Obituary: Peter O'Toole was one of the most charismatic actors of his time
Peter O'Toole was one of the most charismatic, unpredictable, eccentric and individualistic players of his generation. He seemed destined for greatness on the stage until David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) turned him into a film star.
It was one of the most spectacular screen breakthroughs of the post-war years. Although Lawrence was presented as an heroic figure, Robert Bolt's screenplay did not avoid the more debatable aspects of his life, including his sexuality. There is a revealing moment when he dons Arab clothes and performs a little dance almost as if he were a woman in disguise. Moviegoers twigged instantly that this would be no ordinary portrayal.
The son of an Irish bookmaker, Seamus Peter O'Toole's listed both Connemara, Co Galway, and Leeds in England as his birth places -- on August 2, 1932. The family moved to Yorkshire for good when O'Toole was a 14-year-old schoolboy.
O'Toole was as famous for hell-raising exploits, alcoholic benders and independence of artistic judgment, as for his wildly variable performances on stage and screen.
Tall, lean, blue-eyed, watchful, whimsical -- and, by middle age, so emaciated that his friends feared for his health -- O'Toole seemed regularly to veer close to self destruction. A self-confessed lover of sleaze, he once said: "I can't stand light; I hate weather; my idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another."
When Laurence Olivier chose him in 1973 to inaugurate the National Theatre at the Old Vic in the title role of 'Hamlet', it was because O'Toole seemed like Britain's next great actor. But the status of an Olivier, a Redgrave or a Gielgud always eluded him -- or perhaps he it.
Though he became a greatly popular player, he did not stay with Olivier's new National Theatre Company and went on to divide his career between stage and screen.
The success of 'Lawrence of Arabia' led to a flood of screen offers in meaty parts that contemporary actors envied.
These included two aspects of 'King Henry II', first in 'Becket' (1964), based on Jean Anouilh's account of his troubled relations with Thomas à Becket, and secondly in 'The Lion in Winter' (1968), James Goldman's play about the ageing king's dispute with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Though Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar as Eleanor, the conflict was even-handed and the two performers were equally riveting.
His acting ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. It could be subtle, reserved, sensitive and affecting. It could also be loud, self-regarding, mannered and imitative of the worst of the 19th-century barnstormers.
Among the more ridiculous was his 'Macbeth' at the Old Vic in 1980. It was an attempt to restore the fortunes of that playhouse after the National Theatre had left it in 1976.
Contradicting the advice he had given as 'Hamlet' to the players at the same theatre under Olivier's direction 17 years earlier, he sawed the air with his hands, tore passions to tatters, and ranted until the audience laughed in his face.
Undismayed, he joined in, especially when he heard one night, as he descended the staircase after dispatching Duncan, the siren of an ambulance passing the theatre. "I was dripping with blood. The ambulance howled as it went up the Waterloo Road. I got the giggles. So did the audience. It was bloody marvellous."
Among his more sublime performances was that of the dazed and lonely protagonist journalist in Keith Waterhouse's 'Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell' (Apollo, 1989; revived 1999), reminiscing, ruminating, urinating, swaying, and stranded over-night in a London pub with a plastic carrier bag of liquor.
O'Toole, himself an experienced alcoholic, long since reformed, brought so much authenticity, poise and painful sincerity to the performance that many play-goers could not believe he was acting.
He loved the excitement and uncertainty of the theatre. "If I hadn't become an actor I probably would have become a criminal," he said. "I'm a very physical actor. I use everything -- toes, teeth, ears, everything."
In 1966, O'Toole returned to Ireland to play Capt Boyle in O'Casey's 'Juno and the Paycock' at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, and three years after that he was back in Dublin again as John Tanner in Shaw's 'Man and Superman', one of his favourite parts.
Having been denied a best actor Oscar many times, in 2003 O'Toole received a special honorary award, effectively for his lifetime's work. He joked about this when, in 2006, he received yet another best-actor nomination, playing a 70-year-old roue in 'Venus', who romances his best friend's grand-niece.
The lifetime's recognition, he quipped, had been premature because there was life in the old dog yet. (© Daily Telegraph, London)