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Happy Birthday, Peter O’Toole, Star of “Lawrence of Arabia”

August 02, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Peter O’Toole is considered one of the most distinguished actors of the 20th century. His role in “Lawrence of Arabia” catapulted him to international fame in 1962, and he has since demonstrated his unique talent in genres from classical drama to contemporary comedy.

Peter O’Toole’s Early Days

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Peter Seamus O’Toole was born in 1932 or 1933, though most sources list his birthdate as August 2, 1932. He was born in either Connemara, Ireland, or Leeds, England, where he spent most of his youth; “O'Toole himself professed not to know the answer, although he was fond of stressing his Irishness,” says the BBC.

In his youth, O’Toole aspired to be a journalist, and at the age of 14 dropped out of high school to work for the Yorkshire Evening Post. After three years, he traded his job as a reporter for a position at Leeds Civic Theatre.

O’Toole’s Acting Career

O’Toole served two years in the British Royal Navy before being discharged for being “temperamentally unsuitable.” He returned to the stage at the Bristol Old Vic. He was lauded for his 1958 portrayal of Hamlet at the Old Vic, as well as his portrayal of Shylock in a 1960 Stratford production of “The Merchant of Venice.”

He made his film debut in the 1960 film “Kidnapped,” and two years later landed the part of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s sweeping epic, “Lawrence of Arabia.” The role, for which he received an Oscar nomination, thrust him into the upper echelon of actors and solidified his position as one of the best actors of his generation.

The British Film Institute writes, “With blazing blue eyes, bleached hair and flowing white garments, he was a charismatic figure … It was a remarkable study in obsession, catching the right balance between mystic and man of action, bringing to the role kinds of intensity and zeal that few other British actors could have done.”

The role served as a prototype for O’Toole’s other roles. “To this day, O’Toole specializes in men whose obsessions override—or deform—their wills,” writes Troy Patterson in Entertainment Weekly. “You can't help but root for the vital daftness of his heroes and the bursting vigor of his villains. The common thread is soaring flamboyance.”

He followed Lawrence by portraying Henry II in the 1964 film “Becket,” and opposite Katharine Hepburn in 1968’s “The Lion in Winter.” He received an Oscar nomination both times.

He then turned to musicals, earning another Oscar nomination for 1969’s “Goodbye, Mr. Chips.” In an effort to fund the musical “The Ruling Class,” in which he played a delusional earl who believes he is Jesus, O’Toole agreed to star as Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” Though his performance as Quixote was widely panned (“O'Toole stiffly mimes his lyrics from behind a prosthetic honker and a bad beard,” describes Patterson), he received another Oscar nod for “The Ruling Class.”

Off-stage, O’Toole was notorious for his drinking and partying. “He suffered appallingly from nerves,” writes Robert Hanks in The Independent, “often throwing up before he went on stage, and was a chronic insomniac: the cure for both these conditions was, naturally, drink. … He held the record for downing a yard of ale, and Roy Kinnear … recalled seeing him down a bottle of whisky without pausing for breath.”

His lifestyle caught up with him in the 1970s; he had his pancreas and parts of his stomach removed in 1976, and his wife divorced him in 1979. His 1980 stage portrayal of MacBeth at the Old Vic was a notorious failure, described by The Times of London as “a milestone in the history of coarse acting.”

The Rest of the Story

O’Toole had a career resurgence in the early ’80s with three well-received roles, the most popular being his depiction of Alan Swann in 1982’s “My Favorite Year.” Since his comeback, O’Toole’s performances have confirmed his early promise as one of the most distinguished actors of his generation.

In 2003, after receiving seven Oscar nominations without a win, he was offered an Academy Award for lifetime achievement. He initially declined the honor, saying, “I am still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright.” He later decided to appear at the ceremony when the academy said it would be given the award anyway.

He was nominated for an eighth Oscar in 2008 for his role in the film “Venus,” though again couldn’t secure a win. He holds the record for most nominations without a victory. He has received nine other acting awards, including two Golden Globe Awards for Best Actor in a Drama and and three National Board of Review awards for Best Actor.
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