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Patrick Stewart Finds Light in the Darkness

At the height of his powers, the actor has banished his demons by fighting for battered women, veterans

Sir Patrick Stewart in New York on December 19th, 2013.

Patrick Stewart's unhappy childhood led to his career in acting. — Nino Munoz

"I have been inclined to be solitary in huge chunks of my life," says Stewart, enunciating the words in his recognizable baritone. "I don't think that's a good thing anymore. I think the interaction of being with people, especially people you like, is very important for keeping you sharp, alert, active, connected." And perhaps, in Stewart's case, younger looking than his years. On this day he is wearing cowboy boots, hip red corduroy slacks, a cotton henley that accentuates his pectoral muscles, and a stylish pair of front-connect readers. He is affable, though thoughtful, and while he says he "couldn't be happier," we understand by the depth of his gaze and the way he sometimes grips his forearms that it was not always so.

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.

Sir Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in The Lion in Winter.

Sir Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close in "The Lion in Winter." — Alamy

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.

Next page: Boldly going where few men have gone before. »

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