Peter O’Toole, the acclaimed Irish actor who starred in Lawrence of Arabia, has died at the age of 81.
He was the hell-raising actor with a one-time prodigious capacity for drink whose wild living often eclipsed, in the public mind, his brilliance as a performer both on stage and screen.
He has been described as a man who wasted his genius on his legendary, heroic, and seemingly endless drinking bouts.
His days of riotous behaviour were brought to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s, when doctors diagnosed pancreatitis and warned him he would drop dead if he took another drop. He had yards of his intestinal tubing removed and he gave up drinking, almost.
Seamus Peter O’Toole was born on Aug 2, 1932. No living person is sure whether his birthplace was Connemara, Dublin, or Leeds. His upbringing was certainly in Leeds. He attended a Catholic school but renounced religion at the age of 15.
His working life started on the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked for five years. But the editor finally told him: “You’ll never make a reporter — try something else.”
He partly predicted his future in an early poem: “I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”
After serving in the navy he became “quite by chance”, as he says, an actor. “I hitched to London on a lorry, looking for adventure. I was dropped at Euston Station and was trying to find a hostel. I passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and walked in just to case the joint.”
He ultimately took up a scholarship, “not out of burning ambition but because of all the wonderful-looking birds”.
His West End debut in 1957 was in a disastrous comedy called Oh My Papa, which was booed at the Garrick as the curtain fell on the opening night. The drinking spree which followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings for being drunk and disorderly.
But he was soon well on the road to fame, winning the 1959 best actor of the year award in Willis Hall’s The Long And The Short And The Tall.
When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company where he consolidated his position by tackling roles like Hamlet, Shylock, and Petruchio. He was a lover of George Bernard Shaw and performed many of the big roles in his plays.
But it was his performance in his first big film, in 1961, as Lawrence of Arabia, that launched him as an international name. That performance was described by Sam Spiegel as “unequalled in modern cinema”.
O’Toole said he enjoyed acting for “the gallantry and gamble” and relished the rollercoaster big risks involved. His Macbeth in 1980 received what were regarded as the worst set of reviews in living memory and O’Toole’s ranting and blood-spattered perform-ance made front-page news.
Afterwards he faced journalists who asked for his reaction to the critics. He replied: “Bastards. It’s a play not a bloody war. This is what the theatre is all about.” But the production was a huge box office success, with tickets selling at £200 on the black market.
One of his most acclaimed performances was his portrayal of his old drinking mate in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, probably because he had lived the life himself.
It was around the mid-1970s and the time of his life-saving surgery that his wife of some 20 years, actress Sian Phillips, with whom he had two daughters, left him for a younger man.
Once, he held a New Year’s Eve party at his Hampstead home, with this house rule: “Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping polite conversation, and the breaking of bones, such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed.”
Later he was to have a relationship with US model Karen Somerville. This produced the longed-for son, Lorcan. But when that broke up, there was a long-drawn out, unhappy legal tussle over the child’s future.
But for all his antics and high jinks, O’Toole was a fiercely private man, solitary even in his gregarious days.
He was politically passionate as well. When Harold Wilson won the 1964 election, he said he was “a total, wedded, bedded, bedrock, ocean-going, copper-bottomed triple-distilled socialist”.
But of acting he once said: “The love of it is great, huge, and it will be with me forever. I blundered into it, found I could do it well. It has raised me from nothing into something, not a lot, but something.
“If you do something well and you enjoy it, what more can you bloody well ask?”
Throughout his career, O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award eight times, the most recent being for best actor in the 2006 film Venus, but neverwon one.
He was nominated in 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.
The dubious honour was tempered in 2003 when he received an honorary academy award for his body of work.
It was only last year the renowned actor decided to retire, or “chuck in the sponge” as he called it.
After 58 years on the silver screen and on the stage, he finally decided: “The heart for it has gone out of me: It won’t come back.”