TCM Word of Mouth: O’Toole
The legendary actor discusses his career.
Publicity photo for Lawrence of Arabia
Peter James O’Toole (born August 2, 1932 – died December 14, 2013) was a British actor. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and began working in the theatre, gaining recognition as a Shakespearean actor at the Bristol Old Vic and with the English Stage Company, before making his film debut in 1959.
He achieved stardom playing T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. He received seven further Oscar nominations – for Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982) and Venus (2006) – and holds the record for the most Academy Award acting nominations without a win. He won four Golden Globes, a BAFTA and an Emmy, and was the recipient of an Honorary Academy Award in 2003.
O’Toole was born in 1932. Some sources give his birthplace as Connemara,County Galway, Ireland, while others have reported Leeds, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. O’Toole himself was not certain of his birthplace or date, noting in his autobiography that, while he accepted 2 August as his birthdate, he had a birth certificate from each country, with the Irish one giving a June 1932 birthdate. He was the son of Constance Jane Eliot (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph “Spats” O’Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player, and racecourse bookmaker. When O’Toole was one year old, his family began a five-year tour of major racecourse towns in Northern England. He was brought up as a Catholic.
O’Toole was evacuated from Leeds early in World War II and went to a Catholic school for seven or eight years, St Joseph’s Secondary School, David Street, Holbeck, Leeds, where he was “implored” to become right-handed. “I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood – the black dresses and the shaving of the hair – was so horrible, so terrifying,” he later commented. “Of course, that’s all been stopped. They’re sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day.”
Upon leaving school O’Toole obtained employment as a trainee journalist and photographer on the Yorkshire Evening Post,until he was called up for national service as a signaller in the Royal Navy. As reported in a radio interview in 2006 on NPR, he was asked by an officer whether he had something he had always wanted to do. His reply was that he had always wanted to try being either a poet or an actor. O’Toole attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) from 1952 to 1954 on a scholarship after being rejected by the Abbey Theatre‘s drama school in Dublin by the director Ernest Blythe, because he couldn’t speak the Irish language. At RADA, he was in the same class as Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. O’Toole described this as “the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren’t reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty.”
Publicity photo for Lawrence of Arabia
O’Toole began working in the theatre, gaining recognition as a Shakespearean actor at the Bristol Old Vic and with the English Stage Company, before making his television debut in 1954. He first appeared on film in 1959 in a minor role in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. O’Toole’s major break came when he was chosen to play T. E. Lawrence in David Lean‘sLawrence of Arabia (1962), after Marlon Brando proved unavailable and Albert Finney turned down the role. His performance was ranked number one inPremiere magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. The role introduced him to US audiences and earned him the first of his eight nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor.
O’Toole is one of a handful of actors to be Oscar-nominated for playing the same role in two different films; he played King Henry II in both Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968). O’Toole played Hamlet under Laurence Olivier‘s direction in the premiere production of the Royal National Theatre in 1963. He demonstrated his comedic abilities alongside Peter Sellers in the Woody Allen-scripted comedy What’s New Pussycat? (1965). He also appeared in Seán O’Casey‘s Juno and the Paycock at Gaiety Theatre, Dublin.
As King Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968)
O’Toole fulfilled a lifetime ambition when taking to the stage of the Irish capital’s Abbey Theatre in 1970, to perform in Samuel Beckett‘s Waiting for Godot alongside Donal McCann. In 1972, he played both Miguel de Cervantes and his fictional creation Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, the motion picture adaptation of the 1965 hit Broadway musical, opposite Sophia Loren. The film was a critical and commercial failure, criticised for using mostly non-singing actors. O’Toole’s singing was dubbed by tenor Simon Gilbert, but the other actors sang their own parts. O’Toole and co-star James Coco, who played both Cervantes’s manservant and Sancho Panza, both received Golden Globe nominations for their performances. In 1980, O’Toole starred as Tiberius in the Penthouse-funded biographical film Caligula.
In 1980, he received critical acclaim for playing the director in the behind-the-scenes film The Stunt Man. He received good reviews as John Tanner in Man and Superman and Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, and won a Laurence Olivier Award for his performance in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1989). O’Toole was nominated for another Oscar for My Favorite Year (1982), a light romantic comedy about the behind-the-scenes at a 1950’s TV variety-comedy show, in which O’Toole plays an ageing swashbuckling film star reminiscent of Errol Flynn. He also appeared in 1987’s acclaimed The Last Emperor.
O’Toole won an Emmy Award for his role in the 1999 mini-series Joan of Arc. In 2004, he played King Priam in the summer blockbuster Troy. In 2005, he appeared on television as the older version of legendary 18th century Italian adventurer Giacomo Casanova in the BBC drama serial Casanova. The younger Casanova, seen for most of the action, was played by David Tennant, who had to wear contact lenses to match his brown eyes to O’Toole’s blue. O’Toole was once again nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award for his portrayal of Maurice in the 2006 film Venus, directed by Roger Michell, his eighth such nomination.
