By Gregory Katz
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 after a long bout of illness, 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, did he?” he said, chuckling.
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.
But 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 Lawrence of Arabia. With only a few minor movie roles behind him, O’Toole was unknown to most moviegoers when they first saw him as T.E. Lawrence, the mythic British World War I soldier and scholar who led an Arab rebellion against the 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.
In 1964’s Becket, O’Toole played King Henry II to Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket, and won another Oscar nomination. Burton shared O’Toole’s fondness for drinking, and their off-set carousing made headlines.
O’Toole played Henry again in 1968 in The Lion in Winter, opposite Katharine Hepburn, for his third Oscar nomination.
Four more nominations followed: in 1968 for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in 1971 for The Ruling Class, in 1980 for The Stunt Man and in 1982 for My Favorite Year. It was almost a quarter-century before he received his eighth and last, for Venus in 2006.
He received an honorary Oscar in 2003. By then it seemed a safe bet that O’Toole’s prospects for another nomination were slim.
O’Toole graciously accepted the honorary award, quipping, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot,” as he clutched his Oscar statuette.
He had nearly turned down the award, sending a letter asking that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hold off on the honorary Oscar until he turned 80.