That Peter O’Toole made it to the ripe old age of 81 doubtless surprised no one more than O’Toole himself.
“The common denominator of all my friends is that they’re dead,” he joked mordantly in an interview for the 2008 book “Hellraisers,” which chronicled O’Toole’s career alongside those of his contemporaries Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They represented a generation of British actors whose titanic screen performances were rivaled by their legendary off-screen drinking, carousing and other wicked ways, all of them dead well before their time.
In fact, O’Toole had nearly beaten them all to the punch when, in 1975, at only 43, an emergency stomach surgery revealed that his digestive system had been so eroded by alcohol that even the slightest amount more could prove fatal. So O’Toole sobered up in life, though on stage and on screen a certain drunken grandiloquence would continue to inform many of his greatest performances — roles like that of the washed-up Hollywood swashbuckler Allan Swann in 1982’s “My Favorite Year” (which earned O’Toole the seventh of his eight best actor Oscar nominations); the egomaniacal movie director Eli Cross in Richard Rush’s life-vs.-art puzzle box “The Stunt Man” (1980); and the real Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard in the play “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell,” which opened on the West End in 1989 and was subsequently filmed for television. The title, fittingly, referred to the one-line apologia that would appear in place of Bernard’s “Low Life” column on those (frequent) occasions when he was too drunk, hungover or otherwise incapacitated to produce it.
“Bernard” was among O’Toole’s favorite projects — one he insisted on presenting in 2002 at the Telluride Film Festival, where he was feted with a career tribute. Another favorite was “Rogue Male,” made by the BBC in 1976 and out of circulation for decades, before being revived on DVD in recent years. O’Toole stars as a British gentleman who attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1939, just before the start of World War II. For the actor, who grew up during the war years and wrote at length about Hitler in the first book of his two-volume memoir, “Loitering with Intent,” the material struck a particularly personal chord.
“I was physically ill at the age of six, seeing this man,” he told Roger Ebert on stage in Telluride, recalling his first glimpse of the German dictator in a newsreel.
That was somewhere in Leeds, or one of the other northern English racecourse towns where the young O’Toole lived an itinerant existence with his bookmaker father and nurse mother. “I wasn’t born into the working class, I was born into the criminal class,” he was once quoted as saying. Three of his childhood friends would go on to be hanged, in separate cases, all on charges of murder.
A little over two decades later, it was O’Toole’s face that was splayed large on the movie screen, first with supporting parts in Disney’s “Kidnapped” and Nicholas Ray’s “The Savage Innocents” (both 1960) followed by the great breakthrough of “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962). The making of that movie consumed two years of O’Toole’s life, during which he lost a dramatic amount of weight, broke bones and tore ligaments.
But “Lawrence” was more than worth the trouble. O’ Toole was instantly immortalized — those crystalline blue eyes and arched eyebrows, staring out into the desert with such purpose, at once fearsome and slightly dandyish, more mythic even than the photos we have of the real T.E. Lawrence himself. Well, the movies have a way of doing that.
It was a hard act to follow, and indeed, much of O’Toole’s post-“Lawrence” work found him looking faintly bored or bemused in roles hardly worthy of his gifts, as if he’d wandered on to the set after a particularly raucous bender. (Many of these titles are, justly, scarcely remembered today: “The Night of the Generals,” “Great Catherine,” “Brotherly Love,” “Man Friday.”) The exceptions, of course, were his two turns as King Henry II, “Becket” (1964) and “The Lion in Winter” (1968), in which he had superior sparring partners in the form of Burton and Katharine Hepburn, respectively. Then came director Peter Medak’s gallows comedy “The Ruling Class” (1972) with O’Toole completely unhinged and enormous fun to watch as a delusional aristocrat who alternately believes himself to be Jesus Christ and Jack the Ripper.
And so it went. For more than 50 years, O’Toole worked constantly, amassing nearly 100 film and TV credits, which ran the gamut from famous Hollywood catastrophes (“Caligula,” “High Spirits,” “Supergirl”) to eminence grise supporting turns in big-budget blockbusters (“Troy,” “Stardust”) and, every decade or so, a “comeback” role or two to balance the scales.
In the ‘80s, that came in the form of “The Stunt Man,” “My Favorite Year” and the TV mini-series “Masada,” where O’Toole was the Roman General who leads the siege against the titular Israeli fortification. Writing at the time, Pauline Kael suggested that O’Toole was improving as an actor. “It’s clear that he doesn’t impress himself with what he’s doing,” she wrote. “And he doesn’t hold back a thing — not even what stars usually hold back to make you know they’re stars.” Towards the end of that decade, he was an oasis of modesty as a kindly Scottish schoolteacher in the large-scale “The Last Emperor.”
When he was given an honorary Oscar in 2003, he at first demurred, saying he’d like to win one outright. In 2007 he got one last shot, for the terrific “Venus,” a wonderfully uncomfortable, mostly one-sided May-December romance between a cancer-stricken actor and his friend’s teenage niece. O’Toole was playing close to the bone there — randy, heartbreaking, raging against the dying of the spotlight. And again, O’Toole went home empty-handed (a distinction he shared with Burton).
But it is another 2007 role that forever endeared O’Toole to a new generation of viewers. As the voice of the feared food critic Anton Ego in Pixar and director Brad Bird’s “Ratatouille,” O’Toole caught all the nuances of a complex anti-hero whose prickly demeanor masks a deep empathy for the soul of a true artist. “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” says Ego in the film’s celebrated closing monologue. “It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France.”
Much the same might be said of a no-account boy from Leeds who went on to become one of the world’s greatest actors.