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O'Toole, Peter (1932-)


Main image of O'Toole, Peter (1932-)

Anyone who saw Peter O'Toole on the Royal Court stage as the foul-mouthed Sgt Bamforth in The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959) would have confidently predicted stardom, though he was bypassed for the film version (d. Leslie Norman, 1960).

In the event, it has been an extraordinary career for the Leeds bookie's son, who began as a cub reporter, spent two years in the Royal Navy, then trained at RADA before spending several years at the Bristol Old Vic. He would return periodically to the stage, with Stratford and Old Vic seasons in the 1960s and playing Professor Higgins, all flailing limbs and tweedy irascibility in Pygmalion (1984) and the title role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989), two roles he was surely meant to play.

He made three modestly regarded films before bursting on the world as Lawrence of Arabia (d. David Lean, 1962), several others having been considered for the role. With blazing blue eyes, bleached hair and flowing white garments, he was a charismatic figure (though Noël Coward is alleged to have said, "If you'd been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia"), winning an Oscar nomination. It was a remarkable study in obsession, catching the right balance between mystic and man of action, bringing to the role kinds of intensity and zeal that few other British actors could have done.

Arguably, he never had a more challenging role but his carousing King winning the displeasure of his former comrade-in-wassail in Becket (d. Peter Glenville, 1964) and another go at the same monarch, Henry II, at a later stage of his life, in The Lion in Winter (d. Anthony Harvey, 1968) maintained the star aura.

Hardly anything after that has been as riveting: his eagerly anticipated questing hero, Lord Jim (d. Richard Brooks, 1964), failed to meet expectations; he is an agreeable Chipping in the musical version of Goodbye, Mr Chips (d. Herbert Ross, 1969), without dislodging Robert Donat's image in the role; he makes an aptly bizarre figure of the Earl who believes he is Jesus in The Ruling Class (d. Peter Medak, 1971); and has a certain charm as a Hollywood legend on the drink in My Favorite Year (US, d. Richard Benjamin, 1982), a role which must have seem close to the bone for the professed former alcoholic O'Toole.

He made some rotten films, of which Caligula (US/Italy, d. Tinto Brass, 1979) can serve as example; then, to one's astonishment, he picks himself up, the glamour now ravaged but still in evidence, as in his final scene in The Last Emperor (China/Italy, d. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1987).

The roistering years are apparently behind him but they took a heavy toll, though it must be said that he never stopped working, even if there is a serious trash quota. He was married (1959-79) to Siân Phillips.

Autobiographies: Loitering with Intent: the Child (1992), Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice (1996). Biography: Peter O'Toole: A Biography by Nicholas Wapshott (1983).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Thumbnail image of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Spectacular David Lean epic about the desert adventurer

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Thumbnail image of Phillips, Siân (1933-)Phillips, Siân (1933-)