Peter O'Toole

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Peter O'Toole Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 27/4/16

As a teenager, Peter O’Toole scribbled a pledge in his notebook: ‘I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony’.

A natural eccentric, the actor’s legendary love of drinking only accentuated his off-beat behaviour, leaving the world agog at his escapades when fame threw a spotlight on them.

He appeared in many acclaimed films, but is best remembered for his lead role in David Lean’s 1962 blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia in which he played T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British army officer who fought with Arab irregular troops against Ottoman Turkish rule in World War One.

Soon after he died on December 14, 2013, O’Toole’s daughter Kate said the family had been overwhelmed “by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed towards him, and to us”. Many admirers expressed the hope that he would ‘rest in peace.’

They had to be joking!

O’Toole’s striking good looks and charm sustained him through a stage and film career of more than 50 years that swung wildly between triumph and disaster, garnering him eight Oscar nominations but, to the disgust of his admirers, no win. The most-nominated actor never to win the award, he eventually and reluctantly accepted an honorary Oscar in 2003.

Tall, blond, piercingly blue-eyed and at times a notorious hell-raiser, O’Toole’s peculiar flair for portraying abstracted, visionary characters led to some superb performances in the 1960s and 70s, notably the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, the role that propelled him to worldwide fame.

On stage, he was magisterial in productions such as Hamlet for the National Theatre (directed by Laurence Olivier) in 1963, Professor Higgins in the 1984 New York production of ‘Pygmalion’ and the title role in ‘Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell’ (Apollo Theatre, 1989) for which he won an Olivier award.

His place of birth is the subject of some dispute – he himself claimed it was Connemara on Ireland’s West coast – he was born on August 2, 1932 but brought up in the city of Leeds, the son of a bookmaker. After leaving school at 14 he took a variety of jobs including as a newspaper copy boy and a salesman. Following his National Service in the Royal Navy he won a scholarship to RADA in 1954 where one of his classmates was Albert Finney. The following year, he joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre company, staying there for two and a half years with roles that included Vladimir in ‘Waiting for Godot’, Jimmy Porter in ‘Look Back in Anger’ and his first ‘Hamlet.’

He made his West End debut in the BOV transfer of the Swiss musical comedy ‘Oh, My Papa!’ at the Garrick Theatre in 1957. In 1959, he received wide praise for his role as Private Bamforth in Willis Hall’s The Long, the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court, a performance that Kenneth Tynan noted “may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness”. During the RSC’s 1960 Stratford-on-Avon season his roles included Petruchio (opposite Peggy Ashcroft) , Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and a celebrated Shylock, while in 1963 he played Hamlet in the National Theatre’s inaugural production at the Old Vic. The same year he played the title role in Brecht’s Baal at the Phoenix Theatre, a performance that led Martin Esslin to describe him as “the greatest potential force among all English-speaking actors”.

His biggest break came when he leapt to fame in the title role in David Lean’s epic portrait of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962), for which he won a British Academy Award and his first Oscar nomination. Nothing he ever did after, and that included many notable British and other films, was able to eclipse the poetic image he struck as the visionary zealot Lawrence who exercised such a hold on the 20th-century imagination. “I learnt more from David Lean than from anybody else in the theatre or cinema,” he later said.

Other starring film roles quickly followed: Beckett (1964) opposite Richard Burton and Lord Jim (1965), both of which were co-produced by O’Toole’s own Keep Films Company. He made a string of international films, including How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn (1966),The Lion in Winter,’ which co-starred Katherine Hepburn (1968), Murphy’s War (1971), Under Milk Wood,’ with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (1972) and the historical flops The Night of the Generals (1966) and Great Catherine (1969). He also appeared in two musicals, Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) and Man of La Mancha (1971). Curiously, I first became aware of him when he starred in Woody Allen’s madcap comedy What’s New Pussycat? (1965). Exotic European locations, Romy Sneider, Ursula Andress, Peter Sellers fresh from his multiple brush with death, Tom Jones’s arresting title song – the end product could never match the sum of its individual parts, yet the film retains a certain ‘period charm’ despite its (at times) nonsensical narrative.

He was always attracted to eccentric roles, and the eccentricity began to express itself in the 1970s in more mannered performances. He gave a superbly funny performance as the upper class Lord who thinks he is God in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class (1972), yet another Oscar-nominated role. He rejoined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company a year later and for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1976 he played three parts in Dead-Eyed Dicks.

O’Toole’s well publicised bout with alcoholism sent his career into a downward spiral in the late 1970s and his public persona moved from star acting to scandalous celebrity. He divorced his actress wife Sian Phillips after 20 years marriage and underwent major stomach surgery for pancreatitis. His two actress daughters, Kate and Pat, took care of him during a long period of recovery. In 1983, he fathered a son, Lorcan, with the Californian model Karen Brown.

In 1976, he appeared in the television thriller Rogue Male and in 1979 his performance as a power-crazed director in The Stunt Man won him a US Film Critics Award and in 1980 he returned to the London stage at the Old Vic in the title role in Macbeth. The production was a fiasco, drawing huge audiences but also receiving some of the worst notices for a London theatre show in living memory. He resigned from the board of the Old Vic after his fellow directors disowned the production.

Later film credits included My Favourite Year (1982) in which he played a hilarious drunken cinema has-been, Creator (1985) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987). He returned again to the stage in three Shaw revivals, Man and Superman (1983), Pygmalion (1984) and The Apple Cart (1986). He also gave a barnstorming performance in Keith Waterhouse’s hit comedy Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989) in which he played the permanently inebriated title character, and Waterhouse’s Our Song (1992).

