Irish-born stage and screen actor Peter O’Toole, who became an international star in the title role of David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” died on Saturday at age 81.
He was undoubtedly one of the greatest actors of his generation. And yet with the 2006 film “Venus,” O’Toole surpassed Welshman Richard Burton and assumed the dubious distinction of being the most nominated actor never to win a competitive Oscar. When it was first announced that O’Toole would receive an Honorary Oscar in 2002, O’Toole astonished the Academy by turning it down, announcing in a letter to the organization that he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honour until I am 80.’”
But he did indeed show up at the ceremony the following year, accepting the award from Meryl Streep. “Always a bridemaid never a bride,” he said with typical theatrical flair to an adoring crowd, “my very own Oscar now to be with me till death do us part.”
He racked up eight Oscar-nominated performances — including the beloved schoolmaster in “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1969); two portrayals of King Henry II (“Becket,” 1964, “Lion in Winter,” 1968); an insane aristocrat who thinks he’s Jesus Christ in “The Ruling Class” (1972); the larger-than-life film director in “The Stunt Man” (1980); and the swashbuckling actor in “My Favorite Year” — but his “Lawrence” always loomed largest.
The 1962 film was considered Lean’s masterpiece and possibly the greatest debut lead performance by any screen actor in history. Given the young O’Toole’s flaxen mane and sky-blue eyes, Noel Coward is said to have remarked to O’Toole: “If you’d have been any prettier, it would have been ‘Florence of Arabia.”
But for all of O’Toole’s stellar stage and screen work over the years, his acting threatened to be overshadowed by the wild antics of his personal life. He was grouped among a group of hellraising U.K. actors that included Burton, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, Michael Caine, Robert Shaw and Oliver Reed. And like Burton, only more so, the great promise of O’Toole’s early years was marred by bouts of alcoholism and serious physical decline that made him appear emaciated and prematurely aged.
And yet O’Toole was unapologetic about his lifestyle. When asked by Charlie Rose if he ever regretted anything, or didn’t live up to his own expectations, he told the interviewer with deadly seriousness that he achieved everything to which he ever aspired. In fact, he padded his own legend by tales of debauchery on talkshows, where he could always be relied upon for his colorful yarns and unmatched eloquence (he once described being inspired early in his career by Michael Redgrave’s performance as “King Lear” as “a concatenation of extraordinary circumstances and coincidences”).
He regaled David Letterman, taping his show in London at the time, with the story of how he and a fellow “Lawrence” actor prepared themselves to ride camels in the movie’s famous charge at Aqaba by getting properly lubed with brandy to get over their fear of falling off the animals: “This look of messianic determination on my face was in fact a drunk actor,” he told the talkshow host.
When he was on target, however, as in “Lawrence,” the showy “The Stunt Man” or “My Favorite Year,” O’Toole’s hammy exuberance was used to great advantage. His intensity was such that his performances in films including “The Ruling Class,” The Stunt Man” and “The Night of the Generals” (1967), in which he played a murderous, high-ranking Nazi, were positively frightening.
“His family are very appreciative and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed towards him, and to us, during this unhappy time,” his daughter Katherine O’Toole said in a statement on Sunday. “Thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts.”
O’Toole’s vocal work was also exemplary, voicing Sherlock Holmes in an animated series on British television in the early ’80s, or as the dyspeptic food critic Anton Ego in the 2007 feature “Ratatouille.”
His stage work was largely limited to Britain’s West End and Dublin, where he shone in a wide range of Shakespearean roles — his Hamlet inaugurated Laurence Olivier’s National Theater in 1963 — as well as contemporary pieces such as “The Long, the Short and the Tall,” which first brought him to audience attention in 1959, and John Osborne’s “Look Back in Anger.”
He was born Peter Seamus O’Toole in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, and grew up largely as an Irish immigrant in the northern England industrial town of Leeds. (He would return to Connemara to live for much of his later life). For a time he was conscripted to a convent school, but in his teens he abandoned his education and, after several menial jobs, he joined the staff of the Yorkshire Evening News as a copyboy and photographer’s assistant. After four years, his editor fired him, declaring that journalism held little opportunity for him. So he turned to his avocation, acting, touring with a local repertory company.
Once asked about his aspirations as a journalist, O’Toole replied, “People like me thought that he’d rather be the person written about than do the writing.”
After a stop in the British Submarine Service, he headed to London in 1952 and auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He was granted a scholarship and graduated in 1954 in the same class as Albert Finney and Richard Harris.
During this period actor Wilfrid Lawson became his close friend and mentor.
O’Toole spent the next 3½ years with the Bristol Old Vic, debuting in 1955 in “The Matchmaker” and moving on to London in productions of “Major Barbara” and the musical “Oh My Papa” within a year.
He performed in 73 productions at the Old Vic, but it was his Angry Young Man interpretation of “Hamlet” that really caught London critics’ eyes. The London Times called it “a restless interpretation, crudely staccato in diction and gesture yet blessed with uncommon energy and staying power.” His first post-Old Vic production, “The Holiday,” closed before reaching London in 1958, but the following year his Royal Court performance in “The Long and the Short and the Tall” brought him the London Critics Award for best actor.