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Elegant Madmen

Acad honors O'Toole's distinctive style

Like his late, great Brit rival Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole has never won an Oscar. But after a career of playing dreamers and holy fools, Oscar bestows the actor with a lifetime achievement honor as much for O’Toole’s acclaimed performances as his distinctive style.

HOLLYWOOD — The term “star” suggests not just public familiarity or box office clout but a uniqueness of persona, some combination of qualities that transcend comparison. Let’s face it, though: Even in the uppermost realms of acting fame, not all men (or women) are created equal. Only a few in any generation are so inimitable, so unparalleled that one can safely say there’s never been anything like them. It is safe to say now — as it was 40 years ago, for that matter — that there never has been or never will be another Peter O’Toole.

If the Irish-born, Northern England-raised actor hits the red carpet to accept a lifetime achievement honor next month — O’Toole’s been cagey about whether he’ll show up — it’ll be that utterly distinctive style as much as his numerous acclaimed performances that is sure to get the Kodak Theater audience on its feet. His presence is treasured even when his films are not. And if a good O’Toole performance can be brilliant, a bad one (as in, say, the Penthouse-produced notorious “Caligula” or 1984’s “Supergirl”) seldom fails to be eccentrically entertaining.

The honor is overdue, since with seven nominations and no wins O’Toole is one of the great Oscar bridesmaids — a status shared with more than a few legendary figures such as Clark Gable, Cary Grant and one of O’Toole’s great Brit rivals — the late Richard Burton. It suits his sportive sense, then, that when the actor was first informed of his coming honor, he wrote a well-publicized letter asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to wait another 10 years — figuring he might well win a statuette outright in the interim.

‘Odd customer’

That possibility shouldn’t be dismissed. After all, few first-rank screen actors have rebounded so insistently from personal/career crises, or made so many surprising choices. Once nicknamed “The Bone” by thesping ex-wife Sian Phillips for his lanky, sometimes rail-thin 6-foot-4-inch frame, O’Toole has spent a lifetime playing dreamers, holy fools, elegant madmen — Don Quixote, the emperor of Lilliput, Conrad’s Lord Jim, the earl of Gurney and Robinson Crusoe among them.

Almost invariably, he bestows an effect more special than all the CGI technology in the world could devise. “I think once he was an international star, it became clear he was a rather odd customer,” says film scholar David Thomson. “Something about him isn’t quite grounded in reality. He’s been at his best playing rather fanciful roles.”

That singular charisma was recognized very early on, even amid the starriest student body London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art would ever claim (classmates included Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Alan Bates). Barely out of school, he stirred “next Olivier?” excitement as Hamlet, in the contemporary drama “The Long and the Short and the Tall,” and as Shylock in a Stratford “Merchant of Venice.”

The venerable Stratford was the only party dismayed when O’Toole (who’d hitherto made just three minimally noted screen appearances) accepted perhaps the most coveted single role since Scarlett O’Hara: Lawrence of Arabia in David Lean’s 1962 epic masterpiece. The project took almost two years of the thesp’s time, made him an instant international name, and snared his first Oscar nomination, among myriad other honors.

Mindful that such a defining role might ultimately hinder as well as help, O’Toole spent the next years alternating the stage work he still loved with diverse movie roles. Twice he played Henry II to terrific results: opposite drinking buddy Richard Burton’s “Becket,” then as an aged monarch wrangling with spouse Kate Hepburn in “The Lion in Winter.” Up-to-the-moment comedies “What’s New Pussycat?” and “How to Steal a Million” further bolstered his popular appeal.

Rough patch

The ’70s were a less happy period, as thesp’s legendary taste for alcohol began taking its toll. Successive operations for pancreatitis left his inner workings much reduced, his physical appearance more gaunt than ever. Marriage to Phillips ended, while batting average for stage and film projects sank.

Ironically, the role that would define his later screen persona — bemused, outlandish, slightly crackers — was in a film that almost didn’t see the light of day. Writer-helmer Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man” took seven years to get financed, then sat unreleased for another two before becoming 1980’s critical cause celebre. As Eli Cross, megalomaniac film director who teases and terrorizes Steve Railsback’s title figure, O’Toole had never seemed more flamboyant, or more purely himself.

“When I was working on the screenplay, a character started emerging that nobody but O’Toole could justify. And in a magic stroke of luck we got him,” Rush recalls. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. He defines the outer limits of the art of acting. There’s nobody as good.”

While some directors (such as Alexandro Jodorowsky, whose 1990 “The Rainbow Thief” reunited O’Toole with “Lawrence” co-star Omar Sharif) have gone on record as having had difficulty managing the thesp, Rush can’t second that emotion. “He’s basically a director’s dream,” he says. “If he likes the picture and likes you, he becomes more of an asset than just a leading actor — a real comrade in arms, or as he puts it, a ‘fellow felon.’ He’s a very articulate, very communicative man who’s completely open.”

That star turn nailed yet another Oscar nomination, as did his not-dissimilar part in 1983’s ’50s-set “My Favorite Year.” In 1987, O’Toole won plaudits for his muted charm as the very proper English tutor to “The Last Emperor” of imperial China.

In more recent years he’s penned the acclaimed first two tomes in his autobiography, “Loitering With Intent”; scored a great stage success with “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell,” playing the real-life alcoholic Fleet Street journalist; and appeared in an eccentric mix of big- and small-screen efforts.

Thomson notes that O’Toole’s variably exuberant and excessive path has been closely linked in many respects to Burton — “his great friend, who died young. For many years O’Toole, too, seemed a sort of premature obituary — famously alcoholic, famously ill. So it must be a wonder for many people who have lived that life with him that he’s still here. It’s a great tribute to his endurance. He’s not like anyone else.”

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