O'Toole, star of Lawrence of Arabia, the most original actor from Britain

O'Toole, star of Lawrence of Arabia, the most original actor from Britain

The master actor liked to tell interviewers that his background was 'not working class but criminal class'

O'Toole, star of Lawrence of Arabia, the most original actor from Britain

Peter O’Toole, an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose performance in the 1962 epic film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ earned him overnight fame and established him as one of his generation’s most charismatic actors, is no more.

Blond, blue-eyed and well over six feet tall, O’Toole had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man — and he did not disappoint in ‘Lawrence,’ David Lean’s wide-screen, almost-four-hour homage to T E Lawrence, the daring British soldier and adventurer who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks in the Middle East in World War I.

The performance brought O’Toole the first of eight Academy Award nominations, a flood of film offers and a string of artistic successes in the ’60s and early ’70s. In the theatre — he was a classically trained actor — he played an anguished, angular tramp in Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’ and a memorably battered title character in Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ In film, he twice played a robust King Henry II: first opposite Richard Burton in ‘Becket’ (1964), then with Katharine Hepburn as his queen in ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968). Both earned Oscar nominations for best actor, as did his repressed, decaying schoolmaster in ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’ in 1970 and the crazed 14th Earl of Gurney in ‘The Ruling Class’ in 1973.

Less successful was his Don Quixote in ‘Man of La Mancha,’ Arthur Hiller’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway musical, but it emphasised that his specialty was increasingly becoming the outsider or misfit: dreamy, romantic, turbulent, damaged, or even mad, but usually larger than life.

O’Toole threw himself wholeheartedly into what he called “bravura acting,” courting and sometimes deserving the accusation that he became over-theatrical, mannered, even hammy. His lanky, loose-jointed build; his eyes; his long, lantern-jawed face; his oddly languorous sexual charm; and the eccentric loops and whoops of his voice tended to reinforce the impression of power and extravagance.

Burton called him “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war,” with “something odd, mystical and deeply disturbing” in his work. Some critics called him the next Laurence Olivier. As a young actor, O’Toole displayed an authority that the critic Kenneth Tynan said “may presage greatness.” In 1958, the director Peter Hall called O’Toole’s Hamlet in a London production “electrifying” and “unendurably exciting” — a display of “animal magnetism and danger which proclaimed the real thing.”

Unfulfilled promise

He showed those strengths somewhat erratically, however; for all his accolades and his box-office success, there was a lingering note of unfulfilled promise in O’Toole. It was no surprise when Olivier chose O’Toole to inaugurate Britain’s National Theatre Company in 1963 with a reprise of his Hamlet. But the first night left most critics unmoved and unexcited and the actor himself lamenting “the most humbling, humiliating experience of my life.”

“As it went on,” he said, “I suddenly knew it wasn’t going to be any good.” A production in 1965 of David Mercer’s “Ride a Cock Horse,” in which he played an adulterous alcoholic, was booed at its London opening. In the movies, he continued to be a marquee name, though he drew only mixed reviews for a subsequent run of performances: as the cowardly naval officer seeking redemption in ‘Lord Jim,’ Richard Brooks’s 1965 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel; as a playboy in ‘What’s New, Pussycat?,’ a 1965 comedy with Peter Sellers that was written by a young Woody Allen; and as the Three Angels in ‘The Bible: In the Beginning,’ John Huston’s 1966 recreation of Genesis. And his sadistic Nazi general in Anatole Litvak’s ‘Night of the Generals’ (1967) was panned outright.

His carousing became legend, particularly in the 1970s. As he himself said, he had long been “happy to grasp the hand of misfortune, dissipation, riotous living and violence,” counting Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Francis Bacon, Trevor Howard, Laurence Harvey and Peter Finch among his drinking companions. He lost much of his ‘Lawrence’ earnings in two nights with Omar Sharif at casinos in Beirut and Casablanca.

Though he won many lesser awards during his career, triumph at the Academy Awards eluded him, perhaps in part because he had made no secret of his dislike of Hollywood and naturalistic acting, which he considered drab. He was nothing if not ambitious, but success would come on his own terms, not the movie industry’s. He had made that plain at 18, when an acting career was already in his mind. In his notebook he made a promise to himself: “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.”

Peter Seamus O’Toole was born on Aug. 2, 1932, in the Connemara region of the West of Ireland, the son of Constance, a Scotswoman who had been a nurse, and Patrick, an itinerant Irish bookmaker whose dandified dress and manner earned him the nicknames Spats and Captain Pat. O’Toole liked to tell interviewers that his background was “not working class but criminal class.” The father was left with a bad right hand after all its knuckles were systematically broken, presumably by creditors.

When Peter was a baby, the family moved to England and settled in a tiny house on a black-cobbled street in an impoverished section of industrial Leeds with a “reek of slag and soot and waste,” as he described it in an autobiography. Peter was an altar boy at the local Roman Catholic church and displayed a gift for creative writing, but he left school at 13 and became a warehouseman, a messenger, a copy boy, a photographer’s assistant and, eventually, a reporter for The Yorkshire Evening News. A poor journalist by his own admission, he was fired by the editor with the words, “Try something else, be an actor, do anything.”

