Peter O’Toole: An Uncommon Man

Petet O'Toole
A man of many contradictions - Peter O'Toole shot to sudden stardom by his first major film role, he struggled to achieve such greatness again

Peter O’Toole

A man of many contradictions – Peter O’Toole shot to stardom by his first major film role, he struggled to achieve such greatness again. Star of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in his youth, he later went on to create what has been called the worst production of Macbeth ever seen on the professional stage.

Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in what turned out to be a talent-rich year that included Frank Finlay, Roy Kinnear, Alan Bates and Richard Harris, O’Toole walked straight out of drama school into the repertory company at Bristol Old Vic. Although the company had no places for young actors at that time, they were so impressed by his audition that space was made.

RADA had ingrained in O’Toole the belief that “there are no small parts, just small actors” and he worked to create complete and memorable characters every time he walked onto the stage, whether it was as the Georgian peasant with one line in Uncle Vanya or as Jimmy Porter, the angry young man with plenty to say in Look Back in Anger.

His hard work paid off and in 1958 at the age of only 24 he was given the opportunity by Bristol Old Vic to star in Hamlet. His appearance the following year in The Long, The Short and The Tall at the Royal Court in London brought him even more into the public eye and won him the London Critic’s Award for Best Actor. From there came the inevitable step to the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, which was a dream come true for the Shakespeare-fanatic O’Toole. His performance as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice prompted the Daily Express critic to ask, “is this the next Olivier?”

However O’Toole’s time at Stratford did not last quite as long as had been planned. On a trip to New York with Peter Hall, the Hollywood producer Sam Speigel approached him. Speigel was looking for an actor to star in a new film about T. E. Lawrence, the British army officer nicknamed ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ for his pivotal role in the Arab revolt during the First World War. O’Toole grabbed at the chance with both hands predicting “this is going to be one of the most important pictures ever made, and it’s not a part I am likely to turn down”.

Lawrence of Arabia was a massive undertaking for both cast and crew. Filming started in Jordan, then moved to Spain and later on to Morocco before final scenes were shot in England. 3,000 extras worked in the Jordanian desert, and the film took two years, three months to complete. The hard graft created a classic film which even forty years on is still impressive in its scale and ambition. The picture won five Academy Awards, although unfortunately not one for O’Toole, who was pipped to the post by Gregory Peck’s performance in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Peter O’Toole was only thirty years old when Lawrence of Arabia was released. In the forty years that have followed he continued to work almost ceaselessly both on screen and in the theatre, but for many people he never again reached the stunning heights of his performance as Lawrence. He even found some renown for his ability to make spectacularly bad choices, most famously in the Old Vic production of Macbeth in 1980. The Times critic Irving Wardle described O’Toole’s performance as “Sir Donald Wolfit on a bad night” and Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail confessed “one has to suppress the urge to guffaw”. Not all of the audience suppressed this urge.

In more recent times O’Toole won great critical acclaim once again for his creation of the title role in Jeffery Bernard is Unwell when it was first performed in 1989, and again on the 1999 revival. He also found success as a writer with two volumes of his highly entertaining autobiography Loitering with Intent.

Interviews describe a man with dangerous energy that both directors and audiences alike always found so irresistible.

A Life in Brief

  • Peter Seamus O’Toole was born on 2nd August 1932 in Ireland, the son of a bookie, Patrick “Spats” O’Toole, and local beauty Constance Ferguson.
  • The family moved to England while Peter was still a young child, eventually settling in Leeds. After years of voice training the Northern twang is still occasionally perceptible in his voice.
  • Peter married the actress Sian Phillips in 1959. They had two daughters, Kate and Pat.
  • In 1975 he became seriously ill with pancreatitis, aggravated by the heavy drinking he had refused to cut back on despite repeated warnings from medical professionals. After this episode he finally gave in to pressure and cut back the drinking dramatically.
  • He was divorced from Sian Phillips in 1979 and then lived in West London with his son Lorcan (from his relationship with model Karen Somerville).
  • Peter O’Toole died peacefully in December 2013 at the age of 81

Did you Know?

  • O’Toole spent 18 months in the navy as a young man. He loathed every minute and spent most of his time hatching plots to get himself dismissed (which he eventually was)
  • A chronic insomniac throughout his life he was apparently difficult to rouse in the mornings. During his time at Bristol Old Vic they became so tired of the apologetic late arrivals to rehearsals that they employed someone specifically to go to his house and wake him up every morning.
  • O’Toole was not the first choice for Lawrence of Arabia. Producer Sam Spiegel had already made approaches to both Marlon Brando and Albert Finney.
  • Not usually a vain man he had not one, but two cosmetic surgery operations on his nose. Admittedly only the first was by his choice – the second was on the insistence of Sam Spiegel who wanted Lawrence to have the quintessential English nose!
  • © Retirement Matters Ltd 2000 & 2013
Photograph: Peter O’Toole copyright © and supplied by:
The Mander Mitchenson Theatre Collection. Tel: 020 7403 8542

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