His impressive height, his smooth, deep voice and bright but haunting blue eyes made him well-suited to play larger than life but unconventional characters. And Peter O’Toole did go on to deliver over the top portrayals, ranging from impulsive English monarchs to reckless film directors, though always remaining known for his first starring role — as a maverick British Army officer leading an Arab revolt in the desert.
Not even producer Sam Spiegel’s first choice for the title role in “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), O’ Toole, who only came in after Marlon Brando and British actor Albert Finney rejected it, went to play it with such verve that no one can think of Lawrence without recalling his depiction. And he didn’t even resemble Lawrence, who was much shorter and less striking.
It was the start of a eventful career for Peter Seamus O’Toole (1932-2013), whose 85th birth anniversary is on Wednesday (August 2), and the film’s case exemplified the two defining traits of his accomplished but unfortunate career.
Having only done a few stage appearances and bit roles in TV shows and films before the film, he still held his own in “Lawrence..” against seasoned co-actors like Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Quinn, Jose Ferrer and Claude Rains and was nominated for a Best Acting Oscar, but lost to Gregory Peck (as principled lawyer Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird”).
O’Toole, who once remarked “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony”, went on to display his metier in a wide range of intense and unsettling roles that were much acclaimed but lost out on a prestigious prize.
His depiction of passionate and ruthless English king Henry II in both “Becket” (1964) and “The Lion in Winter” (1968), a dry schoolteacher redeemed by love in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), a schizophrenic aristocrat in “The Ruling Class” (1972), a charismatic but exacting film director in “The Stunt Man” (1980), a swashbuckling, drink-addicted actor in “My Favorite Year” (1982), and an over the hill actor who falls in love with a young woman in “Venus” (2006) were all in the running for a Best Acting Oscar but none won.
O’Toole thus had the dubious distinction of being the actor with the most number of Oscar nominations, including for the same character in different films, but no invitation to come up to the stage to receive the golden statue. He ultimately won a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 and was in two minds about whether he should accept it, telling the Academy he was still in the race. He relented when they said it would be given whether he accepted or not.
He went on to put a decade more of acting, with another nomination, before announcing his retirement in 2012 – a year before his death. His other memorable roles including a trio of avenging angels in “The Bible: In the Beginning…” (1966), as both Don Quixote and his creator Miguel de Cervantes in “Man of La Mancha” (1972) down to King Priam in “Troy” (2004).
And the ones he was offered but did not accept or otherwise fell through included of Russian monk Rasputin, Prof Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady” and even Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series after the death of close friend, Richard Harris, who had done the role in the first film. However, he had to decline due to his health.
While he lived a high carousing life, being “happy to grasp the hand of misfortune, dissipation, riotous living and violence”, in the first two decades or so of his stardom, his career nearly came to an untimely end. In 1976, his stomach cancer was misdiagnosed as alcoholism and despite successful surgery, he nearly died of a botched blood transfusion in 1978. However, though his good looks had dissipated, he still had several impressive performances over the next three decades.
O’Toole was also capable of destroying a picture with overdone performances.
Bound along his Lawrence co-star Omar Sharif to a seven picture contract by Spiegel but paid roughly the same money despite their stardom, O’Toole deliberately ruined the suspense in that early example of Nazi noir “The Night of the Generals” (1967). He put on such an evidently insane portrayal as one of the top generals suspected of being a psychopathic killer that no one could believe he wasn’t the culprit.
Few could be that effectively destructive — perhaps he was the “very prototype of the ham” as Sharif termed him.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])