Sunday 19 November 2017

Arabian knight

The long career of actor Peter O'Toole, who has announced his retirement, has seen moments of brilliance and hamminess. But it's never, ever been dull

Rock the casbah: Peter O'Toole In Lawrence
of Arabia
Rock the casbah: Peter O'Toole In Lawrence of Arabia

The world of entertainment got a whole lot duller last week when Peter O'Toole announced his retirement from acting. The legendary star will turn 80 on August 2, and in a brief explanatory statement said simply: "It is time to chuck in the sponge -- the heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back."

O'Toole certainly has nothing left to prove, but I for one felt a tinge of sadness at the thought that we'll never again see him grace a screen or stage. His 60-odd-year career has seen both highs and lows, and his acting has been sometimes brilliant, often outrageous, occasionally knowingly hammy, but never, ever dull.

The perceived wisdom is that O'Toole was one of the most gifted classical actors of his generation, but spent much of his career squandering his talents in bad pictures.

It is true that, like his contemporaries Burton, Harris and Caine, O'Toole followed the money into some very dodgy film projects from time to time.

But when the mood took him, he could act anyone off the screen, and his movie CV contains some magnificent performances in very fine films, from Lawrence of Arabia and Becket to The Lion in Winter, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, Venus and My Favorite Year.

With his sparkling blue eyes and striking good looks, he could have made hay in Hollywood as a bland leading man. But O'Toole was genuinely interested in pushing himself as an actor and as he got older developed a unique and almost anarchic screen acting style that proved difficult to cast.

Sometimes he coasted, other times he took genuine chances, but there was always an edgy unpredictability to his performances, even in bad TV movies like the 1981 epic Masada, where an irreverent Irish streak emerged to subvert doomed productions.

As an actor he was unique, a will-o-the-wisp who resisted all attempts to pigeonhole him. This stubborn individuality was evident from an early age: as a teenager he had scribbled a heartfelt pledge in his school notebook. 'I will not be a common man,' it read, 'I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.' He certainly achieved that.

There seems to be some confusion about the actor's place of birth. Some sources indicate that he was born in Leeds, others that he arrived in the altogether more poetic setting of Connemara, on August 2, 1932. Whichever is true, his patriotic allegiance has always been to Ireland.

His mother, Constance, was a Scottish nurse, his father Patrick, a peripatetic Irish-born racecourse bookmaker.

Peter grew up tall and athletic, and loved playing rugby and cricket. But his education was not helped by the family's constant moves between northern English racecourse towns.

He left school at 14 with no qualifications and a vague ambition to sell Jaguars. Instead, he trained as a journalist, but reporting bored him, and after doing his national service in the Royal Navy he decided to try his luck with acting.

After winning a scholarship he studied at RADA, where his classmates included Alan Bates and Albert Finney. He then joined the repertory cast of the Bristol Old Vic, and appeared in everything from Hamlet to Waiting for Godot.

O'Toole's big year came in 1959. He gained glowing reviews after being cast in the hit West End play The Long and The Short and The Tall, and this led to his screen debut in the thriller The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.

David Lean noticed him in that film, and would ultimately cast O'Toole as T.E. Lawrence in his 1962 epic, Lawrence of Arabia. Lean had originally wanted O'Toole's old RADA classmate Finney for the demanding role.

But when he saw O'Toole's screen test he said "this is Lawrence", and chose the unknown actor in spite of his producer, Sam Spiegel's objections.

O'Toole spent almost two years filming Lawrence of Arabia. By the time it was finished he'd lost two stone, sprained both ankles, dislocated his spine and been concussed twice. But the pain was worth it: his compelling performance earned him his first Oscar nomination, and made him a major star.

"I woke up one morning to find I was famous," he said. "I bought a white Rolls Royce and drove down Sunset Boulevard, wearing dark specs and a white suit, waving like the Queen Mum. Nobody took any f***ing notice, but I thoroughly enjoyed it."

He was nominated for the best actor Oscar four times in the 1960s, for Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter and Goodbye, Mr Chips, but did not win and, in fact, never has, despite four further nominations since.

Nevertheless, his stock was high as the 1970s dawned, but he was becoming almost as famous for his drinking as his work.

Stories about O'Toole's boozing have become so embellished down the years that it's hard now to separate fiction from fact. He was good at it, though, and only the hardiest revellers, Richard Burton for instance, or O'Toole's great friend Richard Harris, were up to the job of drinking with him.

Michael Caine remembers popping out to the pub with him for a swift pint and coming to several days later, and O'Toole's ex-wife Sian Phillips recalled his habit of scaling the sides of tall buildings when drunk. They had married in 1959, and had two daughters, but hellraising and families don't mix.

The actor's binging came to a crashing halt in 1976, however, when he was hospitalised and had parts of his stomach and intestine removed. "The time has come to stop roaming," he said. From now on he would face life without alcohol.

O'Toole's health problems coincided with a dip in his professional fortunes.

His lifestyle had taken a toll on his appearance, and turns in dodgy British films like Rogue Male and Zulu Dawn seemed to suggest that, in Hollywood's eyes at least, he was yesterday's man.

But in the early 1980s he staged a remarkable comeback. He was superb as a high-handed film director in Richard Rush's 1980 film The Stunt Man, so much so in fact that the perennially unimpressible New Yorker critic Pauline Kael called his performance "peerless".

He was, if anything, even better playing a washed-up Hollywood star in Richard Benjamin's 1982 comedy My Favorite Year.

He has sometimes phoned it in in films that are clearly beneath him, but somehow manages to make even these performances interesting.

And every now and then he comes up with something special, like his portrayal of Giacomo Casanova in a 2005 TV mini-series, or acerbic columnist Jeffrey Bernard in the hit West End play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.

He was a special actor, and I always thought he'd make a wonderfully brittle and regal King Lear. It seems now I'll never get the chance to see him play it.

pwhitington@independent.ie

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