1932 – 2013
By Adam Farley, Editorial Assistant
December 16, 2013
Peter O’Toole, the actor who rose to international fame nearly overnight as T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, died December 14th in a London hospital. His daughter, the actress Kate O’Toole, said in a statement that he had been ill for some time. He was 81 years old.
He was 6 foot 2 inches with sandy blonde hair, eyes like a hurricane, and a jaw like a rocks glass—the epitome of the 1960s leading man, known as much for his on-screen bravado as his so-called “lost weekends” off screen. After his first leading role in Lawrence as the British archaeologist turned soldier who led an Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during WWI, O’Toole was nominated for his first of eight Oscars. The 60s and early 70s continued to see O’Toole invoking power and extravagance in his roles that led to subsequent Oscar nods: as Henry II in 1964’s Beckett and again as Henry II, opposite Katharine Hepburn, in 1968’s The Lion in Winter; in 1970’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips; and in the last film of his peak career years as the mad 14th Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class.
But the roles O’Toole took were not always magnanimous filmic accomplishments (for example, Woody Allen’s 1965 What’s New, Pussycat?), and several were universally panned, like Night of the Generals (1967) and Caligula in 1979. But those years too saw his off-screen reputation grow. Known as having a predilection for gambling and the tracks, he allegedly lost most of his Lawrence of Arabia earnings in two nights gambling with his co-star Omar Sharif, writes The New York Times. So perhaps it wasn’t so facetious when he once explained in an interview that he took lesser roles because “it’s what I do for a living and, besides, I’ve got bookies to keep.”
“We heralded the ‘60s,” he once said, according to The Irish Times. “Me, [Richard] Burton, Richard Harris; we did in public what everyone else did in private then, and does for show now. We drank in public, we knew about pot.” Though he gave up most drinking in the late 70s, he continued to smoke unfiltered Gauloises through a long cigarette holder the rest of his life.
Irish President Michael D. Higgins too counted O’Toole as “a friend since 1969,” when Higgins spent part of the year in Clifden with him, meeting “almost daily,” he told The Irish Times. “All of us who knew him in the west will miss his warm humour and generous friendship.”
According to The Washington Post, another explanation he provided links his ups and downs to his Irish heritage. “The Celts are, at rock bottom, deep pessimists,” he said. “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.”
Peter Seamus O’Toole was born in either Connemara or Leeds on August 2, 1932 (though some sources also say “Seamus Peter”). Though O’Toole himself has said his birthplace is uncertain, he was raised in Leeds by his mother Constance, a Scottish nurse, and his father Patrick, an Irishman from the west who was a traveling bookie frequently in debt, yet whose affected upper class mannerisms and dress earned him the nickname “Spats.” According to The New York Times, O’Toole liked to joke that he was brought up “not working class but criminal class.” Apparently, his father lost most of the use of his right hand after his knuckles were broken by his debt collectors.
To support the family, O’Toole left school at 13 to work in the various industries Leeds had to offer, eventually making it to the copy room of The Yorkshire Evening News. This would have been a perfect job for O’Toole, who told The Washington Post in 1978 that his passion was language, if only he was any good at reporting. Instead, his editor fired him, telling O’Toole, “Try something else, be an actor, do anything.”
That was in the late 40s and O’Toole had already had some amateur acting roles, but by 1955, O’Toole had graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on a full scholarship. He spent the next years honing his craft on stage and receiving national acclaim in numerous Shakespearean roles, including Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” which was seen by the casting director of the upcoming Lawrence of Arabia.
It wasn’t until the 1990s that O’Toole seemed to regain some of his former clout as an actor and in 2003, he was awarded an Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement. At the time, he had been nominated seven times and never won. His eighth Academy Award nomination came in 2006 for his portrayal of an aging actor consigned to play dying kings and sympathetic, but feeble-minded old men in Roger Mitchell’s Venus.
O’Toole retired from acting about a year ago and was living a quiet life in his London home. In addition to his daughter Kate, he is survived by his other two children, his daughter Pat his son Lorcan, and his sister Patricia Coombs.