Special Thoughts for FILMS FOR TWO
by Alan Waldman
Peter O’Toole as
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
O’Toole will receive a
Lifetime Achievement Award
at the 75th Oscar Celebration on March 23,
I have often relished the wacky bad-boy screen antics of flamboyant Anglo-Irish acting master Peter O’Toole (in over-the-top comedies like THE RULING CLASS, MY FAVORITE YEAR & WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?) & have at other times been deeply moved by his outstanding dramatic work in period classics such as LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BECKET, THE LION IN WINTER & GOODBYE MR. CHIPS. On stage & off, O’Toole has perpetuated his colorful image as dashing, devilish, charming, perverse, obsessive, brilliant & more-than-a-smidgen self-destructive “character.” Nominated for seven Oscars & winner of an Olivier (the British equivalent of a TONY), a
BAFTA, an Emmy, three Golden Globes & major French & Italian honors—as well as two “Worst Actor” Razzie nominations, O’Toole has also starred in drunken brawls, lawsuits & tabloid headlines—very nearly drinking himself to death a quarter-century ago.
My adored wife Sherry observes, “Peter O'Toole is a delightful rascal whose performances are always worth watching. His magnificent performance in THE LION IN WINTER, especially in his verbal duels with Katherine
Hepburn, brought Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine vividly to life for me—& quite accurately, according to the history I've read since then.”
Slim, blonde, 6-3 Peter Seamus O’Toole has appeared in more than 50 movies, 20 TV productions & 100 plays. While some of his pics were among the best screened in the late 20th Century, there were also some odoriferous ones (including CALIGULA, ZULU DAWN, CLUB PARADISE & SUPERGIRL between 1980 & 1984). Of his disastrous Old Vic
MACBETH, which the superstitious O’Toole blames for his divorce (from actress Sian Phillips) & the death of a close friend,
The (London) Observer declared: “O'Toole's performance suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on it.”
The Times of London called the production “gruesome” & “heroically ludicrous.” Then the
Sunday Times upped the ante with: “Don't trust those reviews. The spectacle is far worse than has hitherto been made out: a milestone in the history of coarse acting.” O’Toole’s succinct assessment of the reviewers:
One reason Peter O’Toole was such a fine actor may have been that he was an alumnus of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art’s greatest class: including fellow thespian
wunderkinder Alan Bates, Albert Finney, Richard Harris & Brian Bedford.
This month, at Hollywood’s new Kodak Theatre, the 70-year-old cinema legend will receive an honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievements—after a seesaw career of numerous highs, lows & comebacks. Initially, however, he declined the recognition, querying the event’s organizers: “As I am still in the game & might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80”? They demurred.
A certain amount of myth has crept into Peter O’Toole’s biography, but, best as I can tell, he was born on August 2, 1932, in
Connemara, Ireland, to Irish racetrack bookie Patrick “Spats” O'Toole & saintly Scottish-born nurse Constance Jane Eliot Ferguson.
When Peter was one year old, the O’Toole’s moved to Northern England & began a five-year tour of that region’s major racetrack towns. Then they settled in the grim Yorkshire city of Leeds, where Peter suffered through seven or eight years of hated Catholic School education, in which nuns beat him to change his left-handedness.
“I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood—the black dresses & the shaving of the hair—was so horrible, so terrifying,” he later commented. “Of course, that's all been stopped. They're sipping gin & tonic in the Dublin pubs now, & a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day.”
Patrick O’Toole, like his son Peter as an adult, was a tall, slim, dashing rascal who was unlucky at the racetrack, nearly always drank too much, & fought with the police. “When my father would come home from the track after a good day, the whole room would light up—it was fairyland—but when he lost, it was black,” Peter O'Toole has recalled. “It was always either a wake or a wedding.”
Patrick also taught his son to take pride in his Irish heritage, despite the fact that Peter would spend less than one of his first 30 years living there. So, for a long time, Peter always wore green socks—even with tuxedos. In later years, however, Peter returned & maintained grand homes in both Blighty & the Old Sod.
