Peter O’Toole, one of the great figures of stage and screen died in December at the age of 81. Most famous for his turn in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia, as well as his strong performances in such classics as Beckett and The Lion in Winter, O’Toole has often been called one of the greatest actors of his generation.
O’Toole came to acting via journalism and the British Navy. He had loved watching The Three Stooges and The Marx Brothers as a child and became interested in acting while watching Kurosawa films starring Toshiro Mifune. Mifune such a charismatic presence on screen that it immediately drew O’Toole to acting as a profession. He went on to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1954. He played in more than 50 roles after graduation. This was the best training an actor could have in his opinion. It allowed him to test himself against the great parts of theatrical history, a kind of trial by fire.
Referred to as “the next Laurence Olivier,” O’Toole took his acting extremely seriously and was respected by his friends, colleagues, and critics. He performed such classic Shakespearean roles such as Henry II, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Shylock. Richard Burton called him “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the War.” He never liked the way that Hollywood fetishized the fashionable naturalistic ‘method’ acting of Marlon Brando and and preferred to act in a more traditionally theatrical style.
Not everyone appreciated this, however. Some thought of O’Toole’s acting as over the top, boarding on overwrought at times. Other times he seemed incapable of rising to the occasion, most famously during an Olivier production of Hamlet starring O’Toole, where critics left feeling pretty unenthusiastic about the performance. In 1980, he directed and performed in Macbeth, a production which was universally panned by critics, so much so that people came in droves just to see how bad it was. Many of his film roles were equally disparaged.
But when O’Toole was good, he was really good. His turns in both straight drama (Lawrence of Arabia, Beckett, The Lion in Winter with co-star Kate Hepburn) and comedies (The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year) earned him wide acclaim, Oscar nominations, and became firmly established in the canon of great film roles.
One of the most famous speeches from The Lion in Winter, 1968:
O’Toole’s demented performance in The Ruling Class, 1972:
O’Toole’s portrayal of a star past his prime in My Favorite Year, 1982:
O’Toole’s skill didn’t come out of nowhere. He understood the value of studying lines, of getting deep into a role, and working hard through the process of developing a performance. At the same time he recognized that spontaneity was important, but that this was only possible after one had rehearsed and practiced rigorously. Discipline was therefore most important for an actor to possess.
It was impossible to act without this outside preparation, but it was also impossible to get anything out of the role if there wasn’t something there with which to work. Therefore, the role needed to be good enough for an actor to inhabit it. Towards the end of his life, O’Toole stated had been around long enough to know which roles were good and which weren’t. He also was trained at a time when actors were expected to be versatile in the roles they chose. O’Toole took this to heart, performing in everything from heavy Shakespearean tragedy to light comedy. He never shied away for acting in cameos for the sake of fun, to the chagrin of many critics.
Lawrence of Arabia is an excellent case-in-point and is the role for which O’Toole is probably most famous. The David Lean epic story of a real-life British military commander who helped to command the Arabian tribes against the Ottomans undoubtedly made his film career. The film took an arduous two years to film, during which O’Toole learned to ride a camel, educated himself on the life of T.E. Lawrence, on the culture of Bedouin tribes and language, and traveled into the middle of the desert and stayed overnight to feel what it was like to be in that environment all alone for an extended period of time.
He said it was one of the hardest parts he had ever done. When O’Toole worried about how he would perform, Lean told him that he needed to get excited, that this was the beginning of a “great adventure.” Suddenly the character of Lawrence clicked for O’Toole. This is proof of the importance of preparation to O’Toole’s process and also an immense ability to extrapolate a performance from one key aspect of his personality. With that simple insight into the character and his world view, O’Toole was able to construct the cocky but troubled T.E. Lawrence.
Lawrence of Arabia, 1962:
Preparation wasn’t everything for O’Toole. For an actor to be really good, he thought, he needed to have natural talent. Not everybody was capable of this from his point of view. He became very opinionated about the quality of theater productions, especially in later life, when he stated that touring companies had become a thing of the past and that the quality of theatrical productions had become thoroughly disappointing. He also became disillusioned from his seeming inability to win an Oscar after being nominated an impressive eight times without winning. After being offered an honorary award from the academy, O’Toole turned it down at first stating that he wanted to earn it. Finally, he accepted it after his children told him it was rude to refuse.
O’Toole also had a reputation as a bit of a hell-raiser, along with his famous Irish and British actor friends including Richard Harris, Richard Burton, Frances Bacon, Laurence Harvey, and Michael Caine among others. They had a propensity to drink, carouse, smoke, gamble, and sometimes fight as well. He famously gambled much of his pay away in Beirut with Omar Shariff during the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia. His idea of heaven was walking from one smoke-filled room into another.
His hell-raising did not usually interfere with his acting. He knew when to stop and focus on his work. In a grand demonstration of self-control for an alcoholic, O’Toole and Shariff (who also liked a drink) agreed to only drink on their weekend escapades and focus on acting during the week. Work came first, fun second.
Despite his excessive consumption which may have led to various health complications and a rocky period career-wise and personally, O’Toole had no regrets about any of the choices in his life. Some thought that he threw away his career, that he had so much talent and wasted it on small roles and disappointing films and theatrical productions. He never cared. When he looked back at his early years he realized he was a bit loud and drank too much but was ultimately a good guy.
O’Toole returned to the stage for the last time in 1999, playing the enthusiastic drinker and columnist Jeffrey Bernard in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell. At the final performance, during a standing ovation by the audience, he knew it was time to quit. He was smart enough to know when to exit gracefully.
Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, 1999:
O’Toole admitted he was incredibly lucky. Being given the gift of acting was the biggest gift of his life, besides his children. He always seemed so sure of himself (even when he faltered), sometimes cocky to a fault. This came from a good place though, one of confidence born out of tireless dedication.
O’Toole knew what he wanted on his tombstone. After receiving one of his favorite jackets back from a dry cleaners, a note was included which read, “It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.” This is a perfect embodiment of O’Toole’s view of acting. To do it well meant working hard on it, ceaselessly and tirelessly. He made an unwavering commitment to his trade throughout his career. Despite the perception by some that he did not live up to his potential, he still managed to create some of the great performances of the history of theater and film.