An OBITUARY NOTICE BY Liam Gillespie
Peter O’Toole, the Irish actor best known for his performances in Lawrence of Arabia and A Lion in Winter, died on 14 December 2013 at the Wellington Hospital in London following a long illness. His funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium in London on 21 December 2013, where he was cremated in a wicker coffin. He was 81.
Irish President Michael D Higgins has said ‘Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre.’
Born 2 August 1932 in Connemara, Co Galway, Peter James O’Toole was the son of Constance Jane Eliot (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph ‘Spats’ O’Toole, an Irish metal worker. After moving to Leeds, England at the age of one, O’Toole, who learned to read aged 3, did not attend school until 11 years of age due to ill health. Despite this, his mother instilled in him a strong appreciation of literature, and in his adult life O’Toole prided himself on being able to recite all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart. In his teenage years O’Toole, raised Catholic, attended St Joseph’s Secondary School in Holbeck to no avail, describing himself as a ‘retired Catholic’ in several interviews in later years. From there he fulfilled his duty in national service, which proved to be a pivotal moment in his life. For reasons known only to himself, O’Toole had designs on selling second-hand Jaguars and had been treading water at working at the local newspaper. A commanding officer in the service asked him if there was something he had always wanted to do, and the response was poet or actor. O’Toole attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art on scholarship after the Abbey Theatre, Dublin passed on him due to his poor grasp of the Irish language. His peers at RADA included Albert Finney, who was considered for the role of T E Lawrence, and Alan Bates, nominated for the Best Actor Oscar in 1968, and characteristics of both these coincidences would define O’Toole for his entire career.
Once the door to the acting world was open, O’Toole sauntered through it as effortlessly as one of his many screen entrances. His stage career began in the late 50’s, his screen debut came in 1960 and in 1962 he joined the icons of cinema with the title role in Lawrence of Arabia. The performance is considered by many as the greatest of all time, and O’Toole was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor. It was to be the first of 8 nominations without winning, an imposing yet unfulfilled record the Academy acknowledged in 2003, presenting him with an honorary award for his contribution. Upon receiving the award, O’Toole remarked ‘Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, my foot. I have my very own Oscar now, to be with me, til death us do part!’ Among those O’Toole ‘lost’ the award to were Gregory Peck, Rex Harrison, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, Robert De Niro and Ben Kinsgley, elite company by anyone’s standards.
O’Toole’s career spanned well over 50 years, and into his twilight. His Academy award nods are bookended by nominations in 1962 and 2006, with the ’70s being the only decade unrecognised. His health problems during this time, as dramatic as everything he did, would surely have been a factor contributing to this lean period. His body of work at the Old Vic theatre alone is legendary: 50 roles in 4 years. That he was deemed acting royalty was deserved, he played lords and knights, dukes and kings, none more notable than his roles as Henry II, in both A Lion in Winter opposite Katherine Hepburn and Becket. Both performances earned him Academy award nominations.
Far from being typecast as a Shakespearean theatre-come-movie star, he also showcased his wonderful comedic talent in such roles as The Stuntman, The Ruling Class and My Favourite Year. In My Favourite Year O’Toole’, as a megalomaniac film director, quoted the phrase that his own death will perhaps now make immortal “Dying is easy…comedy is hard!”
Regardless of the role he was playing, O’Toole had a presence on screen and stage that cannot be taught, replicated or surpassed, so much did he make it his own. With the suaveness the envy of any James Bond, a voice that could make Shakespeare seem conversational and eyes the most intense and uniquely blue ever seen, he was the classic movie star. He appeared so comfortable as himself, he played his acting parts as he played his part in life, as Peter O’Toole.
O’Toole was a member of acting alumni forged in the theatre of the ’60s, a a time of hefty actors and heavy drinkers. He was last man standing from an era that celebrated charming scoundrels who had a reputation for remarkable output on the stage and screen whilst maintaining an heroic intake of cocktails. Stories abound of week-long benders, remarkable performances under the influence, and continent-hopping road-trips that jeopardised, but somehow never destroyed films that today are recognised as classics. Often, the common denominator in such stories was one Peter O’Toole. Most such stories exist in folklore, neither confirmed nor denied, but are so entertaining and fantastic they prompted a book, Hellraisers: The Life And Times Of Burton, Harris, O’Toole & Reed by Robert Sellers. O’Toole never shied away from this reputation, indeed he embraced it. When asked, he said ‘I loved the drinking, and waking up in the morning to find I was in Mexico. It was part and parcel of being an idiot.’ Health issues in his early 40’s forced him to stop, and stop he did, as evidenced by his further 4 decades of exceptional work. He danced his dance with lady liquor, and bowed out gracefully when the music stopped.
To many he will always be remembered as Lawrence of Arabia, a once in a lifetime role for a once in a lifetime actor. During a particularly self-indulgent moment in the movie, Lawrence is pushed to say what we all know he thinks of himself. The quote is O’Toole, grand, pompous, theatrical….but we forgive him, for deep down we know he is right.
‘All right! I’m extraordinary…What of it?’