I was very sad to hear of the passing of actor Peter O’Toole today at age 81. The New York Times describes him well as “an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose magnetic performance in the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia earned him overnight fame and put him on the road to becoming one of his generation’s most accomplished and charismatic actors.” His electrifying blue eyes and thrum of neurotic intensity suited him perfectly to play the British man who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Turks in the 1917-18 and to become an icon for the upheavals of the 1960’s. He had the tradition and technique classically trained actor and the legendary excesses of a rock star. I love the interview that frequently runs on Turner Classic Movies, where he tells a story about working with David Lean on “Lawrence of Arabia.” Lean told him to improvise a few moments of Lawrence enjoying his Arab garb. O’Toole came up with the idea that Lawrence might have wanted to look at himself and, without a mirror, checked out his reflection in the shiny blade of his knife. O’Toole still remembered, years later, Lean watching him and his approving murmur, “Clever boy.” With more Oscar nominations without winning than anyone else, O’Toole initially declined a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award in his 70’s, saying he was “still in the game and might win the bugger outright.” He finally accepted one in 2003.
O’Toole was such a commanding presence that it is easy to forget what a brilliant actor he was. Even in flawed and lesser films like “High Spirits” and the musical version of “Goodbye Mr. Chips” he was still a fascinating presence. Some of my favorite performances include the two times he played King Henry II, as young man in Becket opposite Richard Burton and as an old man in The Lion in Winter opposite Katherine Hepburn.
I also love him as the grandiose director in The Stunt Man, making a movie about WWI and covering up an accidental death on set by hiring a fugitive to take his place. He enters in a helicopter, a god descending from Olympus to order the lives of mortals.
He is magnificent in My Favorite Year as a dissipated but still game swashbuckling movie star who is about to appear on a live television show. And as the art thief who steals Audrey Hepburn’s heart as well as her fake Cellini statue in How to Steal a Million. When she breathes, “Maaarvelous” at his strategy for getting around the art museum’s security system, we know she is really expressing her assessment of O’Toole’s character and the actor who plays him. And we agree.