By Shelley Marsden
Peter O’Toole’s death, on December 14, aged 81, came a little more than a year after he announced his retirement from acting last July.
Leading tributes to the acting colossus, who passed away at the Wellington Hospital, Irish president Michael D Higgins spoke of the “unsurpassed grace” he brought to each performance.
Born on August 2, 1932 in Connemara, Seamus Peter O’Toole grew up in Leeds and served in the Royal Navy, before deciding to study acting at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His early stage work included the lead in Hamlet at Bristol Old Vic and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. He went on to make an impression on stage and screen.
He received a total of eight Oscar nominations in his lifetime. Though he received four Golden Globes, a Bafta and an Emmy, O’Toole never won one of the gold statuettes. He did receive a special honorary Oscar for his contribution to film in 2003, one which he had initially turned down.
In a letter the actor asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay it until he was 80, saying he was “still in the game and might win the bugger outright”.
O’Toole announced his retirement in July 2012, saying: “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage”, adding that 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.”
One of those flops was Macbeth in 1980, which got such a battering from critics that audience-goers came to see how bad it could really be. Years later, he said: “The thought of it makes my nose bleed.”
As passionate in his drinking and riotous behaviour with fellow actors Richard Harris, Peter Finch and Richard Burton as he was his craft (like Harris, he gave up the booze under doctors orders), O’Toole’s most iconic role – and the first of many to spawn an Oscar nomination for him – was in David Lean’s 1962 desert epic Lawrence of Arabia.
As British adventurer TE Lawrence (in a role turned down first by Albert Finney, then Marlon Brando) his striking blue eyes and tanned skin famously prompted Noel Coward to say: “If he’d been any prettier we’d have had to call him Florence of Arabia”.
Subsequent Oscar nods came for Becket (1964), The Lion In Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980) and My Favourite Year (1982), the latter which seemed the perfect piece of typecasting as O’Toole took on a rakish, party-loving actor.
His final nomination was for 2006’s Venus, a bittersweet comedy in which he played a veteran actor Maurice, whose life is turned upside down by the arrival of brash teenager Jessie (Jodie Whittaker). Even in latter roles, that same twinkle in the eye was evident.
Michael D Higgins, who was a personal friend, said:” Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre. In a long list of leading roles on stage and in film, Peter brought an extraordinary standard to bear as an actor. He was unsurpassed for the grace he brought to every performance on and off the stage.”
Stephen Fry tweeted: “I had the honour of directing him in a scene. Monster, scholar, lover of life, genius …”, while actor Eddie Marsan lauded the actor’s determination, quoting him in a 1990 interview with the Independent on Sunday: “Waiting for the right part – you could wait forever. So I turn up and do the best I can.’ That’s an actor for you. R.I.P. Peter O Toole.”
Film critic Barry Norman called him a “true movie star”, who had “tremendous charisma”, and British Prime Minister David Cameron said: “His performance in my favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, was stunning.”
But broadcaster Michael Parkinson urged people not to be too sad about the Irishman’s death, saying: “Peter didn’t leave much of life unlived, did he?”
O’Toole was married to actress Sian Phillips for 20 years until 1979, with whom he had two children, Kate, an actress, and Patricia. He later had a son, Lorcan by Karen Brown, who attended school in Harrow, not far from the family home in Cricklewood.
In an onstage interview as part of the Galway Film Fleadh in 2008, O’Toole was asked which style of acting he preferred. Famous for his film roles, his lyrical answer revealed both his deep love of acting and the place in which he felt most at home doing it – the stage.
He said: “I love the theatre, because it’s the art of the moment. Acting is making words into flesh. You need the vocal range of an opera singer, the movement of a ballet dancer and the ability to act – as you turn your whole body into the musical instrument on which you play.
“It’s more than behaviourism, which is what you get in the movies. Chrissake, what are movies anyway? Just f**ing moving photographs – that’s all. But the theatre! Ah, there you have the impermanence that I love. It’s a reflection of life somehow. It’s like…building a statue of snow.”