Actor of incomparable charisma Peter O’Toole dies aged 81
Star of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ brought new style of theatrical weight to cinema
For many decades, dispute has raged as to whether Peter O’Toole, who has died in London at the age of 81, was really born in Connemara.
Many claim he actually arrived in Leeds. But the sapphire-eyed tearaway always preferred to believe his initial mewling took place in Galway. So, it is only right that we note the death of a great Irish actor.
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The groovy years that followed didn’t suit him quite so well, but sensible directors continued to savour his rich, woody voice and permanent hint of danger.
No other actor received so many Academy Award nominations – eight, between 1962 and 2006 – without taking away the prize. No lead debut has had quite the impact that he managed with David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. No modern actor throws out comparable levels of charisma. The following pack seems, today, like mere pygmies.
Whatever the circumstances of his birth, Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole certainly grew up in the urban heart of West Yorkshire. His father worked in a number of unstable fields, variously employed as a footballer, a metalworker and – most significantly – a bookmaker.
In his excellent autobiography, O’Toole wrote amusingly of a peripatetic life trudging from one racecourse to the next. He went on to work as a journalist for the Yorkshire Evening Post, before being called up for national service in the Royal Navy.
In 1952, a busy life already lived by the age of 21, he ended up at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
It is sometimes wrongly stated that Lawrence of Arabia was his film debut. In fact, before that film emerged in 1962, he had taken smaller roles in such pictures as Kidnapped and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.
Lean first thought of Albert Finney for the role of TE Lawrence. Yet so securely did O’Toole grab the opportunity, it now seems inconceivable that anybody else could have made sense of the part.
There was great strength in his performance, but there was a fragile femininity to it also. Indeed, Noël Coward is reported to have remarked: “If he’d been any prettier, they’d have had to call it Florence of Arabia.”
O’Toole went on to secure many roles as distinguished, regal (figuratively or literally) figures in classy studio productions. In 1964 he played Henry II in Peter Glenville’s Becket.