LONDON: Known on the one hand for his starring role in “Lawrence of Arabia,” leading tribesmen in daring attacks across the desert wastes, and on the other for his headlong charges into drunken debauchery, Peter O’Toole was one of the most magnetic, charismatic and fun figures in British acting.
O’Toole, who died Saturday at age 81 at London’s Wellington Hospital after a long bout of illness, was nominated a record eight times for an Academy Award without taking home a single statue.
He was fearsomely handsome, with burning blue eyes and a penchant for hard living that long outlived his decision to give up alcohol. Broadcaster Michael Parkinson told Sky News television it was hard to be too sad about his passing.
“Peter didn’t leave much of life unlived,” he said, “did he?”
A reformed – but unrepentant – hell-raiser, O’Toole long suffered from ill health. Always thin, he had grown wraithlike in later years, his famously handsome face eroded by years of outrageous drinking.
Yet nothing diminished his flamboyant manner and candor.
“If you can’t do something willingly and joyfully, then don’t do it,” he once said. “If you give up drinking, don’t go moaning about it; go back on the bottle. Do. As. Thou. Wilt.”
O’Toole began his acting career as one of the most exciting young talents on the British stage. His 1955 “Hamlet,” at the Bristol Old Vic, was critically acclaimed.
International stardom came in David Lean’s epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” playing T.E. Lawrence, the mythic British World War I soldier and scholar who advised the so-called Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks.
His sensitive portrayal of Lawrence’s complex character garnered O’Toole his first Oscar nomination, and the spectacularly photographed desert epic remains his best-known role. O’Toole was tall, fair and striking, and the image of his bright blue eyes peering out of an Arab headdress in Lean’s film was unforgettable.
Playwright Noel Coward once said that if O’Toole had been any prettier, they would have had to call the movie “Florence of Arabia.”
O’Toole won another Oscar nomination for “Becket” (1964), playing King Henry II to Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket, who shared O’Toole’s fondness for booze.
For his third Oscar nomination, O’Toole played Henry again in 1968 in “The Lion in Winter,” opposite Katharine Hepburn.
Four more nominations followed: “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1968); “The Ruling Class” (1971); “The Stunt Man” (1980) and “My Favorite Year” (1982). It was almost a quarter-century before he received his eighth and last, for “Venus.”
Seamus Peter O’Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932, the son of Irish bookie Patrick “Spats” O’Toole and his wife Constance. There is some question about whether Peter was born in Connemara, Ireland, or in Leeds, northern England, where he grew up. He maintained close links to Ireland.
After a teenage foray into journalism at the Yorkshire Evening Post and national military service with the navy, a young O’Toole auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and won a scholarship.
He went from there to the Bristol Old Vic and soon was on his way to stardom, helped along by an early success in 1959 at London’s Royal Court Theatre in “The Long and the Short and the Tall.”
The image of the renegade hell-raiser stayed with O’Toole for decades, although he abandoned drinking in 1975 following serious health problems and major surgery.
He never gave up smoking unfiltered Gauloises in an ebony holder. That and his penchant for green socks, voluminous overcoats and trailing scarves lent him a rakish air and suited his fondness for drama in the old-fashioned “bravura” manner.
A month before his 80th birthday in 2012, O’Toole announced his retirement from a career that he said had fulfilled him emotionally and financially, bringing “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,” he continued. “So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.”
Good parts were sometimes few and far between, but “I take whatever good part comes along,” O’Toole told The Independent on Sunday newspaper in 1990.
“If there isn’t a good part, then I do anything, just to pay the rent,” he said. “Money is always a pressure. And waiting for the right part – you could wait forever. So I turn up and do the best I can.”
The 1980 “Macbeth,” in which he starred, was a critical disaster of heroic proportions. It played to sellout audiences, largely because the savaging by the critics brought out the curiosity seekers.
“The thought of it,” he said years later, “makes my nose bleed.”
In 1989, however, O’Toole had great success with “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell,” a stage comedy about his old drinking pal, the legendary layabout and ladies’ man who, when he was sober enough to do so, wrote The Spectator magazine’s weekly “Low Life” column.
The honorary Oscar came 20 years after his seventh nomination for “My Favorite Year.” By then, it seemed a safe bet that O’Toole’s prospects for another nomination were slim. He was still working regularly, but in smaller roles unlikely to earn awards attention.
O’Toole graciously accepted the honorary award. “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot,” he quipped as he clutched his Oscar.
He had nearly turned down the award, sending a letter asking that the Academy hold off on the honorary Oscar until he turned 80.
“I am still in the game,” O’Toole said, “and might win the bugger outright.”
The last chance came with “Venus,” in which he played a lecherous old actor consigned to roles as feeble-minded royals or aged men on their deathbeds. By failing again to win, he broke the tie for futility that had been shared with Richard Burton, his old drinking buddy.