Peter O’Toole died Saturday at age 81 at the private Wellington Hospital in London after a long illness. He had been in declining health for a number of years. Always thin, for some time he had appeared frail and almost gaunt.
Seamus Peter O’Toole was born August 2, 1932, the son of an Irish bookie, Patrick O’Toole, and his wife Constance. There is some question about whether Peter was born in Connemara, Ireland, or in Leeds, northern England, where he grew up
With only a few minor movie roles on his resumé, O’Toole was a virtual unknown when he rose to international fame in Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s sprawling saga about T. E. Lawrence, the legendary British World War I soldier and scholar who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks. His portrayal of Lawrence brought O’Toole his first Oscar nomination, and the spectacularly photographed desert drama remains his most famous role. O’Toole was tall, fair and remarkably handsome. Playwright Noel Coward once said that if O’Toole had been any prettier, they would have had to call the movie “Florence of Arabia.”
In 1964′s “Becket,” O’Toole played King Henry II to Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket, and won another Oscar nomination. Burton also displayed O’Toole’s fondness for drinking, and their off-set carousing made headlines. O’Toole played Henry II again in 1968 in “The Lion in Winter,” opposite Katharine Hepburn, for his third Oscar nomination. His performance as Henry was matched matched blow-for-blow by Katharine Hepburn’s, whose standout portrayal of Henry’s wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, won her the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
O’Toole earned four more nominations – in 1968 for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” in 1971 for “The Ruling Class,” in 1980 for “The Stunt Man,” and in 1982 for “My Favorite Year.” Nearly twenty-five years went by before he received his eighth and last, for “Venus.”
A month before his 80th birthday in 2012, O’Toole announced his retirement from a career that he said had fulfilled him emotionally and financially, bringing “me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.”
“However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay,” he said. “So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.” In retirement, O’Toole said he would focus on the third volume of his memoirs.
His honorary Oscar came 20 years after his seventh nomination for “My Favorite Year.” By then it seemed a safe bet that O’Toole’s prospects for another nomination were slim. He was still working regularly, but in smaller roles unlikely to earn awards attention. O’Toole graciously accepted the honorary award, quipping, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot,” as he clutched his Oscar statuette. He had nearly turned down the award, sending a letter asking that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hold off on the honorary Oscar until he turned 80.
O’Toole’s death was announced by agent Steve Kenis, who said the actor had been ill for some time. His daughter Kate said the family had been overwhelmed by the expressions of sympathy.
Here is a small sampling of the films he starred in.
- Lawrence of Arabia – 1962 – with Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, José Ferrer, Anthony Quayle and Claude Rains
- Becket – 1964 – with Richard Burton and John Gielgud
- What’s New Pussycat – 1965 – with Peter Sellers, Romy Schneider, Paula Prentiss, Woody Allen and Ursula Andress
- Lord Jim – 1965
- The Lion in Winter – 1968 – with Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips – 1969
- My Favorite Year - 1982