"Don't ever tangle with a Texan," an American friend told Peter O'Toole on his first trip to the States. Actually, he used a shorter, more expressive verb. But the advice impressed the British actor so much that he flew to Texas the first chance he got.

"I stayed with some chums of a chum (in Paris, Texas)," O'Toole said on a recent visit to Dallas. "And we just bowled about. We went to see the Red River. We came to Dallas. Just to get a little whiff. Flying here was extraordinary. I looked at some of the fields, and they were the size of Ireland."That was nearly 20 years ago. In late April, the flamboyant star returned to hype his memoir "Loitering with Intent: The Child" (Hyperion: $21.95). A line by puckish "Dave" star Kevin Kline inspired the title: "We do the acting for nothing," the American told the author. "It's the loitering with intent that we get paid for."

Looking like a pale, slightly blown dapper tulip, the actor poured himself a late afternoon cup of English Breakfast Tea and rammed an untipped Gauloise into a black holder. When the French cigarette popped out on his striped shirtfront, he casually swept away the ashes with a pallid hand and poked it back in. After all those years on stage, he passes off the flub with studied grace.

O'Toole may call himself "a creaky 60-year-old fart," but he still moves like a willowy panther. At the interview, he was charming though mildly aggrieved at having left his copy of anthropologist Richard Leakey's "Origins Reconsidered" and a paperback Oxford dictionary on the plane. "It's a rather complicated book," he explains. "And you have to glance at the dictionary every moment."

His fans knew he can play an obsessed king, a mad baronet and drunk old actor. They knew that he once tore through five uncut acts of "Hamlet" on stage and "broke through" playing what one British critic called "an unmade Bedouin" in "Lawrence of Arabia" on screen.

They knew that for years he had a great thirst and a gift for outrageous behavior. And that he'd lost a portion of his guts to surgery and sworn off the sauce in 1976. But what few people knew until this year was that he could write raucous prose like a wild Irish poet.

"Loitering with Intent" is not the usual star memoir. The first of a planned three-volume autobiography (The Child, The Actor, The Man) is bursting with life, a roisterous Gaelic pub of a book filled with sweet Runyonesque oddments - his racetrack bookie dad, his loving mum, his painter friend Patrick O'Liver. "We are joined at the hip," says the author.

And looming over all is Adolph Hitler, the monster whose image in the wartime newsreels frightened the lad living in north England.

"I was sent away to be away from the bombs and the bombing," he says. "My mother was very anxious. And don't forget, it wasn't a question of `if' (the Germans were coming). It was a question of `when.' And we heard the wireless, the radio: `We will fight them on the beaches, we will fight them on the land, we will never surrender.'

"Tank traps were being dug. Barbed wire everywhere. The Home Guard with men over 50 and 60. And Europe was just toppling over. The green bottles were falling - kchong, kchong, kchong, kchong. And it was 20 miles away."

Hours after he returned from boring exile in the country, bombs blasted his hometown. One of the most memorable passages tells how it felt to be a child during the blackouts.

"I went to see a friend, and I said, `I'm stuck. There's a whole year where I can't remember things.' And he said, `Can you remember anything, like Christmas, to pin the mind to a certain point?' And I couldn't, but I picked up a big thick book called `Chronicle,' which is a collection of newspaper stories throughout the 20th century. I turned to 1941 and, of course, it was the blackout."

The dark winter months in wartime seemed especially weird to a child. "We saw nothing," he says. "We lived in a blacked-out world. The only light we saw was tracer bullets and searchlights, and we heard the drone of Messerschmidts and Fokkers."

Like O'Toole with "Origins Reconsidered," the reader could use a lexicon for his colorful language. The book is chockablock with expressions, such as "running the pasties" (playing cards) and "popped her clogs" (died). "A lot are racing-world expressions, theater-world expressions. I love the metaphor of slang. I love popular demonic speech.

"Don't forget," he says with a wave of his dandy holder, "I was reared on Abbott and Costello and The Three Stooges and Popeye. We had to translate all that, and we loved translating it. We have what Dylan Thomas called `the barrier of a common language' in America and England. I think there's a lot of give and take. I think we've adopted a great number of American terms, and it's only fair that we spread it around a bit."

After all, says the avid reader, whose first American hero was Jack London's "Martin Eden," "It's a living language. It's growing. It's alive. It's vivid. I'll take anything that comes from America. Much has been a great influence on me. Much. Particularly American poetry from T.S. Eliot to Vachel Lindsay. Whitman, of course. There was a man who suggested they go into the streets and use the language of the people. And Stephen Crane has influenced me enormously."

Nearly every reviewer likens his style to James Joyce. "Comparisons are odious," he says, recalling his early days in the theater when critics compared him to Sir Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave. "I wanted to be me."

As a teen, he read Joyce's "Dubliners" and "Portait of the Artist as a Young Man." "And I found them beautiful, lucid, lovely. And then I tried to read `Ulysses,' and I felt betrayed. My limpid stream had gone. It was muddy and cloudy. `Finnegan's Wake' I found intolerable. I couldn't even touch it."

The hardest part of his own book was beginning, he says. "It was like barnacles on the keel of a boat. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was looking for the voice, the fair voice, the honest voice. Fair to the reader, fair to me. It took me nearly a year to begin. The whole process of taking the first step. It was a search for the voice that's inside my head. After a while, I began to trust the pictures. I don't know where the words come from. But if the pictures aren't there, nothing happens."

Once after writing a passage on an area in England that recalled its colors, shapes, sounds and buildings, he realized that he hadn't been there for 40 years. "So I put the pad down (he writes by hand); and I got out of the house into a car, turned left, turned right, turned left onto a motorway and drove two or three hundred miles ... I was alone in the car and I began to just chuckle. Occasionally, I laughed aloud, but mostly I just chuckled. It was all there."

Besides cricket (he's a recently certified coach), the actor's greatest joy is his 10-year-old son Lorcan (the Gaelic equivalent of Lawrence). The product of a tight-knit family, O'Toole waged a trans-Atlantic custody battle for the boy, who spends his school term with his father and holidays with his mother, American actress Karen Somerville.

"Loitering with Intent" has left its imprint on him, the busy actor says. "I haven't been able to calculate what yet. It's inchoate. But something's happening. Something very rare, solid is happening. I don't know what, but I sense it. I trust my senses. I trust my intuition. I'm looking at things in a slightly different way. Above all, I'm enjoying writing. It's a love affair. And they aren't always easy, are they?"