Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Peter O'Toole

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Peter O’Toole, one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, has died at 81. In his 1992 autobiography, Loitering With Intent: The Child (which was followed, in 1997, by a memoir of his early days as an actor, titled Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice), O’Toole wrote that he had one birth certificate attesting to his birth in Ireland, and another, with a different birth date, claiming that he had been born in the English city of Leeds. In 1952, after serving in the Royal Navy, he enrolled at London’s Royal Academy Of Dramatic Art, where he studied alongside such classmates as Albert Finney and Alan Bates.

In the late 1950s, he attracted attention with his performances at the Old Vic as the fire-breathing Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger; as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion; as Vladimir in Waiting For Godot; and, at the Royal Court Theatre, as the cynical, anti-authoritarian hero of the World War II drama The Long And The Short And The Tall.  Reviewing that play, the theater critic Kenneth Tynan wrote that he had detected in O’Toole “a technical authority that may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness. To convey violence beneath banter, and a soured, embarrassed goodness beneath both, is not the simplest task for a young player, yet Mr. O’Toole achieved it without sweating a drop.”

O’Toole won further acclaim for his Shakespearean performances, including Petruchio in The Taming Of The Shrew and Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice (both 1960, at the Royal Shakespeare Company), and his Hamlet at the National Theater, in 1963, under the direction of Laurence Olivier.

After a few TV appearances (including a filmed version of The Long And The Short And The Tall), O’Toole made his movie debut in a 1960 Walt Disney production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. That same year, he appeared, uncredited, in The Savage Innocents and played a Coldstream guard in The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England. Today, these films—or, at least, the footage they contain of O’Toole—are prized by cultists, for preserving how the actor looked before the nose job he had before being cast as T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia (1962). His charismatic, enigmatic performance in the role, which went to O’Toole after both Marlon Brando and O’Toole’s old schoolmate Albert Finney had turned it down, made O’Toole an international celebrity overnight. It also won him the first of eight Academy Award nominations, which remains a record for the most times any actor has been nominated without a win.

O’Toole’s next two Oscar nominations came for playing Henry II, in two different movies: Becket (1964), co-starring Richard Burton, and the 1968 The Lion In Winter. In between, he had the title role in Richard Brooks’ unsuccessful, epic film version of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, played a reluctant Don Juan in What’s New Pussycat? (1965), starred in the caper comedy How To Steal A Million (1966), had a cameo as an trio of angels in John Huston’s The Bible (1966), and was reunited with his Lawrence producer Sam Spiegel and co-star Omar Sharif for the 1967 thriller The Night Of The Generals. In 1969, he was Oscar-nominated again for his charming, emotionally rich performance in what sounded like an unlikely project: a musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, with Petula Clark as his leading lady.


Throughout the ‘70s, O’Toole’s star seemed to decline.  He managed to avoid starring in any big hits, and  like his colleagues Richard Burton and Richard Harris, he often made headlines for his drinking and public carousing. His more notable roles included Captain Cat in a 1972 film of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, which co-starred Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; a British nobleman who thinks he’s Jesus who, in order to make him more socially respectable, is “cured” into thinking he’s Jack The Ripper in The Ruling Class (1972); and a singing Don Quixote in the 1972 film of Man Of La Mancha. He also starred in Otto Preminger’s disastrous thriller Rosebud (1975), played Robinson Crusoe in a revisionist take on the Daniel Defoe novel Man Friday (1976), and played the Roman emperor Tiberius in the notorious, Bob Guccione-produced, semi-pornographic historical epic Caligula (1980).

O’Toole achieved a major comeback in the early 1980s, starting with his flamboyant performance as a half-mad movie director in Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man, which was filmed in 1978 but not released until the fall of 1980. That same year, he returned to the Old Vic for a controversial, gory production of Macbeth.

He was Emmy-nominated as a Roman general leading the siege against a Jewish fortress in the 1981 miniseries Masada. The next year, he starred in the comedy My Favorite Year, giving the performance that perhaps best summed up his later screen persona, as the alcoholic lady-killer actor Alan Swann, a character that incorporated parodic elements of such dashing idols as Errol Flynn, John Barrymore, and Peter O’Toole.

He played Jack Tanner in a 1982 production of Shaw’s Man And Superman, a role he had played almost 25 years earlier at the Old Vic; made Jodie Foster a rock star in a weird TV-movie update of Svengali (1982); voiced the role of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated TV films; played the Lama in a 1984 TV film based on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim; served as tutor to both Supergirl (1984), and The Last Emperor (1987); hung out in the Caribbean with Robin Williams and Jimmy Cliff in Club Paradise (1986); made a tourist attraction of his haunted castle in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits (1988); and served as private secretary to John Goodman in King Ralph (1991). He also had a great success onstage in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, a virtual one-man show in which he played a witty, hard-drinking columnist for the British weekly The Spectator.

In 2003, O’Toole was given an honorary Academy Award for his body of work, despite his protests that he wasn’t quite done yet. After small roles in Bright Young Things (Stephen Fry’s 2003 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies), as King Priam in Troy (2004), as the older Casanova (who used to be David Tennant) in the TV miniseries Casanova (2005), and as a Duke in one of the better screen versions of Lassie (2005), O’Toole earned his final Oscar nomination for a masterly starring performance in Venus (2006), in a summing-up role as a little-known, aged actor who phones his ex-wife (Vanessa Redgrave) to tell her that he’s gotten another role on TV playing a corpse. (“Typecast again!” she whoops.) The actor has been brought low by age and illness, but the movie builds to the moment when a young woman sees his obituary notice in the paper, which includes a photo of O’Toole circa Lawrence Of Arabia. She says in surprise: “He was gorgeous!”

In 2007, he appeared in Stardust and supplied the voice of the critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille, a character who looked a little like a wizened, computer-animation version of his old champion Kenneth Tynan, who had never forgiven him for getting that nose job. Last year, he announced his retirement, saying, “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: It won’t come back.. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.” O’Toole still has a couple of films in the pipeline due for release next year.