‘The heart has gone out of me, it won’t come back’

Actor Peter O’Toole has ‘chucked in the sponge’ and retired from stage and screen. Danny White looks at his life

COLOURFUL veteran Irish actor Peter O’Toole, famous for films including Lawrence of Arabia, announced his retirement this week, saying it was time to “chuck in the sponge” aged 79.

The acclaimed stage and screen star said he was taking his last bow “dry-eyed and profoundly grateful” for his half-century long career.

“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,” O’Toole said.

“My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort,” he said.

“It has brought 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.

“So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell,” he said.

Connemara-born Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole, the son of a bookmaker, was raised in northern England.

After school, he initially became a journalist and a radioman for the Royal Navy, before deciding to be an actor.

He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his classmates included Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Richard Harris, who would also go on to illustrious acting careers.

O’Toole’s first stage role came at the age of 17.

He started out on stage in Bristol and London, notably performing in Shakespeare dramas before his big break in director David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1962.

Medical problems, which were initially attributed to heavy drinking but turned out to be stomach cancer, threatened his career and life in the 1970s, but he overcame them after giving up alcohol.

He received eight Oscar nominations during a career that also included noted roles in 1979’s Caligula and The Last Emperor (1987), but never won the top prize itself. He was given an honorary Academy Award in 2003.

O’Toole nearly refused the award, asking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay his honorary Oscar until he was 80, saying in a letter: “I am still in the game and might win the bugger outright.”

But he finally accepted, and told the Oscars show audience: “I have my very own Oscar now to be with me until death us do part,” according to CBS.

In later years, he was acclaimed for his turn in a stage and TV movie version of Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, about the infamously alcoholic and bohemian British journalist.

The Washington Post’s entertainment blogger Jen Chaney said it was too early for O’Toole to retire, because he was so much fun.

“O’Toole turns 80 next month. Given his age, his more than five decades in the industry and the impressive filmography he’s amassed, he obviously has earned the right to retire if he wants to,” she wrote.

“But I wish he would reconsider because the world of cinema, as well as the media outlets that cover it, needs more Peter O’Tooles.”

She cited stories from his colourful life including starting an interview with TV talk show host David Letterman smoking a cigarette while riding a camel, then making the beast drink a can of beer.

And during a 1978 Washington Post interview, O’Toole stood in front of the newspaper’s reporter wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts, declaring: “There’s no truth to the rumour that I’m dead,” she noted.

Now that he is retired, O’Toole — who will be 80 years old on Aug 2 — will focus on writing a third volume of memoirs.

Eight Oscar nods, but no win

* 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 honours 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 party animals as Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch.

He earned his eighth best-actor nomination for 2006’s Venus, in which he played a lecherous old actor consigned to roles as feeble-minded royals or aged men on their death beds.

Stirring sands of monotony

As a teenager O’Toole once wrote in a notebook: “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”

And how he did just that.

“Booze is the most outrageous of drugs which is why I chose it,” he once remarked, probably while thinking back to his hellraiser days with fellow drinkers Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed.

Some of the following snapshots might help explain why Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor considered O’Toole a “bad influence”.

* Working on stage together in The Long and the Short and the Tall, in London in 1959, O’Toole was understudied by Michael Caine, who he took out one Saturday night.

Caine awoke and asked O’Toole what time it was. He allegedly replied, “Never mind what time it is, what fucking day is it?” It was 5pm. Two days later. They were both due on stage three hours later.

* O’Toole could not be trusted behind the wheel of a car. He once set off for Rome and ended up in Yugoslavia.

* Refused a drink after closing time in an Irish pub, he wrote a cheque to buy the pub so he could continue a drinking session. The next day, having sobered up, he rushed back to the bar to cancel the cheque.

* O’Toole once caught his finger in a boating accident, taking the tip off. Later he dipped the tip of his finger into a glass of brandy to sterilise it and then pushed it back on, wrapping it in a poultice. Weeks later he removed the bandage only to realise he had put the tip on the wrong way.

* In the 1970s, he reportedly went out for lunch with friends, accompanied by several bottles of wine. Later on that evening the group decided to take in a play but when they got to their seats, O’Toole realised he was supposed to be in the show.

* He never carried house keys or a wallet and never wore a watch. On many occasions, he had to explain to police why he was smashing his house window to gain access.

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