Hell-raiser and striking actor who shot to fame in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Peter O’Toole - Born: August 2nd, 1932; Died: December 14th, 2013
Peter O’Toole with his first wife Welsh actress Sian Phillips in 1962
Peter Seamus O’Toole, who has died aged 81, was for a time more associated in the public mind with drinking and “hell-raising” than artistic achievement, but this should not be allowed to eclipse his brilliance as an actor on stage and screen.
His performances, ranging from an acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia, through leading Shakespearean parts to comic roles in adaptations of PG Wodehouse, and his masterful title-role performance in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, gave the lie to those who said – as one did – that he “frittered his life away on wine, women and song”.
His days of riotous behaviour were brought to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s, when doctors diagnosed pancreatitis and warned him he would drop dead if he took another drop. He had yards of his intestinal tubing removed and he gave up drinking, almost.
No one is quite sure whether his birthplace was Connemara, Dublin, or Leeds. But his boyhood upbringing was certainly in Leeds. He attended a Catholic school but renounced religion at the age of 15.
His working life started on the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked for some five years. But the editor finally told him: “You’ll never make a reporter; try something else.”
After national service in the royal navy he became “quite by chance” an actor.
“I hitched to London on a lorry, looking for adventure. I was dropped at Euston Station and was trying to find a hostel. I passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and walked in just to case the joint.”
He ultimately took up a scholarship, “not out of burning ambition but because of all the wonderful-looking birds”.
His West End debut in 1957 was in a disastrous comedy which was booed as the curtain fell on the opening night. The drinking spree that followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings for being drunk and disorderly.
But he put that disaster behind him and won the Best Actor of the Year award in 1959.
When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company, where he consolidated his position by tackling roles such as Hamlet, Shylock and Petruchio. He was also a lover of George Bernard Shaw and performed many of the big roles in his plays.
But it was his performance in his first big film, in 1961, as Lawrence Of Arabia that launched him as an international name.
He starred in a series of films including The Lion In Winter, Beckett, Lord Jim, The Last Emperor and My Favorite Year which were box office successes, and others, such as What’s New Pussycat?, King Ralph, High Spirits and Caligula which were not all successful.