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.
Four years later, still in his 30s, he again played Henry II, this time in Anthony Harvey’s The Lion in Winter, and was characteristically earthy as the aging king (Anthony Hopkins, who played his son, is just six years younger).
His generation of actors was, perhaps, just a little unlucky. By the end of the 1960s, that gang already seemed a little out of synch with the post-Beatles generation.
A man who wore tweed with confidence, O’Toole was never likely to proceed comfortably in bell-bottoms. However, in 1972 he managed to engage with the counterculture in one of his finest, most underrated performances. Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class found O’Toole playing a deranged nobleman who thinks himself an underappreciated deity. The performance confirmed that – though no hippie – O’Toole was perfectly comfortable playing the rebel.
Any illusions that he was an establishment drone were dispelled in 1984 when, at the reopening of the Gaiety theatre, he chose to deliver Jonathan Swift’s famously savage satire A Modest Proposal. There was some booing as he talked the crowd through Swift’s tips on the easy consumption of babies.
He also played trade union leader Jim Larkin in RTÉ’s landmark adaptation of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City.
Always a great friend of Ireland – he kept homes in Dublin and Connemara at various points – O’Toole had something of a tempestuous private life. He was known to enjoy more than a few drinks.
Marriage to the imposing Welsh actress Siân Phillips ended messily in 1979 (their daughter, the actor Kate O’Toole, has been a stalwart of the Galway Film Fleadh and the Irish Film Board).
As long ago as 1976, he had his pancreas and part of his stomach removed following a cancer diagnosis. O’Toole had one further daughter, Patricia, with Phillips and a son, Lorcan, with the model Karen Brown.
In later years, he made rather a virtue of his wasted appearance and slightly dated dissolution. Nobody who saw him as Jeffrey Bernard in Keith Waterhouse’s play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell will easily forget the tragic punch of that performance.
In 2006 he was terrific as an aging actor in Roger Michell’s Venus. A few years previously, before eventually relenting, he had threatened to turn down an honorary Oscar because he “was still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright”. Though nominated, he failed again for Venus. What the heck were they thinking?