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Stage and screen legend Peter O’Toole dies aged 81

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  • by NATALIE WALKER AND CHRIS MONCRIEFF
 

THE actor Peter O’Toole has died aged 81, his agent last night announced.

The star shot to international fame after he starred in Sir David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia and went on to earn eight Oscar nominations – the most anyone has ever received without winning an Academy Award.

His agent, Steve Kenis, last night announced O’Toole had died at the Wellington Hospital in London after a long illness.

“He was one of a kind in the very best sense and a giant in his field,” Mr Kenis said.

His actress daughter, Kate O’Toole, said: “His family are very appreciative and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed towards him, and to us, during this unhappy time.

“Thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts,”

“In due course there will be a memorial filled with song and good cheer, as he would have wished.”

O’Toole had a reputation for riotous behaviour following bouts of drinking, but in the mid 1970s he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and was warned by medics that more alcohol would prove fatal.

He had yards of his intestinal tubing – “most of my plumbing” – removed and he gave up drinking.

“If you can’t do something willingly and joyfully, then don’t do it,” he once said. “If you give up drinking, don’t go moaning about it; go back on the bottle. Do. As. Thou. Wilt.”

Fellow actors joined writers, politicians and other celebrities to paying tribute to the star.

Funnyman Stephen Fry tweeted: “Oh what terrible news. Farewell Peter O’Toole. I had the honour of directing him in a scene. Monster, scholar, lover of life, genius.”

Film critic Barry Norman described him as a “true movie star”, who had “tremendous charisma”.

The Irish president, Michael D Higgins, said Ireland, and the world, had lost “one of the giants of film and theatre”.

He said: “I was privileged to know him as a friend since 1969. I spent part of 1979 in Clifden where we met almost daily and all of us who knew him in the West will miss his warm humour and generous friendship.”

And broadcaster Michael Parkinson said it was hard to be too sad about the news of his passing, adding: “Peter didn’t leave much of life unlived, did he?”

Journalist and CNN host Piers Morgan said: “Spent one of the funniest days of my life with him at Lord’s a few years ago. A brilliant actor and crazy, hilarious man.”

O’Toole began his acting career as an exciting young talent on the British stage and his Hamlet in 1955 at the Bristol Old Vic, was critically acclaimed. He starred with Audrey Hepburn in 1965’s comedy How to Steal a Million Dollars and Live Happily Ever. After he hit international stardom when Sir David cast him as British adventurer TE Lawrence, the World War One soldier and scholar who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks.

Playwright Noel Coward once said that if O’Toole had been any prettier, they would have had to call the film “Florence of Arabia”.

Lawrence of Arabia earned him the first of eight Oscar nominations, with his second coming for the 1964 production of Becket, in which he played King Henry II to Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket.

Burton and O’Toole’s shared love of drinking garnered many headlines along with their performances.

O’Toole played Henry again in 1968 in The Lion in Winter, for which he received his third Oscar nod, opposite Katharine Hepburn.

His five other nominations were for Goodbye, Mr Chips in 1968, The Ruling Class in 1971, 1980’s The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year in 1982, and finally for Venus in 2006.

O’Toole received an honorary Oscar in 2003, having initially turned it down.

In a letter, the actor asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay it until he was 80, saying he was “still in the game and might win the bugger outright”.

But when he finally clasped his statuette, he said: “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot.”

In a 1990 interview, the actor said: “I take whatever good part comes along. And if there isn’t a good part, then I do anything, just to pay the rent. Money is always a pressure. And waiting for the right part – you could wait forever. So I turn up and do the best I can.”

Last July he retired saying: “I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell. The heart for it has gone out of me. It won’t come back”.

Profile: The hell-raiser who failed in journalism and became an international screen success

Peter O’Toole was the hell-raising actor with at one time a prodigious capacity for drink, whose wild living often eclipsed, in the public mind, his brilliance as a performer, both on stage and screen.

His performances, ranging from an acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia, through leading Shakespearean parts to comic roles in adaptations of PG Wodehouse, and his masterful title-role performance in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, gave the lie to those who said – as one did – that he “frittered his life away on wine, women and song”.

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.

Peter Seamus O’Toole was born on 2 August, 1932. No living person is sure whether his birthplace was Connemara, Dublin, or Leeds. But his boyhood 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 was employed for some five years.

But the editor finally told him: “You’ll never make a reporter – try something else.”

After completing his National Service in the Royal Navy he became “quite by chance”, as he says, an actor.

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 (50p) for being drunk and disorderly.

But he put that disaster behind him. 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.

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 he 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 performance made front page news.

Afterwards he faced journalists who asked for his reaction to the critics. He replied: “B*******s. It’s a play not a bloody war.

“This is what the theatre is all about.”

 

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