Peter O’Toole: Last of the hard-drinking hell-raisers
The O’Toole character that lodged in cinemagoers’ minds was O’Toole himself: the hellraiser, the champagne and whisky-sinker, the garrulous, charm-drizzled sot, writes Robbie Collin
Was there ever a more auspicious opening credit in history than “Introducing Peter O’Toole as T E Lawrence”? That brief and simple sentence, which appears on screen at the start of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, one of the least brief and simple films ever made, signalled the beginning of an extraordinary career in cinema that spanned half a century. Today, at its end, however, that career somehow feels at once under-fulfilled and under-appreciated.
He was third choice for the Lawrence role, after Marlon Brando and Albert Finney. Thank heavens neither wanted it – or else lacked O’Toole’s vision for how intense, and strange, and grapefruit-sharp that role could be at the heart of Lean’s screen-stretching historical epic. What other actor’s eyes could have stared out across those shifting desert landscapes with that same unknowable sapphire shine and childlike impatience for wildness?
He was 29 years old when he made the film, 30 when it was released in Britain for Christmas 1962 and coming on for 31 when he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for the role, and then lost it to Gregory Peck. (It was to be the first of eight near misses.) His body, rangy and expressive, filled the film’s set-piece moments to their edges – the assault on Aqaba, the massacre at Tafas.
Peter O'Toole photographed in 1963 (AP)
But the smaller moments stick in your mind just as keenly. In one scene we watch, spellbound, as Lawrence snuffs out a lit match between his thumb and forefinger without flinching, and then wince as a younger officer looks at him sceptically, tries to mimic him and burns his fingers.
“What’s the trick,” another soldier asks, bemused. Lawrence’s reply: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
In other words, there is no trick: an uncomforting maxim that O’Toole’s career would go on to bear out. After Lawrence of Arabia came starring roles in Becket, in which he played King Henry II alongside Richard Burton, and Lord Jim, which was based on the Joseph Conrad novel and found little favour with critics or audiences. He described the role, three years after his Lawrence breakthrough, with a double-shot of mordant humour, as his “come-uppance”.
“I was so wrong for the picture,” he said. “When I play reflective types, I tend to reflect myself right off the screen.”
Something unreflective was needed. Enter from the wings a young comedian called Woody Allen, who needed a long, blond streak of English sex-appeal to play the straight(ish) man in his new ensemble sex farce. The film was What’s New Pussycat?, which cemented O’Toole’s reputation as a leading man to watch – no, to gaze at.
The next few years yielded must-sees and don’t bothers in roughly equal measure. But the O’Toole character that lodged in cinemagoers’ minds was O’Toole himself: the hellraiser, the champagne and whisky-sinker, the garrulous, charm-drizzled sot. Like Oliver Reed, Richard Burton and Richard Harris, he was one of Hollywood’s great drinkers, and his passing brings that notorious era to a close. (“Booze is the most outrageous of all drugs, which is why I chose it,” he once told an interviewer.)
Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif from the 1962 film 'Lawrence of Arabia (Rex Features)
But O’Toole the man was cognisant of O’Toole the legend. With fierce self-awareness, he took the role of a veteran swashbuckling actor, constantly drunk and mostly washed-up in the 1982 comedy My Favourite Year. Perhaps it’s needless to add that he nailed it. “Rambunctious, stylish … exquisitely ravaged,” raved the industry paper Variety. Other O’Toole performances to cherish: Henry II (again) in The Lion in Winter, the titular teacher in Goodbye, Mr Chips, a mad baronet in The Ruling Class, a crazed film director in The Stunt Man.
He played an actor again in the 2006 drama Venus, directed by Roger Michell, and – three years after accepting an honorary Oscar – was nominated an eighth and final time, losing to Forest Whitaker, who won for playing Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator, in The Last King of Scotland.
One of my own favourites came in a film in which we never saw him: the Pixar animation Ratatouille, in which he played Anton Ego, a seemingly unpleasable food critic whose heart is finally melted by a perfectly prepared portion of the French dish.
“The world is often unkind to new talent; new creations,” he says in the film’s closing scenes. “The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new: an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source.”
I’ll admit I shed a tear when I first heard O’Toole speak those lines, and yet the words are delivered with such simplicity you can scarcely detect a scrap of the actor’s craft in them. What’s the trick? Acknowledging each emotion without sinking into it. Navigating the script like a seasoned traveller. And above all, not minding that it hurts.