Somewhere toward the middle of his new memoir, Logan Roy—O.K., that’s actually Brian Cox—observes, “We actors are whores for praise … capable of killing our offspring in return for validation and living only for applause.” At the risk of feeding the beast to spare the offspring, I have to say this volume is simply a delight, so much so that it’s tempting to consume it in one sitting. It’s snarky and cutting in a sometimes take-no-prisoners way as befits a waif brought up poor on the hardscrabble streets of Dundee, Scotland, but almost always funny.

About his youth, and trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life, he writes, “I never thought, Oh, maybe I might like to be a dentist, or run a garden centre, or become a cobbler. It was always just, I want to be Spencer Tracy or Danny Kaye or Cary Grant or Bob Hope. I want to be an actor.” But he was none of them. The transformative moment came when he saw Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. “That was all about working-class people—people like us,” he recognized, and thought, “If that guy up there can do it, I can do it, too.” The kitchen-sink school of 60s actors such as Finney, Tom Courtenay, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Alan Bates offered him a way of “escaping that great Damoclean sword of wretched poverty.”

Brian Cox and Sarah Snook in Succession.

Although Cox begins with his birth and family, he soon eludes chronology in favor of a nimbler narrative that more resembles a late-night monologue delivered at a favorite pub. It is chockablock with sharply etched portraits of all the names in lights—Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, Caine, Hopkins, and so on, with whom he’s worked over the course of his long career, which includes countless plays and more than 200 movies.

Cox opens his account by mocking Steven Seagal, admittedly an easy target, for his inflated self-regard, but a bold move nonetheless, because it breaks one of those commandments Hollywood uses to muzzle performers: Thou shalt not make fun of one another for the benefit of the groundlings. It’s like an amuse-bouche, announcing his memoir will be more than a wet kiss to the profession he loves.

Cox as Harry in the “Shades of Greene” episode of The Blue Film, circa 1975.

Sure enough, Cox is not shy about expressing his opinions: Of John Schlesinger, who directed him in Julius Caesar, he writes, “As a film director? Unsurpassed,” but “as a theater director?” He behaved like a “psycho” and had to have the entire play, every scene, explained to him by the actors. Of “the great Peter Hall,” who directed him in Tamburlaine, “I didn’t think he was so great. It was a shitfest.” Of Kevin Spacey, with whom he appeared in a Disney film, Iron Will, “a great talent, but a stupid, stupid man.”

The transformative moment came when he saw Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

He uses Sir Ian McKellen as an example of what he calls “front foot acting,” which he has no use for: “Oh, now is the wintah of our discontent. Made glohorious summah … ” Then there was the time when Princess Margaret was feeling him up in the dressing room after a 1969 production of In Celebration, while her husband, Lord Snowdon, was standing close by: “She put a hand to my chest, just at the base of my throat, undid one button and slid her hand inside the shirt … travelling in the direction of my left nipple yet Princess Margaret was just chatting away as though this was something she had done a hundred times before.”

Despite these juicy tidbits and more like them, Cox’s account is never just knives out. He so admired O’Toole that he almost couldn’t stab his character, King Priam, in Troy. He doffs his cap to Lindsay Anderson for giving him a note that said, “‘Brian, don’t just do something, stand there.’ In one incisive intervention, Lindsay took my natural volatility and moulded it into something involatile. As a result, it was the first time that I felt truly connected as an actor; the first time I understood about economy and the specifics of what you want the audience to see and what you don’t want them to see.”

Cox and Harriet Walter in Three Sisters.

When Judi Dench performs, he writes, “actor and audience go on a journey together, working out their hidden issues. It’s almost spiritual.” Of Woody Allen (Cox was in Match Point), he writes, “He talks and behaves … exactly as you want him to talk and behave, and he’s funny and sweet,” adding, “Cut him, he bleeds Woody Allen.”

Moreover, Cox plunges into deeper waters with assurance, offering his opinions on the nature of “ship romances,” between performers “playing people who are not yourselves. It’s part and parcel of doing what we do.” Using Richard Burton, the son of a Welsh miner as an example, he muses about actors’ penchant for drinking to excess: “It meant he could wear tights and flounce about on stage with a clean conscience that he hadn’t forgotten his roots, that he was still a rough-hewn man of the valleys. Drinking and mining is manly. Acting is not.”

Cox is just as tough on himself—well, almost as tough—as he is on others. Discussing Gary Oldman’s Oscar for playing Churchill in Darkest Hour, up against his own portrayal of the great man in Churchill, he does come away with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for fearlessly baring the streak of pettiness that runs through all of us, calling his own film “honest,” and the dastardly other “a crowd-pleasing farrago.”

He is frank about his affairs, which he daintily calls “dalliances,” his marriages, and divorces, his deficiencies in the fathering department, some of which he attributes to what he calls his “propensity for absence,” even when he was physically present.

Finally, Cox is possessed of something unexpected, something rarely found in the memoirs of entertainers, something that for want of a better word can only be called wisdom—about his craft, which is not all that surprising, but also about Scottish independence, the pitfalls of fame, and, lastly, the British class system, which, to some degree, has poisoned the country’s theater, guilty of “this almost feudal thing of needing to keep people in one place, not allowing them to progress, [where] a working-class actor could never play posh, a posh actor could never play working class. They put you in your box and wanted you to stay there.” Had “bonfire of the vanities” not already been taken, it might have served Cox well as the title of his mesmerizing memoir.

Putting the Rabbit in the Hat, by Brian Cox, will be published on January 18, 2022, by Grand Central

Peter Biskind is the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. He writes about film and television