The presence and power of Peter O’Toole catapulted the strikingly handsome performer to international fame in the early ’60s, and for nearly 50 years after, he continued to lend professionalism and prestige to the projects he graced. Born in Connemara, Ireland to a bookmaker and Scottish nurse and raised in Leeds, Britain, Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole spent a directionless adolescence as an apprentice journalist and as a seaman in the Royal Navy before deciding upon the stage as a calling. The intelligence and innate ability of this otherwise unqualified amateur so impressed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts that they awarded him a scholarship, and O’Toole studied amongst such classmates as Richard Harris, Albert Finney and Alan Bates.
He spent the balance of the 1950s honing his skills on the London boards, and by the decade’s close, he made an inauspicious film debut in the live-action Disney actioner Kidnapped. Subsequent turns that same year in The Savage Innocents and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England lead to a call from director David Lean, who rolled the dice on the unknown actor for the title role in his 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia. O’Toole’s arresting portrayal of the idiosyncratic soldier made him an immediate global sensation and garnered him an Academy Award nominations for Best Actor. A decade of dominance on stage and screen ensued thereafter.
He’d receive his next two Oscar nominations for rendering the same role–King Henry II–in two diverse productions, 1964’s Becket (alongside Richard Burton) and four years later for The Lion in Winter (opposite Katharine Hepburn). Other memorable assignments of the mid-’60s included a 1965 adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim; the swingin’ comedy What’s New, Pussycat (also ’65); with Audrey Hepburn in the romantic caper How to Steal a Million (1966), and the following year in the WWII-themed thriller The Night of the Generals. The late ’60s through early ’70s saw his power unabated, again nominated for his turns as the beloved schoolteacher in 1969’s musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and the delusional nobleman who thinks he’s Jesus Christ in the 1972 dark farce The Ruling Class.
As the ’70s wore on, however, the career choices became ever more suspect (Man of La Mancha, Rosebud, Man Friday, and the infamous Caligula), and while the excesses of a hard-partying lifestyle began to dangerously compromise his health, it was a stomach cancer diagnosis that led to the actor undergoing surgery to have his pancreas and part of his stomach removed in 1976. Having bottomed out personally and professionally, Peter cleaned himself up and embarked on a career renaissance in the early ’80s, marked by two more Oscar-nominated turns as Eli Cross, the subtly diabolical director of The Stunt Man (1980), and Alan Swann, the Errol Flynn-like faded screen swashbuckler of My Favorite Year (1982). He’d otherwise provide flavorful support over the course of the decade to Supergirl, Creator, Club Paradise, High Spirits and Best Picture Oscar-winner The Last Emperor. TV also became a frequent outlet (Masada, Svengali, Kim), as did reprisals of his stage work in Pygmalion and Man and Superman.
The ’90s saw O’Toole remain busy on the large screen (The Rainbow Thief, King Ralph, The Seventh Coin, Fairytale: A True Story, Phantoms), small screen (Civvies, North & South: Book III, Heavy Weather, Joan of Arc, Gulliver’s Travels) and the theatre (Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell). The new millennium found him self-described as “still in the game,” reluctantly accepting a lifetime achievement Academy Award in 2003; three years later, he’d get an eighth and final acting nomination for his veteran thespian of Venus (his competitive Oscar tally would remain 0 for eight). Other efforts of note from those years included Troy, One Night with the King, Stardust and Pixar’s animated Ratatouille, as well as TV stints on Casanova and The Tudors. Decades of unapologetic hard living, however, would catch up with the now-octogenarian actor, and O’Toole passed away at London’s Wellington Hospital, following a lengthy illness, in December of 2013, at the age of 81.
One of the biggest laughs in My Favorite Year comes when Alan Swann, terrified at the thought of performing on live TV, exclaims “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Fans who followed Peter O’Toole’s half-century film career would say that he, indeed, was both.