Patrick Stewart: Captain Fantastic
Credit: Photograph by Mark Seliger

When X-Men started in 2000, it would have been impossible to imagine Stewart doing a quadruple-take video or mugging it up for Twitter in Super Bowl team jerseys, as he did with a baffled McKellen for their recent theatrical run. Now he has 1.1 million followers, with Stewart shamelessly mugging with his head in the stocks under the caption: "I should have never switched to Verizon." During the run of their plays, Stewart and McKellen tweeted pics from everywhere, including Coney Island, the Empire State Building, and under the ass end of the bull on Wall Street. Stewart's social media presence was clearly egged on by Ozell and, of course, there was commerce involved. Stewart and McKellen owned a portion of the Godot and No Man's Land production, so every ticket sale derived from their hijinks was money in their pockets, an angle rooted in Stewart's penniless childhood. Still, something fundamental has changed to loosen up the old man.

It started when he played Macbeth in both London and New York in 2007. The character disturbed him so much that he'd head home to his Tribeca apartment and drink scotch until the man was behind him. It was a modern production, and one day he looked into the mirror in his dressing room and recognized the man in a greatcoat and mustache, holding a rifle.

"It was my father staring back at me."

Not long after, Stewart began investigating his dad's life at the behest of a BBC documentary crew. One of the first things he came across was a clipping from the local paper heralding his father's return in 1940, and mentioning in a brief aside that he was suffering from severe shell shock.

Stewart then made a trip to France. He discovered that his father was supposed to be in the rear with the gear, but his lightly armed unit was rushed to the front as the Germans slashed through France. Their train was stopped outside Abbeville as the Luftwaffe laid waste to the town. Alfred Stewart and his men were caught in grassland between a marsh and a bridge, pinned down by bombing for hours. The train conductor uncoupled the engine and drove away, leaving the troops stranded.

Stewart and his men saw ghastly things – a dead woman with a finger missing where a scavenger removed her ring and the corpses of two young children. They spent the next month on the run from the Germans before being evacuated shortly before the fall of Cherbourg. Then, despite his shell-shocked status, Alfred Stewart did a strange thing, especially for a man of 38: He volunteered for the paratroopers. He successfully dropped into the south of France as part of Operation Dragoon in August 1944, playing a significant role in the liberation of the country he had watched crumble four years earlier.

Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, and Patrick Stewart pose at the premier of X-Men: The Last Stand (Photo by Getty Images/ E. Charbonneau).

Patrick Stewart knew nothing of this. He knew his father had served, but little beyond that. He exhales as he talks about how the revelations changed things.

"Having spent a good many years naming my father as an abuser of my mother, which I saw and witnessed, I was brought face-to-face with the knowledge that he was a man with experiences I was unaware of," says Stewart. "That there were reasons why he was an alcoholic and physically abusive, depressed at times. I've talked to people who understand post-traumatic stress disorder and described my father's behavior, and they've said, 'Absolutely classic PTSD behavior! No doubt about it.' "

What's left unsaid is Stewart's relief from the abused-child circle of self-recrimination: If only he had been better, if only he had been good, things would have been different. And he understood, finally, why his mother stuck around.

"My anger toward him was dissolving anyway," says Stewart with a grimace disguised as a laugh, "thanks to 17 years living in California and some very, very high-quality therapy to which I am immensely grateful. But nevertheless, he was considered by me persona non grata. I never talked about him outside of the abuser context. I never knew what he saw."

That's all over now. Stewart devotes considerable time to Refuge, a women's abuse charity, and Combat Stress, a PTSD support group. He smiles widely, not out of ego but family pride.

"I do one for my mother, and now I do one for my father."