On the passing of an Irish ‘Prince of Players’

Peter O’Toole met his goal: “To be the event!”

There was always that voice. Several years ago, I had the opportunity to speak with the legendary actor Peter O’Toole, who passed away last month at the age of 81, and I daresay that no one who ever talked to him in person or on the phone could ever forget his voice. No matter whether he was delivering cinematic performances for the ages in such films as “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Becket,” and “The Lion in Winter,” or rendering the only notable scenes in several forgettable movies, that magnificent voice, his intense blue eyes, and a physical presence that captured every conceivable emotion and action made him arguably the finest actor of the past half-century. Despite all that, despite the fact that he was nominated eight times for Academy Awards, he never won. It is an appalling indictment of Hollywood that he has been dubbed “Oscar’s biggest loser.”

Peter Seamus O’Toole was born on Aug. 2, 1932, in Connemara, Co. Galway. The family eventually moved to Leeds, England, where his father, Patrick O’Toole, was a bookmaker and gambler. Years later, in an Esquire magazine interview with Gay Talese, the actor recalled, “When my father would come home from the track after a good day, the whole room would light up; it was fairyland. But when he lost, it was black. In our house, it was always a wake...or a wedding.”
As a teenager, O’Toole left school and took a job at the Yorkshire Evening Post, where he mulled a career as a journalist but opted against it. According to author Robert Sellers in “Hellraisers: The Life and Times of Burton, Harris, O’Toole & Reed,” O’Toole said, “I soon found out that, rather than chronicling events, I wanted to be the event.” He certainly accomplished that goal.
Following required national service in the Royal Navy, O’Toole set out to become an actor and landed a spot with the vaunted Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his classmates included Albert Finney and Alan Bates. At the Bristol Old Vic Theater, a springboard for many acclaimed actors and actresses, O’Toole’s gifts captivated audiences and reviewers alike, especially in such Shakespearian roles as his turn in the title role of “Hamlet.”
O’Toole’s foray from the classical stage to movies began in 1960 with small roles in “The Savage Innocents,” “Kidnapped,” and “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.” While the roles were minor, his presence and voice were not; they captured the attention of director Sir David Lean, who was casting for the lead role in his latest project – “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lean decided to give the coveted part of the messianic and controversial World War I officer T.E. Lawrence to the talented but relatively unknown Irish-born actor.
Although the film, which would take some two years to film in seven countries, featured an A-list cast with such actors as Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, and Jack Hawkins, it was O’Toole’s stunning performance that defined the movie and propelled him to international fame. His depiction of the tormented British war hero earned him his first Oscar nod, but even though “Lawrence of Arabia” earned the award for best picture of 1962, O’Toole lost to Gregory Peck for his role in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Over the following years, O’Toole’s breadth of talent filled the screen in films such as “Becket,” in which he played King Henry II to Richard Burton’s portrayal of the title character; “The Lion in Winter,” in which he again played Henry II with Katherine Hepburn as his wife; and a searing performance in “Lord Jim,” a drama based on the Joseph Conrad novel. In “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” O’Toole played a shy teacher in love with a showgirl, and he enthralled audiences in 1972’s “The Ruling Class” as a deranged, delusional English aristocrat who believed he was Jesus Christ.
O’Toole’s prodigious talent was nearly eclipsed by his prodigious drinking. In the early 1970s, he made some poor choices for his roles, and many in the film industry believed that he would never reclaim his perch as one of the era’s finest actors. In 1975, at age 43, his drinking caught up with him; he underwent emergency surgery for an “abdominal irregularity and nearly dying.” He then quit drinking, telling the Daily Mail, “The time has come to stop roaming. The pirate ship has berthed. I can still make whoopee, but now I do it sober.” With his characteristic wry candor, O’Toole added, “I loved the drinking, and waking up in the morning to find I was in Mexico. It was part and parcel of being an idiot.”
He played a strikingly O’Toole-like character as hard-drinking, womanizing, elegantly dissipated actor Allan Swann in “My Favorite Year” (1982), his touching and hilarious tour-de-force earning yet another Oscar nomination, his seventh. Number eight came for his poignant portrayal of a dying actor in “Venus” (2006).
In 2012, O’Toole announced his retirement from acting. “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge,” he told the media. “To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back. My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment, and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.”
Peter O’Toole’s acting life brought audiences some of the most memorable performances in the annals of film and stage. In the 19th century, Edwin Booth was hailed as “The Prince of Players.” It is not hyperbolic to acclaim Peter Seamus O’Toole as another “Prince of Players,” a magnificent thespian whose art imitated life and whose life imitated art.