Patrick Stewart was the youngest of three boys born to Gladys and Alfred Stewart in Mirfield, Yorkshire, England. "From my calculations, I was conceived immediately before my father went to war," Stewart says, "and he didn't come home until September 1945 — so I was 5 years old before I ever saw him." Because his eldest brother was 17 years older than he was, Stewart warmly recalls having had his mum mostly to himself.
His mother worked as a weaver in the local mills, earning as little as $7 for a 45-hour week. She was gone each morning before Patrick left for school, and returned at around 4 p.m., reeking of the factory. "I can remember distinctly that oily, greasy smell of the wool," says Stewart.
The family was practically destitute. "Some of my earliest memories are of when a bill collector came to the door," Stewart remembers. "My mother and I would hide behind the sofa and pretend we weren't in. I thought that was a great game." The family's home was just two rooms. The toilet was outside, and Patrick, an avid reader, often took refuge there with a book and a candle.
Stewart describes his mother as a "warm, tender, sensitive person — timid, fearful of everything." He says her fearfulness rubbed off on him, making him "very cautious about things and unconfident." But he wasn't cautious about one thing: his desire to protect his mother from physical and emotional abuse by his father.
When Alfred Stewart concluded his military career as a regimental sergeant major of the Parachute Regiment, he returned home an angry, violent man. "He was a weekend alcoholic who beat up my mother and terrorized the house," Stewart says. "For years I thought of him as the enemy." Though Stewart says his father never hit him, he wrote in a first-person piece for the Guardian in 2009 that, by age 7, he knew "exactly when to insert a small body between the fist and [my mother's] face, a skill no child should ever have to learn."
Despite the abuse, Gladys never left her husband. "She loved him," Stewart says. "My brothers and I would say, 'You must leave him.' But she never would."
Learn: A shelter from elder abuse
Stewart found his refuge in theater. He was cast in a school play at age 12, and he took to acting instantly. "I found the stage a very safe place to be," he explains today. "Everything is predictable when you're in a play. Because of the chaos in my life, I loved the certainty — and the opportunity to become somebody else and not myself."
Soon the boy was taking three buses on Sundays to be tutored by a professional actress who introduced him to Shakespeare and helped define Stewart's future. "I discovered I had an instinct for it," Stewart says. "From then on, all I wanted to be was a Shakespearean actor." Stewart left school at 15 and, after quitting a job at a local newspaper, began steadily working his way up in various repertory companies. In 1966 the Royal Shakespeare Company invited him to become a member. "My dream came true," he says.