Peter O'Toole, Charismatic Film Star, Dies at 81
By Robert Simonson
Peter O'Toole, the charismatic, devil-may-care film actor who brought charm, wit and intelligence to the roles he played on the screen, as well as to his daily persona and often dissolute public life, died Dec. 14 at the Wellington Hospital in London, following a long illness. He was 81.
Following a decade-long apprenticeship on the stage, Mr. O'Toole was catapulted to international stardom at the age of 30 for playing the dashing title adventurer, T.E. Lawrence, in David Lean's sweeping 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia." He was given the role after Marlon Brando and Albert Finney turned it down. Part of the deal was a seven-year contract to producer Sam Spiegel (whom he loathed), and the filming consumed two years of his life. But the payoff was considerable. Overnight, he was regarded as one of the world's finest actors, and—thanks in part to blonde, blue-eyed good looks that were brought out spectacularly by Freddie Young's vibrant cinematography—a movie star of unparalleled magnetism. (Noël Coward told him, "If you'd been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.")
"I woke up one morning to find I was famous," he said once, recalling this period. "I bought a white Rolls-Royce and drove down Sunset Boulevard, wearing dark specs and a white suit, waving like the Queen Mum."
He was nominated for an Academy Award for "Lawrence," the first of eight such nods. He never won, but was in 2003 given an honorary award for his body of work.
He followed up this victory with a series of stately film roles, including "Becket," "The Lion in Winter" (he played Henry II in both films) and a remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." To each he invariably brought not just formidable acting skill and a fulsome personality, but a self-deprecating, winking sense of humor. His star fell in the '70s as he stumbled through a series of unrewarding movies, but he recovered his reputation with bravura performances as a mad-with-power director in "The Stunt Man" (1980) and—in a bit of knowing self-mockery—a washed up film star slumming on television in "My Favorite Year" (1982).
His film choices were fairly indiscriminate in the following decades, marked by as many flops ("Supergirl," "Creator," "Club Paradise") and successes ("Venus," "The Last Emperor" and the voice of the food critic Anton Ego in the animated "Ratatoille").
Critics sometimes were exasperated by Mr. O'Toole's seeming carelessness. "Peter O'Toole has not always been himself the best guardian of his own interests," wrote David Thompson. "He is reckless, courageous and a little crazy, like Orson Welles." If such criticism bothered him, he didn't show it. Throughout all the hills and valleys of his checkered career, Mr. O'Toole never lost his capacity for enjoyment. Like many of his acting contemporaries, including Richard Burton, Albert Finney and Richard Harris, he was fond of drink and seemed to relish playing the sodden, feckless romantic. He was also ever ready with a quip, the sentiment of which usually flew in the face of those who would advise a more sensible style of living. "For me, life has either been a wake or a wedding," he once said. "The only exercise I take is walking behind the coffins of friends who took exercise," he commented on another occasion. And, again: "I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony."
His lifestyle sometimes caught up with him. Because of his heavy drinking and a digestive defect he had from birth, he was forced to undergo surgery in 1976 to have his pancreas and large part of his stomach removed. And in 1978, he nearly died from a blood disorder.
Peter Seamus O'Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932. He professed not to know the exact date and place of his birth, and held birth certificates from both Ireland and Britain. His parents were Constance Jane Eliot, a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O'Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player, and racecourse bookmaker. Naturally athletic, the young Peter took up swimming, boxing, rugby and cricket. After stints as a journalist, and a stay in the Royal Navy, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1952 to 1954 on a scholarship. His class included Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. The experience of auditioning for RADA, Mr. O'Toole said later, "shamed me into getting properly trained as a actor."
From 1955 to 1958, he cut his teeth at the Old Vic, playing supporting roles in Shakespeare, Shaw and Restoration comedies. He played Jimmy Porter in a production of Look Back in Anger and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. During the 1960 season of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and Thersites in Troilus and Cressida.
Critics noticed the tall, lanky newcomer. "I sensed a technical authority that may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan, after catching O'Toole in a 1959 play called The Long and the Short and the Tail at the Royal Court. "To convey violence beneath banter, and a soured embarrassed goodness beneath both, is not the simplest task for a young player, yet Mr. O'Toole achieved it without sweating a drop."
Following his fame in "Lawrence of Arabia," he portrayed Hamlet in a National Theatre production directed by Laurence Olivier.
Beginning in 1980, Mr. O'Toole occasionally returned to the stage. He was Macbeth at the Old Vic in 1980, and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion by on the West End (1984) and Broadway (1987)—his only Broadway appearance. He scored a singular success playing close to type as a self-destructive, drunkard journalist in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, in separate West End productions in 1989, 1991 and 1999. The latter performance won him a 2000 Olivier Award.
In 2012, he announced he was retiring from the stage and screen. "Dear All, It is time for me to chuck in the sponge," he wrote, in an very in-character statement. "The heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back. My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits. However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell. Ever Peter O’Toole."
From 1959 to 1979, he was married to actress Sian Phillips. The couple had two daughters, Pat and Kate, who survive him, as do Lorcan O'Toole, a son he had by model Karen Brown.
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