'Lawrence of Arabia' Star Peter O'Toole Dies at 81
UPDATED: The actor earned eight Academy Award nominations throughout his career and took home an honorary Oscar in 2003.
Peter O'Toole, the wry, fun-loving star who played the dashing English adventurer and army officer T.E. Lawrence in the 1962 epic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia for one of his eight best actor Oscar nominations without a win, has died, his agent told BBC News. He was 81.
The actor died Saturday at The Wellington Hospital in London after a long illness, his agent, Steve Kenis, said.
O’Toole announced in July 2012 that he was retiring from acting. “The heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back,” he said. He did, however, return with announced parts in Katherine of Alexandria and Mary, two films yet to be released.
During a career that spanned nearly six decades, the son of an Irish father and Scottish mother also received Oscar noms for his turns in 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). No one else has ever earned as many acting noms without a win.
O’Toole did receive an honorary award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2003 after first refusing the honor, saying he would like to “win the lovely bugger outright.”
However, O’Toole’s felicitous performances in Lawrence of Arabia and Becket earned him the British equivalent of the Academy Award as best actor. Lawrence notwithstanding, some think his work as the eccentric King Henry II in Becket opposite Richard Burton was his finest film performance.
O’Toole’s roles were vastly diverse, comedic and dramatic. His résumé also includes Lord Jim (1965), What's New Pussycat? (1965), The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Night of the Generals (1967), Man of La Mancha (1972), Caligula (1979), Creator (1985) and the 1981 TV miniseries Masada, for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award.
His career catapulted in 1960 when director David Lean cast him in the lead role in the majestic Lawrence of Arabia. O’Toole, who lost 28 pounds, broke an ankle, dislocated his back and cracked his skull during the two-year production that filmed in Jordan, Spain, Morocco and elsewhere, became an international star known as much for his desert-sated blond hair and piercing blue eyes as for his luminous performance.
"Lawrence was the seminal film of my youth," TriStar Productions chairman Tom Rothman recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "Twenty-five years later, I had the surreal thrill of working on the restoration at Columbia and being at an intimate screening with Lean, O'Toole and [co-star Omar] Sharif. When the lights came up, O'Toole turned to Sharif and said, 'My, we were pretty, weren't we?' "
Filmed in Super Panavision 70 cinematography, Lawrence of Arabia was nominated for 10 Oscars and captured seven, including one for best picture (at 222 minutes, it is the longest film to ever win the top Academy Award). In the best actor race, O’Toole lost out to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
In addition, his stage credits were vast and auspicious, including lauded performances in Man and Superman, Waiting for Godot, Macbeth and Pygmalion.
With his career at a peak with heady performances during the 1970s and early ‘80s, O’Toole’s career floundered as a result of personal problems, including a battle with alcohol. In 1975, he was diagnosed with an abdominal malignancy and told he was going to die. Only 43 at the time, he rebounded.
"It proved inconvenient to a few people, but there you go," he later quipped with his characteristic blithe humor.
Born in 1932 in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, O’Toole spent much of his childhood in Kerry, Dublin and Leeds, England. As a child, he delighted in the horse races. The atmosphere at the track, with its colorful characters and scoundrels, delighted him, sparking an interest in human behavior and foibles.
His first job was as an office boy for The Yorkshire Evening News. He soon became a reporter but was called to serve in the Royal Navy, serving as a signalman on a submarine.
After his brief tour, O’Toole studied at the Royal Academy of Art, where his classmates included Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. His first professional engagement was with the Bristol Old Vic, and he quickly established himself as a daring and versatile talent, performing in 73 varied roles.
He followed to the West End Theater and in 1959 was named Actor of the Year for his performance as Private Charley Barnforth in The Long and the Short and the Tall. He also toured England in The Holiday and eventually married the Welsh actress Sian Phillips, who played the part of his sister. They had two daughters, Kate and Pat, but divorced in 1979. (O'Toole also had a son, Lorcan, with American model Karen Brown.)
O’Toole’s first film role was a small part in Kidnapped (1960); his second, as a Scots Guards lieutenant in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, also from 1960, won him critical notice. Yet, his love of the theater was so strong that even after winning distinction, he spurned several film offers in order to continue with the Stratford-on-Avon Memorial Theater.
An actor with a decidedly intellectual bent and idiosyncratic intelligence, O’Toole often sought offbeat roles, including a turn as the depraved Roman emperor Tiberius in the Gore Vidal-scripted Caligula. He won accolades and an avid following with his performance on stage as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. His roles were diverse, ranging from Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger to Hamlet to Christmas pantomime comedy.
In 1963, at the request of Laurence Olivier, O’Toole inaugurated Britain’s first National Theatre by playing Hamlet. He also formed a production company, Keep Film, which co-produced Becket. In 1980, after an absence of several years from the screen, O’Toole starred in Richard Rush’s independent film The Stunt Man. He won widespread acclaim for his fearless portrayal of a flamboyant movie director who hides a young fugitive amid his movie cast, disguising him as a stunt man.
In recent years, O’Toole won an Emmy for his role the 1999 miniseries Joan of Arc, played a king in Troy (2004) and collected his last Oscar nom for his poignant portrayal as an elderly actor who finds himself increasingly attracted to his friend's great-niece (Jodie Whittaker) in Venus. He also voiced a food critic in the animated film Ratatouille (2007) and appeared as Pope Paul III in the Showtime series The Tudors.
“My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort,” O’Toole wrote when he announced his retirement. “It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits. However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.”