Eight times Oscar nominated and an international star on both stage and screen, Peter O’Toole was one of the most gifted and charismatic actors of his generation.
Tall, blond, piercingly blue-eyed and at times a notorious hell-raiser, O’Toole’s peculiar flair for portraying abstracted, visionary characters led to some superb performances in the 1960s and 70s, notably the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, the role that propelled him to worldwide fame.
On stage, he was magisterial in productions such as Hamlet for the National Theatre (directed by Laurence Olivier) in 1963, Professor Higgins in the 1984 New York production of Pygmalion and the title role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (Apollo Theatre, 1989) for which he won an Olivier award.
His place of birth disputed – he himself claimed it was Connemara on Ireland’s West coast – he was born on August 2, 1932 but brought up in the city of Leeds, the son of a bookmaker. After leaving school at 14 he took a variety of jobs including as a newspaper copy boy and a salesman. Following his National Service in the Royal Navy he won a scholarship to RADA in 1954 where one of his classmates was Albert Finney. The following year, he joined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre company, staying there for two and a half years with roles that included Vladimir in Waiting for Godot, Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and his first Hamlet.
He made his West End debut in the BOV transfer of the Swiss musical comedy Oh, My Papa! at the Garrick Theatre in 1957. In 1959, he received wide praise for his role as Private Bamforth in Willis Hall’s The Long, the Short and the Tall at the Royal Court, a performance that Kenneth Tynan noted “may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness”. During the RSC’s 1960 Stratford-on-Avon season his roles included Petruchio (opposite Peggy Ashcroft) , Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and a celebrated Shylock, while in 1963 he played Hamlet in the National Theatre’s inaugural production at the Old Vic. The same year he played the title role in Brecht’s Baal at the Phoenix Theatre, a performance that led Martin Esslin to describe him as “the greatest potential force among all English-speaking actors”.
His biggest break came when he leapt to fame in the title role in David Lean’s epic portrait of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), for which he won a British Academy Award and his first Oscar nomination. Nothing he ever did after, and that included many notable British and other films, was able to eclipse the poetic image he struck as the visionary zealot Lawrence who exercised such a hold on the 20th-century imagination. “I learnt more from David Lean than from anybody else in the theatre or cinema,” he later said.
Other starring film roles quickly followed: Beckett (1964) opposite Richard Burton and Lord Jim (1965), both of which were co-produced by O’Toole’s own Keep Films Company. He made a string of international films, including How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn (1966), The Lion in Winter, which co-starred Katherine Hepburn (1968), Murphy’s War (1971), Under Milk Wood, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (1972) and the historical flops The Night of the Generals (1966) and Great Catherine (1969). He also appeared in two musicals, Goodbye Mr Chips (1969) and Man of La Mancha (1971).
He was always attracted to eccentric roles, and the eccentricity began to express itself in the 1970s in more mannered performances. He gave a superbly funny performance as the upper class Lord who thinks he is God in Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class (1972), yet another Oscar-nominated role. He rejoined the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company a year later and for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1976 he played three parts in Dead-Eyed Dicks.
O’Toole’s well publicised bout with alcoholism sent his career into a downward spiral in the late 1970s and his public persona moved from star acting to scandalous celebrity. He divorced his actress wife Sian Phillips after 20 years marriage and underwent major stomach surgery for pancreatitis. His two actress daughters, Kate and Pat, took care of him during a long period of recovery. In 1983, he fathered a son, Lorcan, with the Californian model Karen Brown.
In 1976, he appeared in the television thriller Rogue Male and in 1979 his performance as a power-crazed director in The Stunt Man won him a US Film Critics Award and in 1980 he returned to the London stage at the Old Vic in the title role in Macbeth. The production was a fiasco, drawing huge audiences but also receiving some of the worst notices for a London theatre show in living memory. He resigned from the board of the Old Vic after his fellow directors disowned the production.
Later film credits included My Favourite Year (1982) in which he played a hilarious drunken cinema has-been, Creator (1985) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987). He returned again to the stage in three Shaw revivals, Man and Superman (1983), Pygmalion (1984) and The Apple Cart (1986). He also gave a barnstorming performance in Keith Waterhouse’s hit comedy Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell (1989) in which he played the permanently inebriated title character, and Waterhouse’s Our Song (1992).
Recent screen appearances included Stephen Fry’s Bright Young Things (2003), Priam in the Brad Pitt Hollywood epic Troy (2004), the comedy Venus (2006) – for which he earned his eighth Oscar nomination as a lecherous old actor resigned to taking bit parts – and as the Pope in the glossy television series The Tudors (2008).
He wrote two highly literate volumes of autobiography, Loitering with Intent (1992) and The Apprentice (1996). In 2003 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 75th Academy Awards having previously refused the offer of an honorary Oscar until he reached his 80th birthday, arguing at the time “I am still in the game and might win the bugger outright”.
In July 2012 he announced his retirement from acting, saying: “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. The heart for it has gone out of me; it won’t come back. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell”.
A performer of great technical command, exceptional charisma and charm, Peter O’Toole was unique. “I’m not crazy,” he once said, “But I think everybody else is. For me life has either been a wake or a wedding”.
He died in London’s Wellington Hospital on December 14 following a long illness. He is survived by his two ex-wives and three children.