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Remembering Peter O'Toole and His Magnetic Intensity

Perhaps what we love about the star of Lawrence of Arabia (and so many other films) is that he represents a lack of careerism, a fantasy that you can have a wild and endlessly interesting life while also doing some pretty great work.

The late Peter O'Toole, who died Saturday at the age of 81 after a long illness. Photo via

“My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived.” So says Peter O’Toole as Henry II in his final, raging soliloquy in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter. O’Toole’s own life was almost certainly lived as well as it reads. Much of what has been written so far about the great actor, who died Saturday at the age of 81, relates to how well he lived. The lunches that turned into four-day parties, the days that began at a church in Leeds and ended in a Marseille bordello, the weeks spent sitting singing at the bar, toasting gods young and old, rich and poor. He already represented the Platonic ideal of “Drunk, hell-raising British thespian,” and now that ideal has been enshrined in obituary.


It was a part he lived up to. When I was ten years old, while batting in a cricket game, I looked over to the side of the pitch to see a tall, snowy-haired man in a long, grey coat stalking the boundary edge. From there, I could hear the cry: “Bowl it at his fucking head!” The man was Peter O’Toole, whose son Lorcan was on the opposing team. I saw him after the game and remembered thinking, “Wow, the guy from King Ralph is amazing.”

Peter O'Toole in TheLion in Winter.

O’Toole brought a wild, sympathetic intensity to everything he did, whether it was performing Shakespeare, drinking with Richard Harris, or watching pre-pubescent boys play cricket. He came onto the scene in the 1950s, the era of method acting, of intense American dudes talking a lot about “sense memory” and how important it was that they say their lines while channelling the pain they felt when their mother had first denied them her breast, or something. O’Toole wasn’t having that. His intensity came from a desire to entertain and enthral.

It might have been that love of theatricality that meant he would always fall short of winning an Oscar. The Academy loves an actor who makes it look like real hard work. It loves the performers who gain or lose 75 pounds, spend a year living in a specially constructed internment camp, or learn the whole Bible in Aramaic in order to say a few lines in front of a camera. It loves Daniel Day-Lewis, or failing that, it loves Tom Hanks, a man who has never said or done anything wrong in his whole life. Peter O’Toole, a man who could make the difficult look easy and who never did anything right in his life, was always going to be the kind of actor they dealt with nervously.


Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia.

He was just too unusual, too alternative, as his acting in one of his best films, Ruling Class, shows. His great performances are a testament to this. Lawrence of Arabia, a film you sit down to watch at lunch and finally get up to leave some time after breakfast, remains his defining performance. It would be anyone’s defining performance. In the above scene with Omar Sharif you can see the distillation of Lawrence’s woes, his estrangement from society and the sadness and defiance that comes of it. O’Toole is stern, sympathetic, and vulnerable in the space of two minutes. He and Sharif spent two years working on the film and both blew almost all of the money they made on it in gambling dens.

O'Toole rides a camel into the Late Show with David Letterman studio.

"I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony," O’Toole once wrote. And he did, as this camel ride into the Letterman studio shows you. Not content with coming in on the camel, O’Toole gives it a Heineken.

Perhaps what we love about O’Toole is that he represents a lack of careerism, a fantasy that you can have a wild and endlessly interesting life while also doing some pretty great work. In the 70s, in his wildest days, he supposedly went out for lunch with a few friends in London. Bottle upon bottle of wine came and went and as darkness fell over the center of town, someone suggested they go and see a play. The group found a theater, bought their tickets, and sat down to enjoy the show. A few minutes in, O’Toole turned to his companions and whispered, “Bloody hell, I’m in this fucking play,” before rising majestically from his seat, racing backstage, getting into costume, and making his entrance. OK, so maybe this never actually happened but the impression we have of O’Toole’s life is of one that could easily have been packed full of moments like that.


Today, so many young actors are not given the chance to have the life O’Toole had. A friend once told me about going with Robert Pattinson to a private beach miles from anywhere. When they got out of the sea, two press photographers were waiting for them. By contrast, O’Toole did his drinking in public and often talked about how this was important to him. So many young actors today seem to lack the creativity, wildness, and weirdness of the man who played Lawrence; perhaps they would benefit from a bit of public debauchery and shame. Perhaps a conservative film industry and a nosey, prurient society aren’t the best recipe for wildmen stars. I mean, imagine how it’d go down today if anyone had the balls to castigate their director as O’Toole did Wolfgang Petersen, after the pair made Troy together: "That kraut, what a clown he was… I watched 15 minutes of the finished film and then walked out."

Peter O'Toole in Venus.

His Macbeth of 1980 may have only been a hit because people showed up to see how drunk he was, but what people crave from life and art is the unexpected, and that’s what he gave them. He was an Irish migrant from Leeds but you’d think he was a king. The above scene, from in the 2006 film Venus, has a moment 2:09 in where he moves his hand away from his face, the light hits it, and something truly moving happens. Film acting is about these small moments and while O’Toole is celebrated for the grand gestures, he was as good at the small ones, the ones that made his best performances intense, compelling, and heartbreaking. Also—and don’t laugh—his speech about being a critic from Ratatouille has the same quality, a knowledge and insight earned from years of living, years of working, and years of drinking.

And finally, there are his eyes, blue and unreal. Every actor has to work with what they’ve got but there’s no guarantee he will turn his looks or charm into something substantial. O’Toole took his voice and his eyes and turned them into a career that people will remember as being just as compelling as all the mighty, mighty drinking he did. Acting can be a strange, wonderful and sometimes frightening thing and Peter O’Toole was the incarnation of all those acutely human qualities.

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