Peter once famously commented, “Ireland is a lovely land. God, you can love it, but you can't live in it! My father, who lives in England, won't put a foot in Ireland any more—& yet, you mention one word against Ireland & he goes stark raving mad. You know what Ireland's biggest export is? Men! Shaw, Joyce,
Synge, Wilde, Beckett, O’Casey—they all couldn't stay here. Why? Because O'Casey preaches the Doctrine of Joy, & the Irish know despair. By God, they are Dostoyevskian about it. ‘Forgive me, Father, I have fucked Mrs. Rafferty.’ ‘Ten Hail
Marys, son, five Our Fathers.’ ‘But Father, I didn't enjoy fucking Mrs. Rafferty.’ ‘Good, son, good.’”
At 13 or 14 (accounts vary), O’Toole left school & began working at the
Yorkshire Evening Post as messenger & copyboy, eventually rising to cub reporter. He attended cinema & theatre matinees, sometimes writing short notices for the paper, & soon fell in love with acting. At 15 or 18 (again, accounts vary), he had copied in his notebook the lines that would be his lifelong credo: “I do not choose to be a common man; it is my right to be uncommon, if I can. I want to take the calculated risk, to dream & to build, to fail & to succeed. I prefer the challenges of life & the thrill of fulfillment to the calm, stale, guaranteed existence.”
At 17 he made his stage debut at the Leeds Civic Theatre, but that career was cut short when he was drafted into the Royal Navy soon thereafter. O’Toole served as a radio signalman & decoder, but did not greatly enjoy his nautical life. “It was a bloody nightmare & I tried every way to get out,” he has confessed. “Once, I drank about 18 bottles of wine, took a lot of aspirins & a drug that was supposed to turn me gray, but it didn't work. Finally, I started pointing out the ridiculousness of the whole situation to them—& was released after 18 months, as mentally unsuitable.”
O’Toole used his “demob” money to fund a grand tour of the nation's theatres, ending at Stratford-upon-Avon where spent his last shillings to see Michael Redgrave’s mind-blowing KING LEAR. He slept that night in a manure-scented haystack, & the next morning, inspired, & fragrant of fertilizer, he journeyed to London’s famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, charmed the top administrator & won a scholarship.
From 1952-1954 he studied there alongside some of the era’s greatest-actors-to-be. “We weren't reckoned for much at the time, perhaps because we were all considered dotty,” O’Toole once stated. “Even then, we were dissenters.” He & his űber-talented pals questioned the ongoing Korean War, & O’Toole, who hated the Luftwaffe bombing of Leeds as a boy, became active in the Ban the Bomb movement. One merry night, while Peter was an underfed drama student, the barge he was living on sank under the weight of too many partygoers.
In 1954 he began pioneering in live television—initially in tiny roles—& made his professional (paid) stage debut at Brighton in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. O’Toole spent 1955-1958 performing no fewer than 73 roles in classic repertory at the Bristol Old Vic & English Stage Company, including European tours, before his powerful Shylock (in Shakespeare’s play THE MERCHANT OF VENICE) stunned Stratford audiences. By1960, when he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Company, he was arguably Britain’s most acclaimed young actor—the anointed heir to Gielgud & Olivier.
O’Toole’s film debut was unmemorable: in 1959’s THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (as the First Trooper). Secondary roles led to larger ones. “One time in the late '50s, when Peter Finch, Laurence Harvey, & I were all offered the same movie role—the assumption being that we weren't friends—we marched up to producer Dino De Laurentiis’s door & declared in unison, ‘We don't think we're suitable for the part.’”
In 1960, director David Lean was struggling to find a leading man for his upcoming LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, after Albert Finney & Marlon Brando had turned him down. Lean once recalled, “So I used to spend my days in cinemas in the West End, & one day I went to a film called THE DAY THEY ROBBED THE BANK OF ENGLAND, & there was Peter O'Toole, playing a sort of silly-ass Englishman in a trout fishing scene.” Lean subsequently stood up to his studio & producers & insisted on O'Toole as the desert dreamer, even though a pint of Scotch had tellingly dropped out of the actor's suit jacket during his audition.
