Peter O’Toole, considered by critics to be one of the finest English-speaking actors of his generation, died in London on Saturday at the age of 81.
An actor equally at ease on the stage or screen, O’Toole was a professional to the core. His legendary preparations for the roles he played served as an inspiration to several generations of actors. He immersed himself fully into his characters: “I use everything — toes, teeth, ears, everything,” he said.
He received a record eight Academy Award nominations, his last for the 2006 comedy-drama Venus. Although he never won, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in 2003.
From the New York Times:
After his triumphs of the ’60s and early ’70s, he entered his most troubled period. His earlier binges had led to arrests for unruly behavior; now they caused memory loss and debilitating hangovers. In 1975, he developed pancreatitis and had part of his intestines removed.
Then his much-loved father died, and the woman Mr. O’Toole married in 1959, the actress Sian Phillips, left him for another man, explaining later that her relationship with an egoistic star had become too tempestuous and “too unequal.” Divorce followed in 1979.
Though Mr. O’Toole said he essentially gave up alcohol in 1975, his career continued to stutter. The universally panned 1979 film “Caligula,” in which he played the Emperor Tiberius, was followed in 1980 by one of the most derided theatrical performances of modern times: a Macbeth at the Old Vic who tried to exit through a wall on the first night and, according to The Guardian, delivered every line “in a monotonous tenor bark as if addressing an audience of deaf Eskimos.”
Yet there was evidence of recovery, too. The ABC mini-series “Masada,” with Mr. O’Toole as a Roman general resisting freedom fighters in Judea, brought him an Emmy nomination in 1981. He also impressed with a galvanically garrulous Jack Tanner in Shaw’s “Man and Superman” in the West End in 1982.
The flamboyant charm of the autocratic movie-director he played in the film “The Stunt Man” brought him a sixth Oscar nomination in 1981, and his playing of Alan Swann, the swashbuckling, Erroll Flynn-like thespian of “My Favorite Year,” a seventh in 1983.
Most will remember him for his brilliant turn as T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. Movies don’t get much better than that one, and O’Toole captured the duality of Lawrence perfectly. This little byplay between General Murray and Lawrence revealed the character’s insouciance.
General Murray: I can’t make out whether you’re bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted.
T.E. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
Everyone probably has a favorite O’Toole role. One of mine is his first fling at playing Henry II in Peter Glenville’s Becket.
Empress Matilda: Oh, if I were a man!
King Henry II: Thank God, madam, He gave you breasts! An asset from which I derived not the slightest benefit.
O’Toole also played Henry II in the scenery-chewing, marvelously overacted Lion in Winter, with Katharine Hepburn matching O’Toole insult for insult:
Eleanor: I adored you. I still do.
Henry II: Of all the lies you’ve told, that is the most terrible.
Eleanor: I know. That’s why I’ve saved it up until now.
O’Toole received his seventh Oscar nomination for a role he may have been born to play. My Favorite Year could have been autobiographical if O’Toole had been born 20 years earlier. It concerned a fading, drunken matinee idol, Alan Swann, based very loosely on the life of Errol Flynn. In order to pay the IRS what he owes them, Swann agrees to appear on a live sketch TV show. Mark Linn-Baker is assigned to keep him out of trouble, which, of course, O’Toole proceeds to get into. The pathos of seeing O’Toole — a notorious drunk and rake — playing that role in a movie was remarkable.
At the climax of the film, O’Toole is told for the first time that his performance in a swashbuckling sketch will be live. Losing his nerve, he shouts at the top of his voice, “I’m not an actor! I’m a movie star!” The irony for O’Toole must have been exquisite given his well-known contempt for Hollywood.
Perhaps Baker sums up our admiration of O’Toole — the man and the actor — in this speech:
Alan Swann: Stone… I’m afraid. I’m afraid. That’s why I couldn’t get out of the car to see my Tess, my child.
Benjy Stone: Alan Swann, afraid? The Defender of the Crown? Captain from Tortuga? The Last Knight of the Round Table?
Alan Swann: Those are movies, damn you! Look at me! I’m flesh and blood, life-size, no larger! I’m not that silly God-damned hero! I never was!
Benjy Stone: To *me* you were! Whoever you were in those movies, those silly goddamn heroes meant a lot to *me*! What does it matter if it was an illusion? It worked! So don’t tell me this is you life-size. I can’t use you life-size. I need Alan Swanns as big as I can get them! And let me tell you something: you couldn’t have convinced me the way you did unless somewhere in you you *had* that courage! Nobody’s that good an actor! You *are* that silly goddamn hero!
He played a lot of those “goddamn heroes.” And a lot of ordinary blokes too — most of them, unforgettably.