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'Lawrence of Arabia' star Peter O'Toole dead at 81

Monday - 12/16/2013, 5:46am  ET

FILE - In this March 23, 2003 file photo, Peter O'Toole appears backstage without his Oscar after receiving the Academy Award's Honorary Award during the 75th annual Academy Awards in Los Angeles. O'Toole, the charismatic actor who achieved instant stardom as Lawrence of Arabia and was nominated eight times for an Academy Award, has died. He was 81. O'Toole's agent Steve Kenis says the actor died Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013 at a hospital following a long illness. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

GREGORY KATZ
Associated Press

LONDON (AP) -- Known on the one hand for his starring role in "Lawrence of Arabia," leading tribesmen in daring attacks across the desert wastes, and on the other for his headlong charges into drunken debauchery, Peter O'Toole was one of the most magnetic, charismatic and fun figures in British acting.

O'Toole, who died Saturday at age 81 at the private Wellington Hospital in London after a long bout of illness, was nominated a record eight times for an Academy Award without taking home a single statue.

He was fearsomely handsome, with burning blue eyes and a penchant for hard living which long outlived his decision to give up alcohol. Broadcaster Michael Parkinson told Sky News television it was hard to be too sad about his passing.

"Peter didn't leave much of life unlived, did he?" he said.

A reformed -- but unrepentant -- hell-raiser, O'Toole long suffered from ill health. Always thin, he had grown wraithlike in later years, his famously handsome face eroded by years of outrageous drinking.

But nothing diminished his flamboyant manner and candor.

"If you can't do something willingly and joyfully, then don't do it," he once said. "If you give up drinking, don't go moaning about it; go back on the bottle. Do. As. Thou. Wilt."

O'Toole began his acting career as one of the most exciting young talents on the British stage. His 1955 "Hamlet," at the Bristol Old Vic, was critically acclaimed.

International stardom came in David Lean's epic "Lawrence of Arabia." With only a few minor movie roles behind him, O'Toole was unknown to most moviegoers when they first saw him as T.E. Lawrence, the mythic British World War I soldier and scholar who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks.

His sensitive portrayal of Lawrence's complex character garnered O'Toole his first Oscar nomination, and the spectacularly photographed desert epic remains his best known role. O'Toole was tall, fair and strikingly handsome, and the image of his bright blue eyes peering out of an Arab headdress in Lean's film was unforgettable.

Playwright Noel Coward once said that if O'Toole had been any prettier, they would have had to call the movie "Florence of Arabia."

Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday the movie was his favorite film, calling O'Toole's performance "stunning."

Actor Will Ferrell also remembered "Lawrence of Arabia."

"My father took me to see a re-release of 'Lawrence of Arabia' on the big screen and I couldn't get over how amazing that movie looked for the time it was shot and how charismatic he was on screen," Ferrell said Sunday at the New York premiere of "Anchorman 2." ''You hear a name like Peter O'Toole, you hear these names and you go, 'uh, yeah, OK, they were movie stars,' then you watch them on film and you go, 'they really were movie stars."

In 1964's "Becket," O'Toole played King Henry II to Richard Burton's Thomas Becket, and won another Oscar nomination. Burton shared O'Toole's fondness for drinking, and their off-set carousing made headlines.

O'Toole played Henry again in 1968 in "The Lion in Winter," opposite Katharine Hepburn, for his third Oscar nomination.

Four more nominations followed: in 1968 for "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," in 1971 for "The Ruling Class," in 1980 for "The Stunt Man," and in 1982 for "My Favorite Year." It was almost a quarter-century before he received his eighth and last, for "Venus."

For writer-producer Judd Apatow, in addition to "Lawrence of Arabia," ''My Favorite Year," also stands out. "I related to the comedy writer hanging out with the mad actor because I've done that a few times," he said at the "Anchorman 2 premiere.

Seamus Peter O'Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932, the son of Irish bookie Patrick "Spats" O'Toole and his wife Constance. There is some question about whether Peter was born in Connemara, Ireland, or in Leeds, northern England, where he grew up, but he maintained close links to Ireland, even befriending the country's now-president, Michael D. Higgins.

Ireland and the world have "lost one of the giants of film and theater," Higgins said in a statement.

After a teenage foray into journalism at the Yorkshire Evening Post and national military service with the navy, a young O'Toole auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and won a scholarship.

He went from there to the Bristol Old Vic and soon was on his way to stardom, helped along by an early success in 1959 at London's Royal Court Theatre in "The Long and The Short and The Tall."

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