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.
“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 agent, Steve Kenis, said O’Toole was “one of a kind in the very best sense and a giant in his field.”
Showbiz execs, directors and fellow actors have paid tribute to their friend.
Amanda Berry, CEO of BAFTA, said: “His was an outstanding career and he leaves us with cinematic magic in his many films. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.”
Leslie Phillips, who played alongside O’Toole in Roger Michell’s “Venus,” said, “Peter was considerate and very supporting as an actor to his colleagues and I will miss him terribly.”
Stephen Fry, who directed O’Toole in “Bright Young Things,” said on Twitter: “Oh what terrible news. Farewell Peter O’Toole. I had the honor of directing him in a scene. Monster, scholar, lover of life, genius …”
O’Toole 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 bridesmaid 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, “The 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.
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.”
O’Toole 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.
First movie roles
His first movie roles were in Disney’s “Kidnapped” and “The Savage Innocents” in 1960. But it was his performance in the film “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England” the same year that bumped him from among the promising to the brink of stardom.
He spent a season at the Memorial Theater in Stratford-on-Avon under the direction of Peter Hall, playing Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” and Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew” and seeing his star continue to rise.
David Lean then cast him in the coveted title role in “Lawrence of Arabia” over the expected Marlon Brando; his performance was mercurial and highly praised, as was the film, which copped seven Oscars, including best picture.
He next appeared onstage in “Baal,” then quickly segued to star opposite Burton in “Becket,” for which both actors copped nominations as best actor in 1964. O’Toole’s Keep Films Ltd. co-produced the film.
His “Hamlet” at the National Theater brought mixed reviews, which mentioned for the first but not the last time O’Toole’s tendency to slip into overheated overacting.
His next few roles in Joseph Conrad adaptation “Lord Jim,” the play “Ride a Cock Horse” and the film comedy “What’s New Pussycat,” did not sit well with critics or audiences. The romantic comedy “How to Steal a Million,” opposite Audrey Hepburn, was somewhat better received, but his Dublin debut in “Juno and the Paycock” was not.
O’Toole reversed the slide with a third Oscar nomination in “The Lion in Winter” opposite Katharine Hepburn. He earned $750,000 for the role and 10% of the gross but didn’t get the Oscar.
Two more nominations followed for the musical version of “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and, in 1972, for “The Ruling Class.” During this period he also appeared in Dublin in “Arms and the Man” and “Waiting for Godot.” But during these years, fighting alcoholism and being sidetracked by stomach surgery, O’Toole had a tendency to choose his projects unwisely. Film such as “Man of la Mancha” (for which he received $1 million), “Caligula,” “Murphy’s War” and even Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” tarnished his star further.
His “Macbeth” for the Old Vic was a step in the right direction, as was his starring role in the 1981 ABC miniseries “Masada.” In Toronto he appeared onstage in “Present Laughter” and “Uncle Vanya” to good effect.
Then, in 1980, playing a sly, megalomaniacal film director in Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man” brought him a sixth Oscar nomination as best actor, followed in 1982 by another wacko interpretation as an alcoholic thesp modeled after Errol Flynn in “My Favorite Year” (by which time O’Toole was on the wagon). He also starred in an Irish miniseries, “Strumpet City.”
He starred in “Pygmalion” repeatedly, including on Broadway in 1987.
O’Toole also appeared in a string of pay-the-bills roles in the mid-’80s in films including “Creator,” “Club Paradise,” “Supergirl” and “High Spirits.” In Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1988 Oscar best picture winner “The Last Emperor,” he was a charismatic presence as the young emperor’s tutor.
In 1988 he starred in Keith Waterhouse’s comedy “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell” in London. In 1991 he was set to appear in a quasi-sequel to “Look Back in Anger” called “Deja Vu” on the West End, but it was aborted after O’Toole and playwright Osborne fell out over creative differences.
In choosing projects the actor seemed to seek out as much variety as possible. He appeared in Lina Wertmuller’s arty 1989 film “Crystal or Ash, Fire or Wind, as Long as It’s Love,” followed by the surreal “Wings of Fame,” then did a TV movie for CBS called “Crossing to Freedom.”
He appeared in the silly John Goodman comedy “King Ralph” and was in the 1994 miniseries “Heaven and Hell: North & South, Book III.” In 1997 he appeared as Arthur Conan Doyle in “Fairy Tale: A True Story,” then took on the schlocky horror film “Phantoms” with Ben Affleck.
For the impressive 1999 Canadian miniseries “Joan of Arc,” starring Leelee Sobieski, however, he won an Emmy Award.
In 2003’s “Bright Young Things,” an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Young Bodies,” and in the big-budget historical epic “Troy,” in which he played King Priam, O’Toole stole “his scenes almost kindly from his fellow actors,” Roger Ebert wrote.
He played the older version of the legendary Italian adventurer in the 2005 BBC drama serial “Casanova.”
In his Oscar-nominated performance in “Venus,” he played an elderly man attracted to his friend’s grand-niece.
The actor appeared in the second season of Showtime series “The Tudors,” portraying Pope Paul III, who excommunicates King Henry VIII from the church. One of his last roles was as Father Christopher in the 2012 feature “For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada.”
O’Toole wrote the memoirs “Loitering With Intent: The Child,” which recounts his childhood before WWII, and “Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice,” which concerns his years spent training with friends at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. They were intended as the first two parts of a trilogy.
For 20 years O’Toole was married to actress Sian Phillips, which produced two daughters, actress Kate and Patricia. In 1983 he fathered a son by model Karen Brown, actor Lorcan O’Toole.
In April 2011 O’Toole was honored by the TCM Classic Film Festival, as part of which he added his hand and footprints to those at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
(Carmel Dagan, Richard Natale and Leo Barraclough contributed to this report.)