Recent screen appearances included Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (2003), Priam in the Brad Pitt Hollywood epic Troy (2004), the comedy Venus (2006) – for which he earned his eighth Oscar nomination as a lecherous old actor resigned to taking bit parts – and as the Pope in the glossy television series The Tudors (2008).

He wrote two highly literate volumes of autobiography, Loitering with Intent (1992) and The Apprentice (1996). In 2003 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 75th Academy Awards having previously refused the offer of an honorary Oscar until he reached his 80th birthday, arguing at the time “I am still in the game and might win the bugger outright”.

In July 2012 he announced his retirement from acting, saying: “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. The heart for it has gone out of me; it won’t come back. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell”.

A performer of great technical command, exceptional charisma and charm, Peter O’Toole was unique. “I’m not crazy,” he once said, “But I think everybody else is. For me life has either been a wake or a wedding”.

Recommended viewing

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Although it won the Academy Award as the year’s best picture in 1962, “Lawrence of Arabia” would have soon been a lost memory if it had not been for two film restorers named Robert A. Harris and Jim Painten. They discovered the original negative in Columbia’s vaults inside crushed and rusting film cans, in addition to roughly 35 minutes of footage that had been trimmed by distributors from David Lean’s final cut. To see it in a movie theater is to appreciate the subtlety of F.A. Young’s desert cinematography – achieved despite blinding heat and the blowing sand, which worked its way into every camera. “Lawrence of Arabia” was one of the last films to be photographed in 70mm (as opposed to being blown up to 70 from a 35mm negative). It was a truly unique experience to see it in 1989 as Lean intended it in 1962 – and also a humbling one – if only for reminding us that the motion picture industry had been gradually losing the vision to make epic films like this whilst settling for safe narrative formulas instead.

“The restoration of Laurence” can be located at:

It’s a fascinating article about how the film negative was salvaged and then laboriously reconstructed and remastered. A 1989 “South Bank Show” featured April ’88 footage of David Lean in a London studio with Peter O`Toole, and Alec Guinness, as the actors re-recorded lost portions of the original sound track. Considerable equalisation was required to make O’Toole’s voice sound more than twenty five years younger.

Some analysis of the restored scenes can be located at:

The Lion in Winter (1968)

How to steal a million (1966)

O’Toole’s ‘one shot’ romantic leading man role in this frothy romantic comedy opposite Audrey Hepburn, hints at an alternative career path he would ultimately choose to forsake. Caught in the act of stealing a painting, director William Wyler introduces his star in a close up shot that visually glorifies those preternaturally blue eyes. Audrey’s soon hooked, and the effervescent pair work well together. It’s a charming piece of mid-60’s hokum that holds up well nearly fifty years lsater.

Murphy's War (1971)

A critical and commercial failure upon its release, this World War II actioner is sabotaged by sloppy editing and dubious matt backdrops, yet features a tour-de-force madcap performance from O’Toole, as the embittered sole survivor of a shipping crew that has been massacred by a German U-Boat in the closing days of World War II. He lands on the shore somewhere on the river Orinoco delta and begins to plot his vengeance. Hell bent on sinking the U-Boat by any method imaginable to him, he sets about making various courageous attempts, assisted by Louie, the islands Government Administrator. It’s a study in focused concentration with a steely eye for retribution.\

Man of La Mancha (1972)

Rogue Male (BBC Tv) 1976

Rogue Male is a 1976 British television film starring Peter O’Toole, based on Geoffrey Household’s novel of the same name.

Made by the BBC, it was adapted by Frederic Raphael and directed by Clive Donner, and starred Alastair Sim (who sadly passed away one month before transmission), John Standing and Harold Pinter. First shown on 22 September 1976, the production had been originally conceived as a theatrical release. A best selling novel, the story had been previously filmed in 1941 by Fritz Lang as Man Hunt,” with Walter Pidgeon in the lead role. A film I remembered from childhood with considerable regard, it was a somewhat dispiriting experience to revisit the movie some forty years later. Yes there was George Sanders as Major Quive-Smith- still as impenetrably cold as I remembered him – but Pidgeon’s interpretation lacked focus, being essentially more romanticized and brimming with civility. O’Toole’s Sir Robert Hunter is a more withdrawn, taciturn individual, rather ambivalent about his aristocratic background and equally at home in a cave.

For the uninitiated, household’s novel is the ultimate ‘man on the run’ thriller. In early 1939, before the start of World War II, Sir Robert Hunter (OToole) takes aim at Adolf Hitler with a high-powered rifle, but misses when he is spotted and tackled by an SS guard. Captured and tortured by the Gestapo, he is then left for dead, but manages to make his way back to England where, to his shock, he discovers the Gestapo has followed him. Believing that the government would, in all likelihood, turn him over to German authorities, Sir Robert goes underground (literally) to escape his pursuers. Holed up in a makeshift cave and living off the land, his newly acquired home has only one exit, and this proves to be a weakness in his cat-and-mouse confrontation with the Nazis.

The Lang version is more stylish and romantic, but Donner’s TV-version has the novel down cold, and in my opinion, is all the better for it. The early interrogation scenes are particularly brutal, and the idea of tables being turned on a big game hunter remains intriguing.

“Rogue Male” was broadcast on the BBC in September 1976, the same week as the first episode of “I Claudius.” With both shows vying for the prestigious front cover of the national “Radio Times,” O’Toole’s feature would win. Visiting the rival set several days later to watch his actress wife Siân Phillips, the actor was aware of a venomous atmosphere, describing his presence as about as ‘popular as a pork sausage in a synagogue.’ Nevertheless, it was an experience he overcame, informing Francine Stock on BBC Radio 4’s Film Programme in 2007, that the film remained his favourite from his illustrious career.