O’Toole co-starred in the Pixar animated film Ratatouille (2007), an animated film about a rat with dreams of becoming the greatest chef in Paris, as Anton Ego, a food critic. O’Toole appeared in the second season of Showtime‘s successful drama series The Tudors (2008), portraying Pope Paul III, who excommunicates King Henry VIII from the church; an act which leads to a showdown between the two men in seven of the ten episodes.
On 10 July 2012, O’Toole released a statement that he was retiring from acting.
While studying at RADA in the early 1950’s, O’Toole was active in protesting against British involvement in the Korean War. Later, in the 1960’s, he was an active opponent of the Vietnam War. He played a role in the creation of the current form of the well-known folksong “Carrickfergus” which he related to Dominic Behan, who put it in print and made a recording in the mid-1960’s.
In 1959, he married Welsh actress Siân Phillips, with whom he had two daughters: actress Kate and Patricia. They were divorced in 1979. Phillips later said in two autobiographies that O’Toole had subjected her to mental cruelty, largely fuelled by drinking, and was subject to bouts of extreme jealousy when she finally left him for a younger lover.
O’Toole and his girlfriend, model Karen Brown had a son, Lorcan Patrick O’Toole (born 17 March 1983), when O’Toole was fifty years old. Lorcan, now an actor, was a pupil at Harrow School, boarding at West Acre from 1996.
Severe illness almost ended O’Toole’s life in the late 1970’s. His stomach cancer was misdiagnosed as resulting from his alcoholic excess. O’Toole underwent surgery in 1976 to have his pancreas and a large portion of his stomach removed, which resulted in insulin-dependent diabetes. In 1978, he nearly died from a blood disorder. He eventually recovered, however, and returned to work. He resided on the Sky Road, just outside Clifden in Connemara in County Galway, Ireland, from 1963, and at the height of his career maintained homes in Dublin, London, and Paris (at the Ritz, which was where his character supposedly lived in the film How to Steal a Million). Finally, he made his home solely in London.
O’Toole was reportedly offered a knighthood in 1987, but turned it down for personal and political reasons.
In an interview with National Public Radio in December 2006, O’Toole revealed that he knew all 154 of Shakespeare‘s sonnets. A self-described romantic, O’Toole regarded the sonnets as among the finest collection of English poems, reading them daily. In the film Venus, he recites Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). O’Toole wrote two memoirs. Loitering With Intent: The Childchronicles his childhood in the years leading up to World War II and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992. His second, Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice, is about his years spent training with a cadre of friends at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. O’Toole spent parts of 2007 writing the third instalment.
O’Toole was a noted fan of rugby union, and attended Five Nations matches with friends and fellow rugby fans Richard Harris,Kenneth Griffith, Peter Finch and Richard Burton. (O’Toole, Harris and Burton have a combined 17 Oscar nominations.) He was also a lifelong player, coach and enthusiast of cricket, licensed to teach and coach cricket to children as young as ten. O’Toole was a fan of Sunderland A.F.C.. The allegiance lapsed, according to an article at the Salut! Sunderland website.
O’Toole was interviewed at least three times by Charlie Rose on his eponymous talk show. In 17 January 2007 interview, O’Toole said that Eric Porter was the actor who had most influenced him. He also said that the difference between actors of yesterday and today is that actors of his generation were trained for “theatre, theatre, theatre.” He also believes that the challenge for the actor is “to use his imagination to link to his emotion” and that “good parts make good actors.” However, in other venues (including the DVD commentary for Becket), O’Toole also credited Donald Wolfit as being his most important mentor. In an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on 11 January 2007, O’Toole said that the actor he most enjoyed working with was Katharine Hepburn, his close friend; he played Henry II to her Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.
Although he lost faith in organised religion as a teenager, O’Toole expressed positive sentiments regarding the life of Jesus Christ. In an interview for The New York Times, he said “No one can take Jesus away from me…there’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.” Earlier in the interview, he announced “I am a retired Christian.” O’Toole played Samuel in One Night with the King, about Esther, in 2006 and the minor role of Father Christopher in For Greater Glory: the True Story of Cristiada in 2012.
O’Toole died on 14 December 2013 at the Wellington Hospital in London, aged 81, following a long illness.
Academy Award Nominations
O’Toole was nominated eight times for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making him the most-nominated actor never to win the award.
In 2003, the Academy honoured him with an Academy Honorary Award for his entire body of work and his lifelong contribution to film. O’Toole initially balked about accepting, and wrote the Academy a letter saying that he was “still in the game” and would like more time to “win the lovely bugger outright.” The Academy informed him that they would bestow the award whether he wanted it or not. He told The Charlie Rose Show in January 2007 his children admonished him, saying that it was the highest honour one could receive in the filmmaking industry. O’Toole agreed to appear at the ceremony and receive his Honorary Oscar. It was presented to him by Meryl Streep, who has the most Oscar nominations of any actress (17).