With those startling blue eyes, Peter O’Toole became a star in David Lean’s classic movie Lawrence of Arabia. The 1962 film shot O’Toole to international stardom (both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney had turned it down) and he was immediately ranked among the leaders of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. The role introduced him to US audiences and earned him the first of his eight Oscar nominations. He was one of the first “hell-raising” actors of the Sixties, who starred in major films and stage productions but often grabbed the headlines for their riotous life-style.
But before O’Toole became a household name, he had made many important stage appearances at the beginning of his career in Bristol and London. He was a man of charisma, charm and full of Irish blarney. His drinking interfered with the steady advance in his stage career and while he is remembered for a formidable Professor Higgins in Pygmalion and Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell on stage, he was also involved in a notorious Macbeth at the Old Vic that was a theatrical disaster.
O’Toole starred in such memorable films – apart from Lawrence – as The Lion in Winter, Becket, Goodbye Mr Chips and Joan of Arc. He was awarded an Honorary Academy Award in 2003.
In 2012, he announced he was retiring from the profession with the poignant phrase: “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.” With typical bravado O’Toole returned to make Katherine of Alexandria later that year.
There is some indecision as to where Peter Seamus O’Toole was born. Some sources suggest Ireland others Yorkshire. He grew up in the latter, but O’Toole always prided himself in his Irish forebears. He was the son of Constance Jane Eliot, a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O’Toole, a part-time metal worker, who also worked as a bookie. O’Toole retained a life-long passion for the horses. He was evacuated to Leeds during the Second World War and attended St Joseph’s Secondary School, in the city. He served as a trainee journalist in Yorkshire and did his National Service as a signaller in the Royal Navy.
O’Toole won a scholarship to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1952, where his fellow students included Finney, Alan Bates and Tom Courtney. They were a rowdy bunch and, with reason, O’Toole described this as “the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren’t reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty.”
O’Toole became a regular member of the Bristol Old Vic in 1955, where he played more than 40 roles, becoming acknowledged as a major new talent. The director Michael Blakemore has written: “When I first met Peter, he was playing walk-on parts at Bristol. Within a year, he was leading the company.”
He made his London debut in Shaw’s Major Barbara in 1956, continued to work with the English Stage Company and came to Scotland on a tour of a play called The Holiday. In 1960, he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and played leading roles such as Shylock in Merchant of Venice and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, both directed by Peter Hall. O’Toole had been in a movie before he was cast as Lawrence (a small part in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, 1959) but it was Lawrence that rocketed him to stardom. The filming was a lengthy process and, it is said, O’Toole had the colour of his eyes changed to a brilliant blue to make him even more stunning in close up. In a typically irreverent quip, Noel Coward told O’Toole: “Any more and the film would have to have been called Florence of Arabia.”
But O’Toole found the filming a gruelling undertaking and indeed, in the vital scene shot at Aqaba, he was nearly killed when he fell from his camel. The actor, however, did not help matters when after a celebration and a touch worse the wear for whisky, he seriously injured his hand by punching it through a glass window.
The film was a smash hit – artistically and commercially – and that acclaim was in no small measure due to O’Toole’s staggering performance as Lawrence.
Such was his fame from the movie, O’Toole was booked in 1963 to play the title role in Hamlet: the first production at the National Theatre. It was directed by Laurence Olivier and the cast included Derek Jacobi and Rosemary Harris: Michael Gambon was a spear carrier and he described O’Toole on stage as, “a god with bright blond hair”.
In 1964 and in 1968, O’Toole played King Henry VII in Becket and then in The Lion In Winter. In the former, he delivered a towering performance opposite Richard Burton’s Becket and was again in majestic form opposite Katharine Hepburn and Anthony Hopkins as the grizzled and tempestuous King in Lion in Winter. He made What’s New Pussycat? with Peter Sellars and in 1980 was again acclaimed for his portrayal of the director in the behind-the-scenes film The Stunt Man.
O’Toole’s Macbeth in 1980 is now part of theatre legend. Worse, O’Toole also directed and the curtain rose to a startled audience to reveal a dimly lit collection of black plastic phalluses swaying gently in the wind. There were cat calls during the first night and laughter was widespread. The production – which played to packed houses – had abuse heaped upon it. The critics dubbed it Macdeath and Macflop.
But, undeterred, he continued to work and remained a draw on stage and screen. He became an authority on Shaw and did Man and Superman, The Apple Cart and Pygmalion in London. Then in 1989 he hit the jackpot again in Jeffrey Barnard is Unwell, which occupied the Apollo theatre for three years.
Five years ago, O’Toole was told that if he ever drank again his liver would collapse and he assiduously remained teetotal and forsook his ivory cigarette holder. Throughout his life, he was a keen sportsman – especially cricket and rugby. O’Toole was an actor blessed with a remarkable capacity to endear, shock and excite. When on form, he was imperious and commanded the screen or stage like few others.
His marriage to the actress Sian Phillips was dissolved and he is survived by their two daughters and a son, and a son by Karen Brown.