It was a constructive nudge. (He had already tried his hand at amateur dramatics.) After an obscure debut as a rum-swigging seafarer in a melodrama called ‘Aloma of the South Seas,’ Leeds’s well-regarded Civic Theater cast him in the lead role of Bazarov in an adaptation of Turgenev’s ‘Fathers and Sons.’ Though military service intervened, his aspirations came to fruition quickly. At 20 and almost penniless, he went to Stratford to see Michael Redgrave as King Lear.

An epic T E Lawrence

At six feet two, O’Toole was not an obvious choice for the role of a five-foot-four scholar-soldier, and the producer, Sam Spiegel, had found him bumptious in a meeting. But after Marlon Brando turned down the role, Lean lobbied for O’Toole and won the day. His casting led to a mesmeric yet meticulous performance that brought world renown and an Oscar nomination to an actor whose only notable screen appearance to date had been as a priggish young officer in “‘he Day They Robbed the Bank of England’ in 1960.

Whatever his later reputation as a roisterer,O’Toole was conscientious when it came to preparing for a role. In the two-odd years it took to shoot ‘Lawrence,’ he read all he could about the man, studied Bedouin culture, lived in a Bedouin tent, taught himself the essentials of Arabic and learned to ride a camel. His acting method, he wrote in his autobiography, was a process that blended “magic” with “sweat,” a matter of allowing a text to flow into his mind and body until he fully inhabited the character — “that simple, that difficult.”

O’Toole admitted to being “a very physical actor.” “I use everything — toes, teeth, ears, everything,” he said. After his triumphs of the 1960s 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 Sian Phillips, whom  O’Toole had married in 1959, 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 O’Toole said he essentially gave up alcohol in 1975, his career continued to sputter. 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 who attempted to exit through a wall of the rather dark set at the Old Vic 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 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, Errol Flynn-like thespian of ‘My Favorite Year,’ a seventh in 1983.

The 1980s also brought him unwanted publicity in the form of a long court battle with his second wife, Karen Brown, an American actress with whom he had a son, Lorcan, in 1983.

The eventual judgment allowed  O’Toole, already the father of two daughters by Ms. Phillips, to look after the boy while he went to school in England and his mother to have custody during vacations.

Partly as a result, O’Toole’s professional engagements became fewer. In 1987 his restrained performance as the court tutor in Bernardo Bertolucci’s ‘Last Emperor’ was widely called the strongest in a strong movie. But onstage his Professor Higgins in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ proved more controversial. In 1984, many London critics were admiring; The Observer described him in the role as “monstrous, eccentric, secretive, arrogant, asexual, childlike, cross and vain”; but in 1987, the New York critics were less impressed, and he was not nominated for a Tony Award.

 O’Toole’s personal life, meanwhile, calmed. Though he made regular trips to Ireland, and occasional ones to the racecourse, he came to prefer a settled, reclusive life in his North London house. He published the first two volumes of a projected three-volume autobiography, ‘Loitering With Intent,’ in 1993 (subtitled ‘The Child’) and 1997 (‘The Apprentice’), impressing reviewers with the verve with which he evoked his early years as well as disorienting them with the overblown prose and chronological jumps of what he himself described as ‘a nonfictional novel.’ Apart from his three children — Kate, Pat and Lorcan, who survive him — cricket was O’Toole’s most lasting love. Indeed, he took a diploma as a professional coach when he was 60, the better to instruct his son and train a London boys’ team. He is also survived by a sister, Patricia Coombs.
But in 1999 he told an interviewer that his only exercise was now “walking behind the coffins of my friends who took exercise.” His once-stormy love life appeared to be over, too. “George Eliot is my only steady girlfriend,” he said. “We go to bed together every night.”

Yet the man Johnny Carson described as perhaps his most difficult guest ever was not wholly changed. O’Toole could be prickly, especially when interviewers asked if he had squandered his talents, or when pet dislikes came up. These included what he called “di-rect-ors,” who he felt had gained too much power over actors; Britain’s National Theater, which he called a “Reich bunker”; and Broadway, which he said was run by “pigs.”
In his later years, he cut not only a raffish figure, continuing to wear green socks in honor of his Irish ancestry and to smoke unfiltered Gauloises from a long cigarette holder, but a gaunt, somewhat intimidating one as well.

Yet his friends knew him as a kindly, generous, responsive man. He claimed that off the stage he sometimes wept with such intensity “that the tears fly out horizontally.” And in the theater his emotional depth was apparent when he played the alcoholic journalist and gambler Jeffrey Bernard. The third and last time he took the role, many felt an essentially comic performance had darkened, deepened and grown in pathos. It was as if O’Toole were meditating on past loss and waste — as if he were offering a rueful elegy to himself.

In 2000, he was honoured with the Outstanding Achievement citation at the Laurence Olivier Awards in London. In 2003, one nomination away from setting a record among actors for the most Oscar nominations without winning — he received an honorary one for lifetime achievement.

At first reluctant to accept, fearing it would somehow signal the end of his career, O’Toole eventually agreed to the honour as something well earned and started his acceptance speech by saying, not without a note of triumph: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride — my foot. I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part.”