Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Peter O'Toole dies: Star of Lawrence of Arabia has died at the age of 81

Peter O'Toole (left) and John Mortimer QC in 2004 during the 12th annual Oldie of the Year Awards at Simpsons on the Strand in central London
Peter O'Toole (left) and John Mortimer QC in 2004 during the 12th annual Oldie of the Year Awards at Simpsons on the Strand in central London
Sir Ian McKellen and Peter O'Toole. The veteran actor in 2005
Sir Ian McKellen and Peter O'Toole. The veteran actor in 2005

Actor Peter O'Toole, who shot to fame in the Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia, has died aged 81, his agent Steve Kenis said today.

Last year the actor bowed out of working, saying he no longer has the heart for it and that it was time to "chuck in the sponge".

O'Toole, said in a statement in Los Angeles that his career on stage and screen fulfilled him emotionally and financially, bringing "me together with fine people, good companions with whom I've shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.

"However, it's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay," he said. "So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell."

An eight-time Academy Award nominee who never won Hollywood's top acting honour, O'Toole shot to screen stardom 50 years ago in the title role of Lawrence Of Arabia, which earned seven Oscars, including best picture and director for David Lean.

O'Toole's grand performance as British adventurer TE Lawrence brought him his first best-actor nomination but set him on an unenviable path of Oscar futility. His eight losses without a win is a record among actors.

The nods stacked up quickly as O'Toole received nominations for 1964's Becket, 1968's The Lion in Winter, 1969's Goodbye, Mr Chips, 1972's The Ruling Class, 1980's The Stunt Man and 1982's My Favourite Year.

In the latter film, O'Toole played a dissolute actor preoccupied with drink and debauchery, seemingly a tailor-made role for a star known in his early years for epic carousing with such fellow drinkers as Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch.

O'Toole went into acting after serving in the Royal Navy, studying at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. His early stage successes included the lead in Hamlet and Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice.

Peter O'Toole - Hell-raising actor with a huge talent

Peter O'Toole was the hell-raising actor with a one-time prodigious capacity for drink whose wild living often eclipsed, in the public mind, his brilliance as a performer, both on stage and screen.

He has been described as a man who wasted his genius on his legendary, heroic and seemingly endless drinking bouts.

But 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 - "most of my plumbing" - removed and he gave up drinking, almost.

Seamus Peter O'Toole was born on August 2, 1932. No living person is 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."

He partly predicted his future in an early poem he wrote, saying: "I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony" - something which proved to be true, in a typically larger-than-life way.

After completing his National Service in the Royal Navy he became "quite by chance", as he says, 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 called Oh My Papa, which was booed at the Garrick as the curtain fell on the opening night. The drinking spree which followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings (50p) for being drunk and disorderly.

But he put that disaster behind him. He was soon well on the road to fame, winning the 1959 Best Actor of the Year award in Willis Hall's The Long And The Short And The Tall.

When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company where he consolidated his position by tackling roles like Hamlet, Shylock and Petruchio. He was 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. That performance was described by Sam Spiegel as "unequalled in modern cinema".

He starred in a series of films like The Lion In Winter, Beckett, Lord Jim, The Last Emperor and My Favorite Year which were box office successes, and others, like What's New Pussycat, King Ralph, High Spirits, and Caligula which were not all successful.

O'Toole said he enjoyed acting for "the gallantry and gamble" and he relished the rollercoaster big risks involved. His Macbeth in 1980 received what were regarded as the worst set of reviews in living memory and O'Toole's ranting and blood-spattered performance made front page news.

Afterwards he faced journalists who asked for his reaction to the critics. He replied: "B*******s. It's a play not a bloody war. This is what the theatre is all about." But the production was a huge box office success, with tickets selling at £200 on the black market.

One of his most acclaimed performances was his portrayal of his old drinking mate in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, probably because he had lived the life himself.

It was around the mid-1970s and the time of his life-saving surgery, that his wife of some 20 years, actress Sian Phillips, with whom he had two daughters, left him for a younger man.

Once he held a New Year's Eve party at his Hampstead home, with this house rule: "Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping polite conversation and the breaking of bones, such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed."

Later he was to have a relationship with the American model Karen Somerville. This produced the longed-for son, Lorcan. But when that broke up, there was a long-drawn out and unhappy legal tussle over the child's future.

But for all his antics and high jinks, O'Toole was a fiercely private man, solitary even in his gregarious days.

He was politically passionate as well. When Harold Wilson won the 1964 election, he said he was "a total, wedded, bedded, bedrock, ocean-going, copper-bottomed triple-distilled socialist".

And at the time of Bloody Sunday, he expressed sympathy with the Provisional IRA.

His bugbears included the National Theatre, arts subsidies and mediocre actors. And he laid much of the blame on the growth of the powerful directors, such as Sir Peter Hall and Richard Eyre.

"They are an invention. They didn't exist when I came into the business in the Fifties. They were producers then, and if they were very well behaved they might get their names into the programme."

He said he would not play at the National Theatre - "that Fourth Reich bunker on the South Bank" and he was a passionate enemy of subsidised theatre where, he claimed taxpayers' money was frittered away.

"It is the same rules for us as it is for cricket, boxing, anything. We are an entertainment. We have to live and thrive in a competitive market. If we become an overprotected species we are dead."

Cricket was another of his passions, and he was often to be seen coaching youngsters in the game he adored.

But of acting he once said: "The love of it is great, huge and it will be with me forever. I blundered into it, found I could do it well. It has raised me from nothing into something, not a lot, but something.

"If you do something well and you enjoy it, what more can you bloody well ask?"

He continued acting well into his twilight years, which included a role alongside Brad Pitt and Eric Bana in the 2004 blockbuster Troy.

Throughout his career, O'Toole had been nominated for an Academy Award eight times, the most recent being for Best Actor in the 2006 film Venus, but never won one.

But the dubious honour was tempered in 2003 when he received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work.

It was only last year the renowned actor decided to retire, or "chuck in the sponge" as he called it.

After 58 years on the silver screen and on the stage, he had finally decided: "The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back."

COMMENT RULES: Comments that are judged to be defamatory, abusive or in bad taste are not acceptable and contributors who consistently fall below certain criteria will be permanently blacklisted. The moderator will not enter into debate with individual contributors and the moderator’s decision is final. It is Belfast Telegraph policy to close comments on court cases, tribunals and active legal investigations. We may also close comments on articles which are being targeted for abuse. Problems with commenting? customercare@belfasttelegraph.co.uk

Latest News

Latest Sport

Latest Showbiz