Peter O’Toole, Who Starred as ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ Dies at 81Mike Harrison and Laurence Arnold
Peter O’Toole, who gained worldwide fame as the star of “Lawrence of Arabia” at the dawn of a career that included four Golden Globe awards and eight Academy Award nominations, has died. He was 81.
He died Dec. 14 at the Wellington hospital in London following a prolonged illness, his agent, Steve Kenis, said yesterday in an e-mail.
It quoted O’Toole’s daughter, actress Kate O’Toole, as saying the family is “completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed toward him, and to us, during this unhappy time.”
She said there would be “a memorial filled with song and good cheer, as he would have wished.”
With Richard Burton and Richard Harris, O’Toole was among a select band of actors who in the 1960s and 1970s became as well known for their lives off screen as their brilliance on it. The three were known as hell-raisers for their drinking sprees.
“We heralded the ’60s,” O’Toole once said. “Me, Burton, Richard Harris, we did in public what everyone else did in private then, and does for show now.”
O’Toole was given the starring role in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) after acting with the Bristol Old Vic company and as a secondary player in films including “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England” (1960). Director David Lean had thought of Marlon Brando or Albert Finney for the lead before choosing O’Toole.
“He needed an actor beautiful enough to upstage the vast desert panoramas,” Bloomberg News critic Peter Rainer wrote in 2006. “With his hawkish features, blinding blond hair and radioactive blue eyes, O’Toole is a magnificent camera subject in ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’”
O’Toole, nominated for an Academy Award for leading actor, lost to Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” though “Lawrence of Arabia” was named best picture, and Lean best director. O’Toole’s performance propelled him as an international name and was described by film producer Sam Spiegel as “unequalled in modern cinema.”
O’Toole, who announced his retirement last year, also starred in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), “The Ruling Class” (1972) and “The Stunt Man” (1980). He showed off his comedic skills in “My Favorite Year” (1982) as a hard-drinking, self-centered actor unconvinced that his best days are behind him.
After eight Oscar nominations -- the most recent for his role in the 2006 film “Venus” -- he received an honorary Oscar in 2003.
When he was 70, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences first offered him an honorary Oscar. He wrote back to say that while “enchanted” by the offer, he felt he was too young.
His career had brought him together with “fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits,” he said in a statement in July 2012. “However, 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.”
Peter Seamus O’Toole was born on Aug. 2, 1932, to Patrick O’Toole, a bookmaker and soccer player, and his wife Connie, a nurse. In his memoir, O’Toole said he wasn’t sure where he was born because he had two birth certificates, one giving Connemara, in County Galway, Ireland, as his place of birth, and the other saying Leeds, in north England.
His childhood was dogged by ill health, and although he could read by age 3, he didn’t attend school regularly until he was 11. He left two years later with no qualifications and got a job at his local newspaper, the Yorkshire Evening News, as a tea boy.
He worked his way to reporting, covering stories with colleagues including future columnist and playwright Keith Waterhouse and author Barbara Taylor Bradford.
“I soon found out that, rather than chronicling events, I wanted to be the event,” O’Toole said.
After a stint in the Royal Navy, he gained a place at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in a class that also included Finney and Alan Bates.
He made his stage debut in London’s West End in 1957 and two years later was cast in the play “The Long And The Short And The Tall” at the Royal Court Theatre, where his understudy was Michael Caine. He made his film debut in Walt Disney’s “Kidnapped” (1960) with Peter Finch.
In “Becket” (1964), he played King Henry II opposite Richard Burton’s Archbishop of Canterbury. In “The Lion in Winter” (1968), he again played Henry II, this time opposite Katharine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitane.
Later career highlights include “Caligula” (1979), “The Last Emperor” (1987), “Troy” (2004) and “Stardust” (2007). He was also the voice of restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s animated “Ratatouille” (2007).
One of his most acclaimed performances was his portrayal of a former drinking partner in “Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell,” a long-running stage play written by Waterhouse that was made into a 1999 television movie.