At age 81, the great Peter O’Toole has shuffled off this mortal coil. A legendary lover of drink, a magnificent royalist, a classical actor for the ages with one of the most beautiful speaking voices ever heard. Fire in the blood and diction to die for. O’Toole was a legendary personality (he could be great on talk shows), the half-mad blonde beauty of Lawrence of Arabia, an inhabitor of King Henry II (twice), the wonderfully spirited fellow who rebounded with The Stunt Man, the voice of the gourmand in Ratatouille…a brilliant man in so many respects. In private he could be a bit of snob (or at least with the occasional journalist) but when he chose to be “on” O’Toole snapped and crackled like lightning.
He had five peak periods in his career — the first three years (’61 to ’64) starting with his being hired to play T.E. Lawrence and then making the film and exploding onto the scene when Lawrence of Arabia opened in late ’62, and then following up with his best performance ever as King Henry II in Peter Glenville‘s Becket. He lost “it” for a period in the mid ’60s but then got it back as Henry redux in Anthony Harvey‘s The Lion in Winter (’68). Then he returned again with that hilarious performance as a hippie-ish paranoid schizophrenic in The Ruling Class (’72). The fourth rebound happened between ’80 and ’82 with his performances in The Stunt Man, the TV epic Masada and My Favorite Year. The fifth and final rebound happened in the mid aughts with Troy, Venus and his voicing role in Ratatouille.
33 years ago I interviewed O’Toole at his home in Hampstead Heath for GQ magazine, and…okay, I might not have been the most skilled or confident journalist at the time but he gave me the absolute bare minimum in terms of time and open-heartedness. (I remember thinking as I left his home, “Wow, a bit of a prick…but at least we spoke.”) We also chatted during a 1981 press event for My Favorite Year, and once again he wasn’t all that mensch-y. O’Toole was probably one of those guys who needed a few drinks to really relax. I know he tended to regard conversations as an opportunity to pronounce and speechify.
But I loved who he became with the spirit burned within. When he had great dialogue to run with, when the movie and the director were right and the stars had aligned. I loved his snarliness. Listen to this wondrous passage from Becket. This was a man who knew from the crackle of electrons and who didn’t shrink from the moment or the role or anything else. He never “existed” in the Llewyn Davis sense of the term. I never really knew who he really was deep down but when the moment required it O’Toole was one of the most intensely alive actors of all time.
I knew when O’Toole announced his retirement about 18 months ago that it was just a matter of time. O’Toole’s retirement statement read as follows: “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back. My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.”
I was so appalled by the idea of O’Toole being dubbed for the singing sequences in Man of La Mancha that I never watched it, not once. O’Toole singing his heart out to Sophia Loren…good God! I’ll probably never watch it.