O’Toole then labored magnificently to create one of cinema’s greatest portrayals, despite suffering through a 27-month ordeal in the deserts of Jordan that included broken bones, a dislocated spine, a pair of concussions & numerous sand burns. Working 400 miles from the nearest water, he & co-star Omar Sharif regularly sought shelter from fearsome sandstorms “under the makeup lorry.” Every three weeks they drank their way through blessed weekend furloughs in Beirut.
LAWRENCE earned O’Toole his first Best Actor Oscar nomination & a BAFTA award, while instantly making him a global superstar. He immediately bought a white Rolls Royce & drove down Sunset Boulevard “wearing dark specs & a white suit, waving like the Queen Mum,” he later recalled. “Nobody took any fucking notice, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Leading roles (& additional imbibing) ensued. He & Richard Burton were terrific in 1964’s BECKET, but by all accounts they were both drunk throughout the entire shoot. O’Toole was also magnificent opposite Katherine Hepburn in 1968’s THE LION IN WINTER, although a few years later its producer, Joseph E. Levine, unsuccessfully sued him for a portion of his salary, charging that Peter’s drunkenness drove the picture over budget & nearly caused Hepburn to quit.
Unquestionably, Peter O’Toole was one of brightest stars & top box-office attractions of the ‘60s & ‘70s. But meanwhile, his off-screen lifestyle continued to leave all his outrageous movie characters in the shade. Gossip columns bubbled with accounts of his booze-fueled hi-jinks: from a fist fight with a French count at a Paris nightclub to setting speed-drinking records with his cronies in bars everywhere.
“We were silly & young & drunken & jumping up & down & making complete clowns of ourselves,” he has admitted. “But I did quite enjoy the days when one went for a beer in Paris & woke up in Corsica. I’d go to the shop to buy a packet of cigarettes & not come back for a month.”
The boozing & cavorting took a terrible toll, however. O’Toole’s legendary overindulgence led to near-fatal hemorrhaging & the removal of part of his stomach & intestines. His daughters Kate & Pat (both of whom later became actresses) cared for him during his long convalescence. In 1977, his 44-year-old, highly talented Welsh actress wife Sian Phillips, (best known for her fabulous turn as evil empress Livia in PBS’s I CLAUDIUS) left him to marry a 26-year-old. Asked whether he had regrets about nearly losing his license for speeding in life’s fast lane, O’Toole reflected, “Only French singers don’t have regrets.”
He bounced back adding Best Actor Oscar noms for 1980’s THE STUNT MAN & 1982’s MY FAVORITE YEAR to his previous five (for LAWRENCE, BECKET, LION, 1969’s GOODBYE MR. CHIPS & 1972’s THE RULING CLASS). These were followed by bad films, some more good ones, a messy custody battle over his son by a California model, several award-winning stage performances & a few terrible ones that were hooted by critics, a critically acclaimed autobiography
(Loitering With Intent) & this year’s honorary Oscar.
Throughout it all, Peter O’Toole has amazed, amused, thrilled, horrified & captivated billions—including myself & the lovely/talented Mrs. Waldman (as well as Jan & Rich who put LAWRENCE OF ARABIA high on their all-time Top Ten List). He has brought a depth of insight & self-awareness to both his towering dramatic portrayals & his delightfully outrageous comic overindulgences, performing them with unique flair & courage. I am glad he is finally getting his Oscar, which he certainly earned long ago for his large body of outstanding work.
I happily leave you with O’Toole’s own inimitable words—in this case on the subject of stage versus screen. “Oh, it's painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed. I love the theatre, because it's the art of the moment. I'm in love with ephemera & I hate permanence. Acting is making words into flesh. And I love classical acting, because you need the vocal range of an opera singer, the movement of a ballet dancer & the ability to act—as you turn your whole body into the musical instrument on which you play. It's more than behaviorism, which is what you get in the movies.
Chrissake, what are movies anyway? Just fucking moving photographs—that’s all. But the theatre! Ah, there you have the impermanence that I love. It's a reflection of life somehow. It's...it's like... building a statue of snow.”
FAVORITE PETER O’TOOLE FILMS:
1. THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
2. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
3. BECKETT (1964)
4. WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT (1965)
5. GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (1969)
6. MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982)
7. THE RULING CLASS (1972)
8. THE STUNT MAN (1980)
9. THE LAST EMPEROR (1987)