Date of Birth: 2 August 1932, Connemara, Ireland
Birth Name: Seamus Peter O’Toole
Nicknames: Peter O’Toole
Peter O'Toole, the Irish-born actor was one of the most charismatic, unpredictable, eccentric and individualistic players of his generation.
Hailed both as a classicist and as an exponent of post-war realism in the new British drama, he seemed destined for greatness on the stage until David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) turned him into a film star.
It was one of the most spectacular screen breakthroughs of the post-war years. Though his screen debut was in Kidnapped (1960), he had till Lawrence made little impression. Although Lawrence was presented as an heroic figure, Robert Bolt’s screenplay did not avoid the more debatable aspects of his life, including his sexuality. There is a revealing moment when he first dons Arab clothes and performs a little dance almost as if he were a woman in disguise. Moviegoers twigged instantly that this would be no ordinary portrayal.
Tall, lean, blue-eyed, watchful, whimsical and by middle age, so emaciated that his friends feared for his health O’Toole seemed regularly to veer close to self destruction. A self-confessed lover of sleaze, he once said: “I can’t stand light; I hate weather; my idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another.”
When Laurence Olivier chose him in 1973 to inaugurate the National Theatre at the Old Vic in the title role of Hamlet, it was because O’Toole seemed like Britain’s next great actor. But the status of an Olivier, a Redgrave or a Gielgud always eluded him or perhaps he it.
Though he became a greatly popular player, he did not stay with Olivier’s new National Theatre Company and went on to divide his career between stage and screen. The success of Lawrence of Arabia led to a flood of screen offers in meaty parts that contemporary actors envied. These included two aspects of King Henry II, first in Becket (1964), based on Jean Anouilh’s account of his troubled relations with Thomas à Becket, and secondly in The Lion in Winter (1968), James Goldman’s play about the ageing king’s dispute with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Though Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar as Eleanor, the conflict was even-handed and the two performers were equally riveting.
His acting ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. It could be subtle, reserved, sensitive and deeply affecting. It could also be loud, self-regarding, mannered and imitative of the worst of the 19th-century barnstormers.
Among the more ridiculous was the Macbeth he played at the Old Vic in 1980. It was an attempt to restore the fortunes of that playhouse after the National Theatre had left it in 1976. Contradicting the advice he had given as Hamlet to the players at the same theatre under Olivier’s direction 17 years earlier, he sawed the air with his hands, tore passions to tatters, and ranted until the audience laughed in his face.
Undismayed, he joined in, especially when he heard one night, as he descended the staircase after dispatching Duncan, the siren of an ambulance passing the theatre. “I was dripping with blood. The ambulance howled as it went up the Waterloo Road. I got the giggles. So did the audience. It was bloody marvellous.”
Nonetheless, the production, disowned by fellow members of the Old Vic board, broke records in London and in the provinces. “I just wanted a crack at Macbeth on the principle of getting the worst over first. In the history of the British theatre, only three actors have pulled it off: Macready, Garrick, and Wolfit and now me. I enjoyed every second.”
Among his more sublime performances was that of the dazed and lonely protagonist journalist in Keith Waterhouse’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (Apollo, 1989; revived 1999), reminiscing, ruminating, urinating, swaying, and stranded overnight in a London pub with a plastic carrier bag of liquor.O’Toole, himself an experienced alcoholic, long since reformed, brought so much authenticity, poise and painful sincerity to the performance that many play-goers could not believe he was acting.
He loved the excitement and uncertainty of the theatre. “If I hadn’t become an actor I probably would have become a criminal,” he said once. “I’m a very physical actor. I use everything toes, teeth, ears, everything. I don’t simply mean physical in the sense of movement and vigour. I find myself remembering the shape of a scene by how I’m standing, what I’m doing.”
Having achieved immediate recognition as TE Lawrence, the desert adventurer opposite Omar Sharif, he observed: “Stardom is insidious. It creeps up through the toes. You don’t realise what’s happening until it reaches your nut. That’s when it becomes dangerous.”
His scores of screen roles at this time included Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1965), an angel in John Huston’s The Bible (1966), and a musical remake of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969) opposite Petula Clark. Though he was Oscar-nominated for that role, the film as a whole was an embarrassment, and he should have taken note that Rex Harrison and Richard Burton had turned it down before him.
In 1972 he appeared in another musical, Man of La Mancha, opposite Sophia Loren, in which he played Don Quixote. These two films were temporary diversions he was wise not to repeat. Fortunately, in the same year (1972) he gave one of his best performances in the lead role in Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, as a berserk British baronet who imagines himself to be Jesus Christ one minute and Jack the Ripper the next.
The son of an Irish bookmaker, Seamus Peter O’Toole was born at Connemara, Co Galway, on August 2 1932. The family moved to England when O’Toole was a boy. The young Peter left school at 14, and moved with his parents to Yorkshire.
He worked variously as a copy boy and reporter on the Yorkshire Evening News, as a jazz band drummer, and as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He first acted professionally at the Civic Theatre, Leeds, in 1949.
After National Service as a signalman in the Royal Navy, he saw Michael Redgrave’s King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1953; it was this that resolved him to attend the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He hitch-hiked to London and won an audition and a scholarship.
