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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Lawrence of Arabia (1932-2013)

Something I have noticed lately when prominent and beloved people pass away—notably with the recent death of Nelson Mandela—is that the first thing media pundits reflexively do, when they can, is to recount a time they personally saw or met the person in question.

I understand that impulse. Sometimes such reminiscing legitimately provides the listener with a bit of insight into the person who has passed away. And sometimes it just makes the speaker feel better because he has some kind of connection, however fleeting and superficial, to a person he strongly admired.

So I am going to make myself feel better by saying how glad I am that I got the opportunity to see the great actor Peter O’Toole in the flesh five years ago when he was the guest of the Galway Film Fleadh, the chairperson of which happened (and still happens) to be his daughter, Kate O’Toole. You can read my account of his public interview by clicking here, and I think it gives a fair, if extremely brief, look at the trajectory of O’Toole’s life and career.

As it happens, I re-watched only two and a half weeks ago Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man, which may well be the best example of O’Toole’s acting energy and charisma. The role of filmmaker Eli Cross required a massive amount of scenery chewing and it was O’Toole’s gift to be able to chew scenery with the best of them but in way that made you watch mesmerized and without cringing.

Readers of these pages will be aware that my favorite O’Toole film was the one he made a couple of years later with Richard Benjamin, My Favorite Year. Loosely based on shenanigans in Sid Caesar’s writers’ room during the days of 1950s live television, the movie turns on the character of dipsomaniac movie star Alan Swann, roughly based on Errol Flynn. But O’Toole’s performance resonated because there were such profound echoes of his own life in the character. A few years earlier he had survived stomach and, as a result, largely gave up his wild lifestyle. I would argue that in the 1980s the man was at the height of his powers.

Peter O’Toole first burst into our consciousness in 1962 when he appeared in David Lean’s historical epic Lawrence of Arabia. Not only did the 30-year-old’s acting fill up the wide screen, he was beautiful to look at. As Noel Coward was reported to have said to him, “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia!” He graced the screen in other adventure flicks, like Richard Brooks’s Lord Jim, while also appearing in swinging sixties vehicles like What’s New Pussycat and How to Steal a Million. But he also became increasingly known for historical costume dramas, playing Henry II in both Becket and The Lion in Winter. He closed out the 1960s with a musical remake of Goodbye Mr. Chips.

In the 1970s his film choices continued to be eclectic—including a mad turn as a demented earl in The Ruling Class, Don Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes in Man of La Mancha and a revisionist Robinson Crusoe in Man Friday (with Richard Roundtree). He closed that decade as one of several high-caliber actors providing a bit of class to Bob Guccione’s notorious Caligula (as Tiberius), and he began the 1980s with a couple of TV miniseries. He was union leader Jim Larkin in the Irish-produced account of the 1913 Dublin strike and lockout, Strumpet City, and he was the Roman general Flavius Silva in Masada. And he found time to play a Kryptonian (Zaltar in Supergirl) and comedy roles like the hard-pressed owner of an Irish castle in Neil Jordan’s High Spirits and the scientist trying to bring back his dead wife in Creator.

He was in another comedy in 1991, playing a royal aide opposite John Goodman in King Ralph, strangely the only time he ever appeared on screen with John Hurt. In 1997 he was in another of his loveliest films, Charles Sturridge’s FairyTale: A True Story, in which he played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Harvey Keitel’s Harry Houdini. From then on, he was largely consigned to playing old colonels, kings and other royalty. He was Colonel Blount in Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things, King Priam in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a duke in 2005’s Lassie, a king in Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust and Pope Paul III in the TV miniseries The Tudors.

Still, in his final years he managed to turn in two of his nicest performances. Those would be his roles as an old man fascinated with a young woman in Roger Michell’s Venus and as Sam Neill’s cantankerous father in the fantasty-laced Dean Spanley.

Ireland likes to claim Peter O’Toole as one of their own and he, in turn, was proud to consider himself an Irishman. But the truth is that O’Toole did not know for sure where he was born and, at this point, no one will probably ever know for sure. He had no fewer than two government-issued birth certificates. One said he was born in Cleggan, County Galway in June 1932. The other said Leeds in August of that year. Apparently, he preferred to believe he was born in Ireland but on the later date.

In his award-studded career he won no fewer than four Golden Globes, two IFTAs (the Irish academy awards), a BAFTA and an Emmy. He was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Oscars eight times, the final time four years after he had already received an honorary Oscar for his lifetime body of work. He nearly turned down the honorary award but relented. He was right to accept, and the academy was right to offer it to him. It was the least they could do since they totally got it wrong eight other times.

Farewell, Peter Seamus O’Toole. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

-S.L., 16 December 2013

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