Entertainment Movies

Monday 26 February 2018

Peter the Great

Obituary: Peter O'Toole

Hellraiser: Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Hellraiser: Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’
Peter O’Toole at a book signing at Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin
Peter O’Toole with Meryl Streep after he won an honorary Oscar in 2003

Anita Guidera

Asked once what being Irish meant to him, the legendary actor, Peter O'Toole deliberated slowly, before replying: "It's almost the centre of my being."

The occasion was an interview with US talk show host Charlie Rose to mark the release of the first part of his autobiography, Loitering with Intent in 1992.

"Everything I think of is coloured by its history, by its literature, by its people, by its geography," he continued.

O'Toole went on to recount how a return trip to Ireland in 1946 after the end of the Second World War, affirmed his sense of Irishness.

"I was a bit of a misfit, a bit of an odd man out, but when I went to Kerry with my friend, Father Leo Walsh, and it all clicked. I wasn't different at all," he said.

Best known for his mesmerising role in Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole's death last week marks the end of an era of Hollywood hellraisers and the passing of an iconic actor whose love of Ireland was a constant in his turbulent life.

He is survived by daughters, Kate and Patricia and son, Lorcan.

His provenance remains mysterious. The son of an Irish bookie and Scottish nurse -- his maternal grandmother was also Irish -- he held two birth certificates.

According to some biographies, he was born in Connemara, Co Galway, shortly before his parents emigrated to an impoverished expatriate community in Hunslet, Leeds. Other accounts place his birth in Leeds, but whatever the truth, Peter Seamus O'Toole relished in the ambiguity.

Despite spending most of his life in the UK, he considered himself an Irishman. He lived in Clifden in Connemara during his 20 years of marriage to Welsh actress, Sian Philips, with whom he had two daughters but he moved back to London in 1991 when the marriage ended.

He enjoyed nothing better than coming to Ireland to perform.

In 1966, he played Captain Boyle in Sean O'Casey's Juno and the Paycock at the Gaiety Theatre and three years later he was back as Jon Tanner in George Bernard Shaw's Man and Superman, one of his favourite roles.

An eccentric merry maker, he worked hard, played hard, and drank hard.

During his early drinking years, he developed the habit of flying to Dublin and checking into the Shelbourne Hotel, often in the company of fellow hellraiser Richard Harris, and where O'Toole purportedly, bathed in champagne.

Like characters honed from the creative minds of Beckett or Joyce, their rakish exploits became the stuff of legend as they downed pints of Guinness and belted out 'Carrickfergus', word perfect.

O'Toole and alcohol always seemed inseparable. A lover of all sports, an inebriated O'Toole once took a taxi from Galway to Croke Park to see Muhammad Ali fighting Al 'Blue' Lewis and to shake the hand of the legendary boxer. When security baulked, he told them to tell Ali that Lawrence of Arabia wanted to meet him.

Drink contributed to a health crisis in 1976 when his pancreas and part of his stomach were removed. That left him a diabetic and curtailed his activities, but the legend lived on.

In a 1989 interview with Us magazine, he confessed: "I wouldn't have missed one drop of alcohol that I drank". Raised in Leeds, he was educated at a Catholic school, under the merciless discipline of nuns, and was an early school-leaver.

He worshiped his Galway-born father, Patrick, a committed drinker, who liked to be called Captain, although his only captaincy was of a minor football side, and dressed with panache, earning him the nickname 'spats'.

His young years were spent in the north of England, a place he believed had much in common with Ireland. He worked as a copy boy and reporter on the Yorkshire Evening News, first acting professionally at the Civic Theatre, Leeds in 1949.

Called to the Royal Navy, he served as radioman, but by 1952 he had enrolled at London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts after hitchhiking to London and winning a scholarship. Among his contemporaries were Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Alan Bates.

It heralded the start of a career of flair, showmanship and mischief. O'Toole went on to become as famous in his private life for hell-raising exploits and alcoholic benders as for his wildly variable performances on stage and screen.

By 1960, he was a star in Stratford-upon-Avon, soon after appearing in London's Old Vic playing Hamlet under the direction of Laurence Olivier.

But by then the silver screen had also beckoned. His portrayal of TE Lawrence, the enigmatic British Army officer, in David Lean's 1962 masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia made him an international superstar.

His early roles included King Henry II, first in Becket (1964) and later in The Lion in Winter in 1968 opposite Katherine Hepburn. He played Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1965), an angel in John Huston's The Bible (1966) and the lead role in a musical remake of Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969) opposite Petula Clark.

In 1972, he played Don Quixote opposite Sophie Loren in another musical, Man of La Mancha and later that year gave one of his best performances in Peter Medak's The Ruling Class, as a berserk British baronet who imagines himself to be Jesus Christ one minute and Jack the Ripper the next.

In 1999, he won an Emmy award for best supporting actor for his role as a bishop in the TV mini-series, Joan of Arc. Despite a record eight nominations, his only Oscar came in the form of a special honorary award in 2003 for his lifetime's work.

He was a chat show host's dream guest and the theatrical format with its live audience appealed to the actor who knew exactly how to play to the crowd.

He appeared on The Letterman Show in London in 1995, cigarette in hand, astride a camel. As if that wasn't suitably outrageous, he proceeded to open a can of beer and feed it to the animal.

Asked once by Lettermen had he thought about a message on his gravestone, he told the story of an old leather jacket he once had, stained "with Guinness and blood", that his wife had sent to the dry cleaners.

It came back with a note pinned to it saying, 'It distresses us to return work which is not perfect'.

"I am having that on my tombstone. That's my epitaph," he said.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment