Acting great Peter O’Toole, who starred in ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ dies at 81


Adrian Higgins (c) 2013, The Washington Post

Peter O’Toole, the willowy and mesmerizing actor who became an overnight sensation in the 1962 film epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” died Saturday in a London hospital. He was 81.

His death, which was confirmed by his agent, came after a prolonged, unspecified illness.

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During his long and colorful career, O’Toole received eight Academy Award nominations with no wins — an unprecedented streak for an actor. In 2003, he settled for an honorary Oscar, which he accepted with customary relish.

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. My foot,” he said, clutching the Oscar for lifetime achievement.

His first Oscar nomination was for his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, the British archaeologist, soldier and adventurer who led Arab tribesmen against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. The legend that grew up around Lawrence’s exploits became a perfect creative vehicle for filmmaker David Lean. O’Toole, who at 6-foot-2 was almost a foot taller than the enigmatic Lawrence, nevertheless seemed to capture perfectly the tortured inner life of a charismatic but conflicted rebel leader.

The film’s sublime cinematography rendered its star as a towering, gaunt Anglo-Saxon outlier who has a chiseled beauty and piercing, azure eyes. O’Toole’s acting helped make the film a classic and placed the actor in a pantheon of beloved, roguish British and Irish actors of the postwar era.

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O’Toole never fully embraced the Hollywood culture and was identified instead with a flamboyant, theatrical and hard-drinking cohort of stage and screen stars who included Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch. O’Toole spoke with exquisite diction and careful delivery — every word seemed to have been savored.

He told The Washington Post in a 1978 interview that “my passion is language. The most satisfying thing for me is having worked with fine writers.” His voice evoked a very cultured British manner, although he was claimed by Ireland as a favorite son, and he identified himself as an Irishman.

His friend Michael Higgins, the Irish president, issued a statement after O’Toole’s death that said the actor “was unsurpassed for the grace he brought to every performance on and off the stage.” The actor and Higgins, who befriended O’Toole in 1969, saw each other in the west of Ireland, where O’Toole had a home. O’Toole also lived in the trendy and affluent London borough of Hampstead.

“Ireland, and the world,” Higgins said, “has lost one of the giants of film and theater.”

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Peter Seamus O’Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932, although where isn’t definitively known; he said his birthplace was either Connemara in the western part of Ireland or the northern English city of Leeds, where he grew up. His father, Patrick “Spats” O’Toole, was an Irish bookmaker, and his mother, Constance Jane Eliot, a Scottish nurse.

As a teenager in the 1940s, O’Toole worked as a copy boy for an evening newspaper, but soon left and worked in the civic theater in Leeds before fulfilling his compulsory military service as a Royal Navy signalman.

He later studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and joined the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, where he became noticed as an actor of extraordinary presence in spite of his youth and inexperience.

His early success with “Lawrence of Arabia,” however, did not guarantee a smooth career, although it was prolific and at times highly celebrated. Among his performances onstage, he was acclaimed for his Hamlet and his portrayal of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as well as his role as a sad and poignant Fleet Street hack in “Unwell,” first performed in 1989 and reprised to packed West End audiences a decade later.

Apart from “Lawrence,” he received Oscar nominations for his leading roles in “Becket” (1964), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1968), “The Ruling Class” (1972), “The Stunt Man” (1980) and “My Favorite Year” (1982). His final Oscar nomination came in 2006, when he played an aging lothario in “Venus.”

Perhaps the nadir of his professional career came with a 1980 production of Macbeth that was panned so roundly it drew audiences to see how bad it was. Overwrought and hammy, his performance prompted one critic to write that O’Toole “delivers every line with a monotonous tenor bark.” Another Shakespearean actor accused O’Toole of “not trusting the author, in one of his greatest plays.”

O’Toole acknowledged that his career was marked with hits and flops and that he accepted some roles to pay the rent. His carousing with Burton, Harris and the other actors became fabled but by the mid-1970s, he swore off the booze after a successful surgery for pancreatitis. He later said,”We did in public what everyone else did in private.” Looking ever more drawn and haunted as the years passed, he continued to smoke strong French cigarettes in a black cigarette holder.

His marriage to actress Sian Phillips ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from that marriage, Pat O’Toole and Kate O’Toole, and by his son, Lorcan O’Toole, by Karen Brown.

Kate O’Toole, also an actor, said in a statement that “in due course there will be a memorial filled with song and good cheer, as he would have wished.”

In a magazine profile, O’Toole ruminated on his Celtic origins and its effects on him. “The Celts are, at rock bottom, deep pessimists,” he told an interviewer. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something in me that after I build something, I knock it down — just for the hell of it.”

Terence McArdle contributed to this report.