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Thursday 17 April 2014

Legendary actor Peter O'Toole dies (81)

Actors Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren attend the  Miramax Films pre-Oscar party celebrating  Oscar nominees in Los Angeles...  REUTERS/Fred Prouser   (UNITED STATES)...E
Actors Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren attend the Miramax Films pre-Oscar party celebrating Oscar nominees in Los Angeles...REUTERS/Fred Prouser (UNITED STATES)...E

Legendary actor Peter O'Toole has died at the age of 81.

Born in Connemara, Co Galway,  Mr O'Toole achieved stardom in 1962 when he played TE Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia.

He was a highly-honoured film and stage actor.

He passed away this weekend at the Wellington hospital in London following a long illness, his agent said.

Mr O'Toole said last year he was quitting acting.

"I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell," he said.

In his earlier careers, he had a reputation as a hellraiser in Hollywood.

"We heralded the '60s," he once said. "Me, [Richard] Burton, Richard Harris; we did in public what everyone else did in private then, and does for show now. We drank in public, we knew about pot.

He has been described as a man who wasted his genius on his legendary, heroic and seemingly endless drinking bouts.

But his performances, ranging from an acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia, through leading Shakespearean parts to comic roles in adaptations of PG Wodehouse, and his masterful title-role performance in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, gave the lie to those who said - as one did - that he "frittered his life away on wine, women and song".

His days of riotous behaviour were brought to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s, when doctors diagnosed pancreatitis and warned him he would drop dead if he took another drop. He had yards of his intestinal tubing - "most of my plumbing" - removed and he gave up drinking, almost.

Some also believe he was born in Dublin or Leeds. But his boyhood upbringing was certainly in Leeds. He attended a Catholic school but renounced religion at the age of 15.

His working life started on the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked for some five years. But the editor finally told him: "You'll never make a reporter - try something else."

He partly predicted his future in an early poem he wrote, saying: "I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony" - something which proved to be true, in a typically larger-than-life way.

After completing his National Service in the Royal Navy he became "quite by chance", as he says, an actor.

"I hitched to London on a lorry, looking for adventure. I was dropped at Euston Station and was trying to find a hostel. I passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and walked in just to case the joint."

He ultimately took up a scholarship, "not out of burning ambition but because of all the wonderful-looking birds".

His West End debut in 1957 was in a disastrous comedy called Oh My Papa, which was booed at the Garrick as the curtain fell on the opening night. The drinking spree which followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings (50p) for being drunk and disorderly.

But he put that disaster behind him. He was soon well on the road to fame, winning the 1959 Best Actor of the Year award in Willis Hall's The Long And The Short And The Tall.

 

When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company where he consolidated his position by tackling roles like Hamlet, Shylock and Petruchio. He was a lover of George Bernard Shaw and performed many of the big roles in his plays.

 

But it was his performance in his first big film, in 1961, as Lawrence Of Arabia that launched him as an international name. That performance was described by Sam Spiegel as "unequalled in modern cinema".

He starred in a series of films like The Lion In Winter, Beckett, Lord Jim, The Last Emperor and My Favorite Year which were box office successes, and others, like What's New Pussycat, King Ralph, High Spirits, and Caligula which were not all successful.

O'Toole said he enjoyed acting for "the gallantry and gamble" and he relished the rollercoaster big risks involved. His Macbeth in 1980 received what were regarded as the worst set of reviews in living memory and O'Toole's ranting and blood-spattered performance made front page news.

Afterwards he faced journalists who asked for his reaction to the critics. He replied: "B*******s. It's a play not a bloody war. This is what the theatre is all about." But the production was a huge box office success, with tickets selling at £200 on the black market.

One of his most acclaimed performances was his portrayal of his old drinking mate in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, probably because he had lived the life himself.

It was around the mid-1970s and the time of his life-saving surgery, that his wife of some 20 years, actress Sian Phillips, with whom he had two daughters, left him for a younger man.

Once he held a New Year's Eve party at his Hampstead home, with this house rule: "Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping polite conversation and the breaking of bones, such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed."

Later he was to have a relationship with the American model Karen Somerville. This produced the longed-for son, Lorcan. But when that broke up, there was a long-drawn out and unhappy legal tussle over the child's future.

But for all his antics and high jinks, O'Toole was a fiercely private man, solitary even in his gregarious days.

He was politically passionate as well. When Harold Wilson won the 1964 election, he said he was "a total, wedded, bedded, bedrock, ocean-going, copper-bottomed triple-distilled socialist".

And at the time of Bloody Sunday, he expressed sympathy with the Provisional IRA.

His bugbears included the National Theatre, arts subsidies and mediocre actors. And he laid much of the blame on the growth of the powerful directors, such as Sir Peter Hall and Richard Eyre.

"They are an invention. They didn't exist when I came into the business in the Fifties. They were producers then, and if they were very well behaved they might get their names into the programme."

He said he would not play at the National Theatre - "that Fourth Reich bunker on the South Bank" and he was a passionate enemy of subsidised theatre where, he claimed taxpayers' money was frittered away.

"It is the same rules for us as it is for cricket, boxing, anything. We are an entertainment. We have to live and thrive in a competitive market. If we become an overprotected species we are dead."

Cricket was another of his passions, and he was often to be seen coaching youngsters in the game he adored.

But of acting he once said: "The love of it is great, huge and it will be with me forever. I blundered into it, found I could do it well. It has raised me from nothing into something, not a lot, but something.

"If you do something well and you enjoy it, what more can you bloody well ask?"

He continued acting well into his twilight years, which included a role alongside Brad Pitt and Eric Bana in the 2004 blockbuster Troy.

Throughout his career, O'Toole had been nominated for an Academy Award eight times, the most recent being for Best Actor in the 2006 film Venus, but never won one.

But the dubious honour was tempered in 2003 when he received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work.

It was only last year the renowned actor decided to retire, or "chuck in the sponge" as he called it.

After 58 years on the silver screen and on the stage, he had finally decided: " The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back."

President Michael D Higgins paid tribute to Mr O'Toole last night.

Arts lover and long-time friend of O'Toole Mr Higgins said it was with great sadness he learned of the actor's death.

"Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre," the President said.

"In a long list of leading roles on stage and in film, Peter brought an extraordinary standard to bear as an actor.

"He had a deep interest in literature and a love of Shakespearean sonnets in particular."

Mr Higgins said while O'Toole received eight Academy Award nominations for best actor and was given a special Oscar from his peers for his contribution to film, he was deeply committed to the stage.

The president and former university lecturer said anyone who saw O'Toole in his leding roles - from Lawrence Of Arabia to Henry II in Becket - would recognise his "lifetime especially devoted to the art form of film".

Mr Higgins extended his sympathy to the actor's family, including his daughters Pat and Kate, his son Lorcan, and former wife, actress Sian Phillips.

"(My wife) Sabina and I and our children will miss him, as will all those who saw him on screen or stage or had the privilege, as I had, of enjoying his friendship and humour," Mr Higgins said.

"He was unsurpassed for the grace he brought to every performance on and off the stage."

The president and O'Toole, originally from Connemara, Co Galway, became friends in 1969.

Mr Higgins said he spent part of 1979 in Clifden, on the west coast of Ireland, where the pair met up almost on a daily basis.

"All of us who knew him in the West will miss his warm humour and generous friendship," he said.

Mr Higgins cited O'Toole's performances in plays by George Bernard Shaw as among his most "outstanding".

Mr O'Toole is survived by two daughters - Kate and Patricia - and a son, Lorcan Patrick O'Toole.

 

 

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