Book review: Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography

Peter O’Toole was as eccentric as the characters he played on screen and on stage. He loved playing the drunken Irishman even though he wasn’t one, as JP O’Malley learns.

Book review: Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography

Robert Sellers

MacMillan, €26 

THE late Richard Harris was infamous for his legendary anecdotes.

In an interview he gave to the Conan O’Brien Show in 1998, Harris recalled his appearance— decades earlier— in a play at the Bristol Old Vic, alongside fellow actor and dear friend, Peter O’Toole.

According to Harris, there was a 15-minute period each night where neither men were required on stage.

So, to pass the time, they would duck across the street, quietly amusing themselves in a licensed establishment.

One particular night they overdid it, and got completely smashed: engrossed in drinking and telling stories.

The stage manager, finally discovering their whereabouts, demanded they return to their performance.

As Harris scrambled across the street and into the theatre — furiously intoxicated — he proceeded to trip over an electric wire, falling directly onto the laps of two posh old dears sitting placidly in the front row.

One of the ladies — shockingly horrified — cried out to the rest of the audience: “Good God, Harris is drunk.”

To which Harris replied: “Madam, if you think I’m drunk, wait till you see when O’Toole makes his entrance.”

The drawn-out yarn —most likely embellished for comedic effect — was typical of actors like Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole: who mastered storytelling down to a fine art form.

All of these men rose to prominence in the late 1950s, subsequently going on to become mega Hollywood stars.

This was an era when drinking; hellraising, womanising; taking random trips to foreign countries on a whim for a pint; and just generally getting up to any other activity that played up to the persona of the testosterone-filled-hopeless-romantic-raconteur, was all par for the course in the entertainment business.

Or, as your mother might say: ah, that fella was a bit of an auld rogue.

I’m presently sitting in a dingy basement cafe in Covent Garden with Robert Sellers, who has recently published Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography.

Hitherto, a number of biographies on O’Toole already exist. And then there was O’Toole’s own memoir, Loitering With Intent, The Apprentice: an ambitious Joycean-stream of- conciousness book of prose that showed that O’Toole had a serious gift for writing as well as acting.

But since O Toole’s death in December 2013, Sellers says he felt the time was right to pen a book covering O’Toole’s entire career from start to finish.

Sellers is an expert on the antics of the four hellraising alpha males just mentioned: primarily because he’s written a host of books about them.

Among these are an authorised biography on the life of Oliver Reed, as a well as Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed.

“I’ve always loved these larger- than-life actors,” says Sellers, as the coffee arrives.

“Their personal lives are actually more interesting than their professional lives. But that’s what attracts me to writing about them in the first place I guess.”

As we begin to retrace the steps of Peter O’Toole’s life in conversation, Richard Harris is a name that continually crops up.

Often it’s affectionate, other times not so much.

“Harris really was quite a dark and sinister individual”, Sellers cautiously reminds me, after I express my enthusiasm for the Limerick man’s idiosyncratic mix of charm, wit, and old-school-bad-boy charisma.

Richard Harris in 2001
Richard Harris in 2001

“O’Toole’s relationship with Harris was probably the strongest of his entire life though,” says Sellers.

“Very few people got to know the real Peter O’ Toole: he was a very complex person. But Harris got to know him more than most.”

O’Toole and Harris had a lasting affection for one another that never entirely withered over the years.

But a love of booze, which nearly resulted in both of them heading to the grave well before their time, ensured they had to put the breaks on their friendship for most of their adult lives.

This is something Elizabeth Rees-Williams — Richard’s widow and ex wife— explained to Sellers in an interview for his latest book.

“It’s kind of sad,” says Sellers.

“Because they adored each other. And O’Toole would often phone up Elizabeth and ask how Richard was. But they had to remain at a distance, because they knew that if they got together, they would be off for a week on another bender. And that could possibly be the death of both of them.”

When Harris finally met his maker in a hospital in central London [in 2002], O’Toole was the only non-family member who came to see him as he breathed his last. “O’Toole visited every day up until the end,” says Sellers.

“And Elizabeth told me it was lovely to see these two dinosaur hellraisers reminisce after all the years they had been apart. It really knocked O’Toole back — both physically and mentally — when Harris died.”

There are certainly small glimpses of O’Toole’s professional life documented in this latest biography.

