Peter O’Toole, 1932-2013

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“.

Peter O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence, in a still reminiscent of a famous sketch Lawrence. (From The Guardian)

Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence, in a still reminiscent of a famous sketch of Lawrence. (From The Guardian.)

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.

Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif in "Lawrence of Arabia". (From The New York Times.)

Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in “Lawrence of Arabia”. (From The New York Times.)

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…

A wide-screen view of O'Toole as Lawrence. (From Yahoo News.)

A wide-screen view of O’Toole as Lawrence. (From Yahoo News.)

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.

[link updated 10.i.2019]


  1. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    While I have enjoyed watching Mr. O’Toole over the years and am saddened by his passing, this bothers me most because my father is only 20 days younger than him.

    • John Perkins
      Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

      When I read of his death in the on-line N.Y. Times this morning, my first comment – to my wife – was,”He was so young !” I realize that I should have added “relatively” because I have several years on O’Toole. Vern – don’t worry too much about your Dad – O’Toole probably led a “very fast life” as they say – whoever “they” are.

      • JT
        Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I remember hearing that Peter O’Toole was a bit of a boozer back in the day. I may be wrong and I’m too lazy to google it but I think he hung around with Richard Harris and Richard Burton so it kind of makes sense.
        At any rate, I loved him as an actor and he seemed like an interesting guy. There are very few of these legends left and now there is one less. A sad day. I’m going to watch Lawrence of Arabia again today as a sort of tribute to him. It’s always been one of my favorites.

  2. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    He was also fantastically versatile in “Venus” and “The Ruling Class.”

    • Merilee
      Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      The Ruling Class – and Venus – were brilliant!

      Will miss those dazzling blue eyes.

    • jesse
      Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for mentioning these. I will look for them. I tried to get “Dean Spanley” on Netflix (US) the other day but they don’t have it. : (

      • Posted December 16, 2013 at 8:09 am | Permalink

        Dean Spanley has been available on Netflix (US) for several weeks- try again, there is hope. And Peter O’Toole was terrific in it, although Sam Neill steals the show.

    • Frank
      Posted December 15, 2013 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

      Nonbelievers may recall his hilariously delivered line in The Ruling Class, one of the films for which he received an Oscar nomination. His aristocratic family is concerned about his mental health, particularly because he believes he is god. When a doctor or someone else WHY he thinks he is god, his character says:
      “When did I realize I was God? Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized I was talking to myself”.

  3. jesse
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    I was just thinking of him the other day. I am sorry to hear this.

    You wrote, of Lawrence of Arabia
    “The scene is brilliant cinema…”

    Every single frame of that film is a work of art, a feast for the eyes.

    • Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

      You are not wrong there. There is nothing in a single frame that David Lean hadn’t thought about for a long time. Ofcourse, the one scene that will always be a mile post in cinema history is the arrival of the Omar Shariff character (another actor who was propelled to the world’s attention through that film). The long, lingering, patient shot of a horseman appearing through the shimmering mirage of the desert sand. Lean said he shot the whole scene twice as long, but he felt no one would tollerate suchj a long shot.

      I mix a lot with young film makers, and I am always amazed how many of them nhave yet to see these great classics of the cinema.

      • jesse
        Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        I am sorry to hear the young film makers have not watched the classics.

        I hold a deep respect for Lean. British filmmakers really know their composition And I suspect the British public supports it more than the U.S. does.

        I recently saw The Gathering Storm (about Winston Churchill) and was astounded at its beauty.

        Problem is that one needs to put away the multitasking while watching these types of films –something that is hard to do these days unless one locks the doors to the TV room.

  4. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    He was great also in How to Steal a Million (with Audrey Hepburn), The Lion in Winter, My Favorite Year, and Uncle Silas (TV). He was a superb actor.

  5. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Also, don’t forget his great performance in “Good Bye Mr Chips”

    • Marta
      Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      That was a lovely, tender film.

  6. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Very sorry to hear it. His not receiving an Oscar for LoA was a travesty. Another wonderful, but overlooked performance of his can be seen in “My Favorite Year.”

  7. Matt Bowman
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    Lawrence of Arabia is one of my all-time favorite movies. I haven’t seen the movie in a theater. I would love to see it on a massive screen.

  8. Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I have a soft spot for Acidheadro Jodorowski’s film “The Rainbow Thief”, which reacquaints O’Toole and Sharif. It’s actually one of J’s more coherent films.

