essentially played out in the original Star Trek. Legend has it that Stewart only took the part because he didn’t expect the series to last, but he went on to play the character across seven seasons, comprising 176 episodes, and four movies. And let’s face it, Captain Picard is now in charge of The X-Men. Stewart lost his hair at the age of eighteen through Alopecia areata (a less severe version of what I have), and he has said that acting served as a means of self-expression after the loss of confidence that followed hair loss. When Stewart was cast in The Next Generation, a journalist challenged series creator Gene Roddenberry with: ‘Surely they would have cured baldness by the 24th century,’ to which the famous screenwriter replied, ‘In the 24th century, they wouldn’t care.’