His theatre career, for instance, included lead roles in Macbeth and Waiting for Godot while his biggest movie roles included lead parts in Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, Lord Jim, and The Ruling Class.

But Sellers doesn’t even attempt to hide the fact that the majority of the narrative tends to focus on O’Toole’s carousing off screen.

And what about the so called Irish connection? O’Toole first visited Clifden in Connemara in 1964.

He later bought a home there and the west of Ireland would become his spiritual gateway: where he spent his time drinking and singing with locals in pubs, and going for long solitary walks.

But despite O’Toole’s insistence throughout most of his life that he was born in Ireland, he made the whole thing up.

He was, in fact, born in Leeds in 1932.

His parents, Patrick and Constance, however, were of Irish descent. And both of them had a profound effect on O’Toole’s carefree artistic attitude to life, says Sellers.

“His greatest influence was his father without a doubt. He was a bookie, and a little bit eccentric.

"And from his mother O’Toole inherited a great love of literature. He was reading the works of Shakespeare by the age of 10.”

If acting would eventually come to shape O’Toole’s destiny, he nearly bypassed the profession entirely: coming to it almost by accident.

The first job he took after leaving school at 16 was as an apprentice hack in the Yorkshire Evening News.

Then it was off for a brief stint in the Royal Navy. But that didn’t last long.

In 1952 O’Toole began to frequent an arts centre in Leeds. It was here that he would accidentally land the lead role in a small-time production of Turgenev’s Father and Sons.

However, it was a trip to London that ensured O’Toole’s life dramatically changed for the better.

As legend has it, the ambitious young actor thumbed a lift all the way from Leeds to London in an open-top lorry: turning his acting dream into a reality.

And, after jumping out at Euston station, he then walked directly to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where he instantly came in contact with the director, Kenneth Barnes.

Within a couple of days, O’Toole was offered a place and a salary of £5 a week.

Pretty quickly, O’Toole earned a reputation — both in the West End, and in Bristol, where he often performed too — as a man of exceptional talent, but who also had a serious fondness for the bottle.

But, surprisingly, in spite of his tearaway lifestyle, and romantic attitude to alcohol, O’Toole never missed a single performance or rehearsal on set or stage.

So where did this deep need to drink so heavily arise from? Was O’Toole hiding something in his personality?

Sellers doesn’t claim to have a single answer as to why O’Toole drank so self destructively.

He does know, though, despite the inherent darkness that was in the film star, he never drank alone. And drinking for O’Toole was always a social occasion.

“It was the same with Oliver Reed. He never drank alone either,” Sellers says.

“Reed always had to have people with him to drink. But Reed had a huge tolerance for alcohol. O’Toole didn’t have the physique for such drinking.”

O’Toole’s antics off screen may have initially been seen as charming, simply part of his eccentricity, or another shade of green required to play up to the blarney-stage-drunken Irishman — despite the fact that he wasn’t even 100% Irish.

However, after a few years, the booze began to have disastrous consequences.

“In 1975 O’Toole was rushed to hospital. And he came within a hair’s breath of dying at that early stage of his life,” says Sellers.

Sellers also claims that while the sloppy antics of famous movie stars like O’Toole, Harris, Burton, Reed, and others, may have made sharp headlines for tabloid hacks there was an unapologetic sexism, and outright male chauvinism at the core of their wild-boy ideology.

“O’Toole would often come in at 4am with a group of mates from the pub and he would demand that his wife at the time, Siân Phillips, come down and cook them all breakfast,” says Sellers.

Sellers seems to have a kind of love-hate relationship with the men he is constantly writing books about. On the one hand he seems to be in awe of their antics. Another part of him, though, seems genuinely disgusted.

Indeed, this biography portrays O’Toole as an odd-ball-egotistical-loner, who seemed to have a serious lack of human empathy to those he regularly surrounded himself with.

Sellers says that in O’Toole, Harris, Burton and Reed, there was always a hidden violence bubbling to the surface. And that this violent energy was what made them such good actors.

Perhaps, then, their extraordinarily theatrical performances were merely just an extension of their half mad personalities?

“Well these guys were almost always on the verge of exploding at any moment,” says Sellers.

“People I have interviewed have told me that if you met them in a restaurant, you didn’t know if they were going to punch you in the face or hug you. They were that unpredictable.

“But I guess unpredictability is what makes them so watchable on the screen.

“O’Toole had this amazing eccentricity that allowed him to play nutters very well throughout his career.”

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