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Ever since I first beheld him in Lawrence of Arabia when I was 12, Peter O’Toole has been my acting god. Throughout his magnificently choppy career, in brilliant films and disasters, in high spirits and near death, from a great distance and, over one extraordinary weekend, in person, he has never failed to rivet my attention.
Although Lawrence was not his first film, no actor has had a more stunning starring “debut” than O’Toole’s in the work birthed by T.E. Lawrence. It was serendipity that he played in it at all, only because Marlon Brando decided he’d rather spend a year in Tahiti on Mutiny on the Bounty than in the desert, and then because Albert Finney wouldn’t sign a multi-film contract with producer Sam Spiegel. As a sprouting teenager, of course I wanted to look like him (Who wouldn’t? Noel Coward unforgettably remarked after seeing Lawrence, “If he’d been any prettier, they would have had to call it Florence of Arabia.”). But even more, I wanted to sound like him. The resonant timbre of his voice and extraordinary diction that would snap and crackle with electricity made him a natural for authority figures, like Henry II in Becket (possibly his greatest screen performance) and The Lion in Winter, teachers in Goodbye, Mr. Chips and The Last Emperor, the imperious film director in The Stunt Man, the bonkers aristocrat in The Ruling Class, imperial Romans on several occasions.
Since then, I’ve seen Lawrence at least 10 times and have never been anything less than mesmerized by O’Toole’s performance. His timing for comic effect in his first interview, his awkward salute, his uncanny projection of self-containment, his simmering stoicism, his delight in his own image once bedecked in white robes, his asking for lemonade for him and his boy at the officers’ club after the grueling trek and, of course, the blue eyes that made him stand out in Arab lands like some otherworldly visionary — everything about the performance is staggering.
All the obituaries will point out that O’Toole was the actor with the most Oscar nominations who never won, and there are several explanations as to why he didn’t win for Lawrence when the film itself took so many: O’Toole was a newcomer, To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Gregory Peck was a hometown favorite who was due, liberal guilt over racial issues related to Peck’s Atticus Finch and, perhaps most persuasively, O’Toole’s evident drunkenness on TV talk shows and alleged rude comments about the Academy. Whatever the case, this was the award that first demonstrated to me a truism that now gets drummed in more than ever, that the Oscar often doesn’t go to the best.
With the loyalty of a devoted fan, I continued to follow O’Toole closely and saw every film, which, after a certain point, was often demoralizing. Like many actors, his choice of projects left something to be desired. He turned David Lean down for the title role in Doctor Zhivago (would he and Julie Christie together have been beautiful to the point of absurdity?) and instead fulfilled an obligation to Spiegel with the dreadful The Night of the Generals. He blundered, slathered with dreadful makeup, through the awful Man of La Mancha and, in something of a joke, replaced a drunk Robert Mitchum on Otto Preminger‘s Rosebud.
During this forlorn mid-1970s period, while working for Roger Corman, I was involved in the distribution of an undistinguished film by the Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, Foxtrot, in which O’Toole costarred with Charlotte Rampling. It was then that I heard about the actor’s dreadful medical condition, major surgery that removed good parts of his insides and his questionable chances for survival.
He supposedly stopped drinking (he never stopped smoking), although at parties at the Telluride Film Festival where, in 2002, he proved to be one of the greatest tribute recipients the festival has ever had, he could always be seen with a tall glass of champagne, which he would very slowly nurse over the course of the evening. When I ran into Michael Caine at the Toronto Film Festival a few days later and told him I’d just been with O’Toole, he asked with urgent concern of his old pal, “Was he drinking? He really can’t, you know.”
That was the same question I asked myself in the mid-1980s, when, in London, I finally had the chance to see my hero onstage. Given his brilliant powers of elocution and natural ability to play verbose men with sizable egos, for what role was Peter O’Toole better suited than Henry Higgins in Pygmalion? Well, he was terrible, an embarrassment, in fact. He slurred his words and, worse, tottered and lurched across the stage, shouted his lines and otherwise created great concern as to whether he could even make it through the performance. He had to be drunk or stoned, I thought. Friends who saw different performances reported similar antics, which raised the strange possibility that perhaps O’Toole was simply offering a totally eccentric interpretation of Higgins as an uncoordinated, anti-social lout.
All the same, the star channeled his considerable knowledge of alcohol into his brilliant one-man show playing a legendary drunken journalist and real-life friend, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, on the London stage in the 1990s. When I saw the film transcription of this at Telluride, O’Toole himself slipped in just as it started and watched the whole thing from the front row, enjoying it thoroughly, from what I could observe.
Rightly or wrongly, I mark the Telluride tribute as the beginning of O’Toole’s late-career comeback, as well as the instigation for his being voted an honorary Oscar the following year. He had been pretty much off Hollywood’s radar for years, but word of the brilliance of his two packed tributes got around, he received fawning press coverage and suddenly even those who might have written him off remembered how great he was. At the opening night tribute, onstage interviewer Roger Ebert somewhat out-of-the-blue served up a verse from Yeats, whereupon O’Toole responded with some Yeats of his own. Ebert came up with another one, again came one from O’Toole, and this went on five or six more times, the ante being upped with every volley until the audience simply exploded with astonishment.
At the next day’s tribute, O’Toole told some funny John Huston stories. The last time the actor spoke with the director, the latter was off to Los Angeles to make his final film, The Dead. O’Toole, doing the best Huston imitation I’ve ever heard (Robert Mitchum’s was a very close second), recalled his old pal’s parting words: “The doctor told me I can’t drink anymore, I can’t smoke anymore and I can’t fuck anymore. I guess I’ll just have to make a good picture.”
Hell-raisers, major drinkers and smokers, inimitable speakers, larger-than-life figures, Huston and now O’Toole both died at 81. Forty years ago, nobody would have bet on O’Toole making it anywhere near this far; so many of his heavy-drinking pals — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter Finch, Oliver Reed — succumbed at much earlier ages.
No disrespect to Harris, but I’ve always thought O’Toole would have been the ideal Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series. I don’t know why he wasn’t cast, although it’s possible it was thought he wouldn’t live long enough to get through the entire series. Ironically, of course, Harris died early on, and even though Harris had made it known he wanted O’Toole to replace him, this wasn’t done — perhaps, again, because the producers didn’t want to risk another actor dying on them.
My other regret about O’Toole is that he delayed so long the task of getting back to writing his memoirs, which began so eloquently with two volumes that concluded before his film career really began. Even 11 years ago at Telluride, I gently goaded him about this, as I couldn’t wait to read his account of his life and times in the 1960s and beyond. Very recently, I was told he’d gotten down to work on them again, but I fear he didn’t get very far.
Peter O’Toole, I will raise a glass to you tonight and will continue to do so, at least mentally, whenever I watch your great performances or even think of them. As well as the next time I set foot again in your beautiful birthplace, Connemara.
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