What a wonderfully fascinating and eccentric actor he was. I was sorry to learn of Peter O’Toole’s death a couple of days ago. He was 81.
O’Toole “burst” onto the scene as a major film star at the age of 30, when he portrayed T.E. Lawrence in the blockbuster film, Lawrence of Arabia. That was in 1962. I saw the film on a U.S. military base in Germany when I was in high school. While I admired O’Toole’s acting, it was the character he portrayed who caught my imagination. I began reading whatever I could lay my hands on that told about the life and exploits of T.E. Lawrence (1888 – 1935). Lawrence was a British officer during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign and the Arab Revolt during World War I. His written accounts brought him to prominence. He was another eccentric Brit. The British seem to excel in producing eccentric characters, larger-than-life figures that fire young men’s imaginations. Or at least they did the imagination of this young man.
Once I’d exhausted my interest in T.E. Lawrence, somehow I turned to an earlier eccentric associated with the Arab world, the infinitely fascinating Richard Burton. Not the actor, I hasten to say. Rather the Victorian explorer, Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 – 1890), who was an adventurer par excellence. He also was a writer and translator, known famously for his unexpurgated translation of One Thousand and One Nights, which challenged the Victorian mores of his day. My late wife was captivated by this particular work, and at some point in the 1970s I was able to secure for her a boxed, three-volume set of Burton’s translation in an edition from the 1930s.
O’Toole never played the Victorian eccentric on stage or screen, though he would have been well cast. On the other hand, he was a great friend of the other Richard Burton, with whom he co-starred in Becket. The two claimed to have been drunk throughout most of the filming.
Peter O’Toole (1932 – 2013) emerged as a film star in serious dramas of the 1960s: Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), in addition to Lawrence—all three leading to Academy Award nominations. In all, he was nominated eight times and never won. In 2003 the Academy gave him an honorary award for his lifetime of work.
Though he was initially recognized for dramatic works, he also excelled at comedy—and as often on stage as on film. In the early 1980s, I was fortunate to see him in George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Theatre Royal in London. What a treat! O’Toole naturally played Jack Tanner, the Don Juan character of the play. To see him work his magic on the boards from a seat midway in the stalls was sheer delight.
I suspect movie and theater buffs must all have their favorite recollections of Peter O’Toole. He is reported to have said, “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.” He certainly did that.