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The ruling class act: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

December 17, 2013

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The leading man: his looks and Hollywood heavyweight status may have faded in contrast to his alcoholic indulgences, but Peter O’Toole’s talent remained gloriously undimmed to the end

He was an instant icon for all-time, a hellraiser-and-a-half and an enigma who often displayed thesping talent admired as genius but who was also accused of  throwing away said talent at the bottom of too many bottles of booze. Overall, though, he was surely one of the greatest – if not the greatest – living British actor. He was Peter O’Toole. And he’s gone, having died two days ago at the age of 81 after an illness of several months.

In reality (in wonderful not-all-is-as-it-seems O’Toole style), he was Anglo-Irish rather than English, for apparently he owned two birth certificates each of which suggested he was born in either country. What’s undeniable, however, is he grew up in a suburb of the Yorkshire city of Leeds to an Irish bookie father and a Scottish nurse mother, ensuring whatever his official homeland the Celtic genes – and thus emotional connection – would always be extremely strong.

Indeed, he’ll rightly be forever associated with those fellow Celtic acting tigers, the Richards Burton and Harris; all three of them giant contemporaries of stage and screen, rugby lovers and drinking buddies. And all three of them were in one way or another victims of the dreaded drink.

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O’Toole’s health crisis came in his ’40s, when in 1976 he underwent surgery to remove his pancreas and part of his stomach – although the stomach cancer that precipitated it wasn’t actually a result of his boozing. Although this surgery led to diabetes and just two years later a blood disorder left him close to death, the great roles or – maybe more specifically – great performances far from dried up. For, in spite of his singularly unique, often theatrically-flourished, sometimes manic and always beautifully enunicated brand of thesping, he’ll always be recalled for extraordinarily being nominated eight times for the Best Actor Oscar across four decades and never winning.

The first nom came for his superstardom-launching turn as maverick British army officer TE Lawrence in David Lean’s epic masterpiece Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) – see above video clip. The next two came – again, rather extraordinarily – for the same character but in two different movies, England’s legendary King Henry II in Becket (1964) – opposite Burton – and The Lion In Winter (1968) – opposite Katharine Hepburn, apparently his favourite co-star, and in this humble blogger’s opinion the role for which he was most robbed by Oscar (see video clip below).

The nominations continued apace in the ’70s and ’80s. There was a sentimental take on the eternally appealing, eponymous WWI-era teacher of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), a hilariously mentally unhinged aristo in The Ruling Class (1972), the hugely egocentric nay insane film director of The Stuntman (1980) – see third-from-bottom video clip – and an Errol Flynn-esque (ahem) acting hellraiser in My Favourite Year (1982).

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More than 20 years later, the Academy seemingly realised their folly and offered him a ‘lifetime achievement’ award in 2003. At first he declined it, saying if he were 80 he’d probably accept it, but as he was 70 he reckoned he still had a chance of landing the ‘lovely bugger’ (he reversed his decision and did accept it). However, with marvellous irony he was somewhat proved right, as just three years later he was nominated again for his pseudo-autobiographical, randy and alcoholic autumnal thesp in Venus (2006).

Yet, O’Toole’s film career wasn’t just about nominations and awards (he won a string of them too – four Golden Globes, a BAFTA and an Emmy among them), as he was an undoubted movie star, playing a plethora of diverse roles. Over the years, he appeared opposite Peter Sellers and Woody Allen in What’s New Pussycat? (1965), Audrey Hepburn in How To Steal A Million (1966), Richard Rountree in Man Friday (1975), Burt Lancaster and John Mills in Zulu Dawn (1979), Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren and John Gielgud in Caligula (1979) and Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway in Supergirl (1984), as well as in the multi-Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987) and Pixar’s brilliant Ratatouille, to which he unmistakably lent his voice (2007).

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Away from cinema, he was just as big and significant a star of the stage. In fact, that’s where it all began for him – and that unquestionably being the reason why he was so accomplished. Winning a scholarship, he trained between 1952 and ’54 at the world renowned Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), where he found himself in the same class as Albert Finney and Alan Bates – after rather oddly being turned down by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre drama school because he couldn’t speak Irish. Then he went on to make a name for himself in multiple classical roles at the Bristol Old Vic and the English Stage Company, before reaching the zenith of his stage career by playing Hamlet (1963) in the Laurence Olivier-directed first ever production of the latter’s National Theatre.

He fulfilled his ambition of eventually treading the boards at the Abbey Theatre in Waiting For Godot (1970) and, despite reputedly receiving the worst ever reviews in West End history for his performance as Macbeth (1980), later appeared as the Soho-bar-propper-upper in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989) to universal acclaim, going on to win an Olivier award for his efforts (see video clip below). The play was written by the noted Keith Waterhouse, with whom O’Toole had actually originally crossed paths in his first job as a trainee journo at the Yorkshire Evening Post, before he’d spent time in the Royal Navy for his National Service.

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Despite his predilection for a drink dismantling neither his health or career, it certainly played havoc with his private life. In 1959 he married sterling Welsh thesp Siân Phillips (scene-stealer of 1976’s classic BBC series I, Claudius) and, although the union lasted 20 years and produced two daughters (one of whom, Kate, became an accomplished actress herself), it proved stormy and came to an end owing to O’Toole’s (near-)alcoholism. Four years later he sired a son, Lorcan, with then model girlfriend Karen Brown, but this relationship too ended acrimoniously, the child being the subject of a protracted legal battle. Moreover, he reputedly turned down a knighthood in 1987, perhaps not surprising given his Irish identification and, as the Thatcher government was very much in power at the time, his generally Left-leaning politics.

In the end, though, it’s perhaps as the impossibly blue-eyed, brushstroke-like blond-fringed and utterly beautiful but brilliantly complex Lawrence that so many will immediately – and most like – to remember him. A young, terribly handsome, and terrifically electric actor in a tour de force performance whose iconoclasm has ultimately put everything else he did in the shade. But, as hopefully pointed out here, that’s far from the whole O’Toole story, which is far more complicated, contradictory and interesting.

Apparently, he tended to see himself as something of a romantic; a lover of the nobility and grandeur of acting, the purity of rugby and cricket (for which he successfully gained training badges) and a chap whose daily reading of Shakespeare ensured he was able to recite every one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. So to quote the most notorious of those very sonnets (number 18, no less), sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines – and never more so than now, for as of two days ago this is where the late, great Peter O’Toole resides.

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