The star of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and other classic films had already overcome stomach cancer in the 1970s, but died December 14 at London’s Wellington Hospital after retiring from acting the previous year.
Though he never won an Academy Award, he was nominated for eight across nearly five decades: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982) and Venus (2006).
He was also the winner of four Golden Globes, an Emmy, and Honorary Academy Award, and a BAFTA. In 1987, Peter O’Toole was even offered a knighthood. For political reasons, he turned it down. Today, the greatness of Peter O’Toole, dead at age 81, is undisputed, eclipsing awards and even knighthoods.
Born in Connemara, western Ireland, in August 1932, as the son of a wandering bookmaker, Peter O’Toole came up in the in the best traditions of the mid-20th Century British theatre scene. Inspired by Michael Redgrave’s performance in King Lear after hitchhiking to Shakespeare’s birthplace (and English theatre hub) Stratford-upon-Avon, O’Toole entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1954 alongside students like Albert Finney and Alan Bates. O’Toole himself described his cohort as “the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren’t reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty.”
He would remain close friends with Finney for years, and later forged and maintained another close friendship with his Lawrence of Arabia co-star Omar Sharif.
Having been a brawling, boozing teenager and a rebellious sailor with the navy, Peter O’Toole was a hellraiser acting student as well, often clashing with teachers. But this paralleled the times, with the rise of the “Angry Young Man” movement in British theatre and the growth of a subculture of youthful revolt on both sides of the Atlantic. He would both compete for roles and collaborate with the likes of Richard Burton and Marlon Brando.
After a swift rise to the top of the stage scene in England, O’Toole gaine international fame with perhaps his most famous role, the real-life adventurer T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, now an acknowledged classic of the medium. He brought not only what producer Sam Spiegel called a “probably the most heady blend of sensitivity and vitality I have known in an actor” to the role, but also an element of danger that would mark his acting career.
The same edge was a part of O’Toole’s life off-screen as well. Though he quit drinking in 1975 after his fight with cancer, the actor long had a reputation for raising hell and partying hard. His marriage to actress Siân Phillips, with whom O’Toole had two daughters, was marked by a cycle of dramatic battles and reconciliations, and ended in 1979.
O’Toole was a man of deep passions and convictions, with a complex relationship with faith. He had lost faith in organized religion in his teens, but told the New York Times in 2007 that “No one can take Jesus away from me…there’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.”
Two of his academy award nominations came from playing the same man. He play England’s King Henry II in the prime of life in Becket opposite Richard Burton, then played the same king again as an aging parent in The Lion in Winter opposite Katherine Hepburn (with a young Anthony Hopkins as his son, the future Richard the Lion-Hearted). It is a testament to O’Toole’s chameleon-like versatility that he played these two different seasons of life within four years of each other.
O’Toole stayed active in the later years of his career. He lent gravitas to the Brad Pitt Iliad adaptation Troy, and later received his last Oscar nomination for the 2006 Roger Michell film Venus. He voiced a character in Pixar’s computer animated film Ratatouille, and played Pope Paul III in the second season of the hit Showtime drama The Tudors.
The statement that O’Toole was retiring from acting did not come until July 10, 2012, less than eighteen months before his death after a long illness. However, he came out of retirement, it is believed he completed filming on the Michael Redwood film Katherine of Alexandria, playing orator and satirical pioneer Corenlius Gallus, which will be the great actor’s final performance.
“Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre,” said the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins. Peter O’Toole, one of the few remaining titans of a passing generation of great actors from the British Isles, is dead at 81.
By: Jeremy Forbing