by Greg Mayer
The great Irish/English actor Peter O’Toole has died at the age of 81 in London. He was nominated eight times for the Academy Award for Best Actor from 1962 to 2006, but never won it; he had the most nominations ever of a non-winner. His most famous role was as T.E. Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia“.
Jerry and I both have an interest in the real T.E. Lawrence (Jerry recounted a visit to Lawrence’s home, Clouds Hill in Dorset, while I gave a brief account of his life here at WEIT), and it is through the lens of his breakthrough role that we see O’Toole. I regard his portrayal as a great achievement in acting in a great film, even though there is much that is historically inaccurate in it for the Lawrence aficionado. The following picture is of O’Toole with Omar Sharif (also excellent) as Sherif Ali bin Hussein (a composite character based on several actual Arab leaders) at the battle of Tafas. The scene is brilliant cinema– it is so searing I can recite most of the lines from memory– though much of the dialogue and action is fictionalized. The scene captures well the strength of the film as art, and also its limitations as history.
O’Toole of course did much work besides this breakthrough role. I would particularly note his role in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter“, and his ‘performances’ on any number of late night talk shows, where he never failed to please as a raconteur and bon vivant par excellence. (And also “How to Steal a Million“!) The news articles linked to in the first sentence lead to obituaries giving a much fuller account of his life and work. Benedict Nightingale at the New York Times describes him as
… an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose magnetic performance in the 1962 epic film “Lawrence of Arabia” earned him overnight fame and put him on the road to becoming one of his generation’s most accomplished and charismatic actors… A blond, blue-eyed six-footer, Mr. O’Toole had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man…
Addendum. And here’s a favorite late night appearance. In it, O’Toole says what he wants written on his tomb stone: “It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.” Watch it for the full story.