He joined the Bristol Old Vic, where between 1955 and 1958 he acted 73 parts, notably Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1957), John Tanner in Man and Superman, the title part in Hamlet and Peter Shirley in Shaw’s Major Barbara, in which he made his first London appearance (Old Vic, 1956).
His first West End part came in another Bristol transfer, this time as Uncle Gustave in the Swiss musical comedy Oh, My Papa! (Garrick, 1957).
It was, however, as the cynical Cockney Pete Bamforth, who befriended a Japanese captive in Willis Hall’s wartime jungle drama The Long and the Short and the Tall (Royal Court, 1959, and New, now Albery), that O’Toole first won wide critical acclaim.
Of that performance Kenneth Tynan wrote: “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.”
At Stratford-upon-Avon in The Merchant of Venice his dashing young Shylock, a nouveau riche mercantile adventurer with social pretensions, was much admired, as were his playful Petruchio (opposite the 52-year-old Peggy Ashcroft) in The Taming of the Shrew and his powerful and thrilling Thersites in Troilus and Cressida.
Back in the West End in the title part of Brecht’s Baal (Phoenix, 1963) his acting soared above the play so impressively that one of Brecht’s biographers, Martin Esslin, dubbed O’Toole “the greatest potential force among all English-speaking actors”.
After the disappointment of his acceptable but uninspiring Hamlet at the launch of the National Theatre Company, he played one of his favourite types of character, the self-destructive hero, in David Mercer’s Ride a Cock Horse (Piccadilly, 1965), agonising over relationships with three women.
The following year, back in Ireland, he played Capt Boyle in O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, and three years after that he was back in Dublin again as John Tanner in Shaw’s Man and Superman, one of his favourite parts which he had played at Bristol 11 years earlier and which he played yet again in the West End (Haymarket, 1982).
At Dublin’s Abbey in 1969 his scarecrow Vladimir in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot came in what The Daily Telegraph at the time called “the Chaplin tradition: baggy trousers, battered bowler, clownish, absentmindedly surveying the audience as if it were infinity”. He later acted the part at Nottingham Playhouse.
Returning to his training ground, the Bristol Old Vic, in 1973, he took the title role in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, “shuffling, weary, pale and unprofiteering… one of the best things O’Toole ever did”, according to one critic. He also played King Magnus “indolent, elegant, condescending” in Shaw’s The Apple Cart, a role which he repeated in the West End (Haymarket, 1986).
When he led, in 1978, a tour of North America as Uncle Vanya, he also added Coward’s Present Laughter to his repertoire. As the flamboyant matinée idol, Garry Essendine, O’Toole used his own mannered and sometimes irritating self-indulgence with authority.
Following the fiasco of his Macbeth for Prospect Productions at the ailing Old Vic two years later, his mercurial Professor Higgins in Shaw’s Pygmalion (Shaftesbury, 1984) was warmly approved for its zest, rhythm, tonal variety, and tender eccentricity. It was seen on Broadway three years later.
In 1991 his ideas about the older Jimmy Porter in Osborne’s new play Déjà Vu clashed with the author’s at rehearsal and the Liverpool production was cancelled.
One of his better screen performances in the 1970s came in Clive Donner’s thriller for television Rogue Male (1976). O’Toole was engaging and, when it mattered, moving, as the resourceful but desperate hero, a British sportsman and would-be assassin of Hitler who, ruthlessly hunted down by Nazis, is forced to live like an animal.
The following year he acted in the dubious Roman epic Caligula, described by Variety magazine as “an anthology of sexual aberrations in which incest is the only face-saving relationship”.
In the uncommercial but intriguing film The Stuntman (1980), he was entirely at home as an impatient and overbearing director on a crazed film project which seemed to make sense only to him. O’Toole, who was again Oscar-nominated, later admitted that he had based his performance on the martinet David Lean, who had directed him in Lawrence of Arabia.
Less impressive were his outings in such schlock as Powerplay (1978), Strumpet City (1980), Supergirl (1984) and Buried Alive (1984).
His performance in Neil Jordan’s big budget Hollywood comedy High Spirits (1988), about a family who move into a haunted house, was nothing if not ebullient; he extracted more humour than the rest of the cast from a weak script in what became one of the turkeys of the year.
It is fitting that his swansong was on the West End stage, which he loved and dominated like no other. Keith Waterhouse’s Our Song provided him with another Bernard-like character or at least that was how he played the hard-drinking advertising man infatuated with a younger woman.
Even those critics who professed to a sense of déjà vu were not inclined to complain about it, but rather revelled in another chance to see O’Toole running the entire gamut of his physical and vocal range. “The exhilarating theatrical swagger of his performance is matched by a real depth of emotion,” said the Telegraph. The play was a sell-out success.
The year 1992 also saw the publication of the first volume of his autobiography, Loitering With Intent. Besides committing to record his own account of a life rich in myth and hyperbole, O’Toole revealed a genuine writing talent whose promise is sadly cut short.
Having been denied as best actor Oscar many times, in 2003 O’Toole received a special honorary award, effectively for his lifetime’s work. He joked about this when, in 2006, he received yet another best-actor nomination, playing a 70-year-old roué in Venus, who romances his best friend’s grand-niece. The lifetime’s recognition, he quipped, had been premature because there was life in the old dog yet.