    If you can pick up “King Ralph” from the library, it’s good just for the outtakes, where O’Toole cannot maintain character in the face of John Goodman expertly fumbling with the tea paraphernalia.

  9. Marta
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Nicely done, Greg.

  10. Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    Sad to hear this. One of the best films I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch is “Lawrence of Arabia.” The bluray of this classic is beautiful. And Peter O’Toole was one the greats of my lifetime. Very sad.

  11. Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    One of the movie greats. I loved all his films and the way he brought such authenticity and sensitivity to his characters.

  12. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Well, that means there’ll be a season of O’Toole films on in short order. Which is likely to improve the normal diet of festive TV direness.

  13. Don
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Just read that Noel Coward, having seen “Lawrence of Arabia,” said to O’Toole when he next saw him, “If you’d been any prettier, they would have called it ‘Florence of Arabia.'”

  14. David Duncan
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

    O’Toole was in The Night of the Generals, a WWII film, also with Omar Sharif. One of my all time favourites. Just unforgettable. He’ll be missed.

  15. Buzz
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting that you mention his “role,” singular, in Beckett and The Lion in Winter. I really enjoy watching those films back to back. He’s playing the same character, several decades apart, and in many ways the roles are similar, but both the script and his characterization of King Henry also have some clear differences.

    • Dominic
      Posted December 16, 2013 at 3:42 am | Permalink

      Becket (with one ‘t’) – two ‘t’s makes waiting for Godot… – was one of my father’s favourite films. I do not like it – I think Burton was totally miscast. The Lion in Winter was much better.

  16. Posted December 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm | Permalink

    My all time favorite actor. And lest it not be forgotten, he was in my all-time favorite movie…The Stunt Man.

  17. George
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Permalink

    Not sure why you called O’Toole an Irish/English actor. O’Toole considered himself to be Irish – even though his mother was Scottish. Some people called Richard Burton English. Very dangerous – he was Welsh.

    • Posted December 15, 2013 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      Apparently there’s some uncertainty as to where he was born. His father was Irish, his mother Scottish, and he had birth certificates from both Ireland and England; Wikipedia regards his English birth certificate as correct, but I generally don’t trust Wikipedia, so I thought it best to be ambiguous. O’Toole himself admitted that he did not know where he had been born.


  18. George
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    The one thing I would have loved to have done in my life – watch a Rugby match at Thomond Park with Richard Harris and Peter O’Toole. Not sure if I would have survived but it would have been worth it.

    • Chris
      Posted December 16, 2013 at 5:07 am | Permalink

      That was hilarious!

  19. Occam
    Posted December 15, 2013 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    In an alternate universe, David Lean’s better angels would have cast Peter O’Toole in Ryan’s Daughter instead of the limping disaster that was Christopher Jones.

    In an alternate universe, Lord Jim would have been directed by someone who understood Joseph Conrad and would unleash Peter O’Toole instead of merely harnessing him.

    In an alternate universe, Peter Yates would have brought the flair, pace and genius of Bullitt to Murphy’s War, instead of letting O’Toole slug it out on his own.

  20. Dominic
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 3:11 am | Permalink

    Apparently he had his nose ‘fixed’ before he was in Lawrence of Arabia.

    Also Joan Fontaine out at 91 😦

    • Occam
      Posted December 16, 2013 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      96, but who’s counting.

      More cricket news: Olivia de Havilland 97 not out.

    • Posted December 16, 2013 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      …and Tom Laughlin (Billy Jack… I much preferred SNL’s Billy Paul).

  21. Dominic
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 3:44 am | Permalink

    I liked him in Dean Spanley – a very nice if obscure recent fim – with bits filmed in Norwich around the cathedral.

  22. DrBrydon
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    This is sad news. It does remind me, though, that it’s time to watch one of my favorite Christmas movies, “The Lion in Winter.” “The sky is pocked with stars. What eyes the wise men must have had to see a new one in so many.”

  23. Mobius
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    Agreed. O’Toole was a superb actor with a tremendous range of abilities. He was at home at almost any sort of roll.

  24. JBlilie
    Posted December 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    One of my all-time favorite movies: ‘Aurence!

    When I first read Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, it had a (painted) portrait of Lawrence in the front of the book. My colleague looked at the book and asked, “Why did they put a picture of Peter O’Toole in this book?!

    Why indeed. The resemblance was remarkable.

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