Monday, December 16, 2013

The Late, Great Peter O'Toole

Legendary actor Peter O'Toole died Saturday, 14 December 2013, at the age of 81 after an extended illness. He played T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), King Henry II in Becket (1964), and King Henry II in The Lion in Winter among many other great roles. He was nominated 8 times for Oscars in the acting categories, but did not win any other them, although he was given an Honorary Award in 2003.

Even Peter O'Toole was uncertain of his birth date or his place of birth. While he knew he was born in 1932 and he accepted 2 August 1932 as his birthday, an Irish birth certificate gave his month of birth as June. As to where he was born, it was either Connemara, County Galway, the Republic of Ireland or Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Regardless, he grew up in Leeds. His father was an Irish metal plater, racecourse bookmaker, and football player. His mother was a Scottish nurse. During World War II he was evacuated from Leeds. He attended St Joseph's Secondary School in  Holbeck, Leeds. After leaving school he took work at the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked as a warehouseman, a copy boy, a photographer's assistant, and finally a reporter and photographer. Eventually his editor told him, "You'll never make a reporter--try something else." Mr. O'Toole then took up acting. He made his debut in Aloma of the South Seas. At Leeds' Civic Theatre he was cast in the lead role in an adaptation of  Ivan Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons.

His acting career was interrupted by his National Service, which he completed  in the Royal Navy where he served as a signaller. After leaving the Navy he hitch-hiked to London where he eventually made his way to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. By chance he met acting legend Sir Kenneth Barnes there, who encouraged him to audition. As a result Mr. O'Toole received a full scholarship at RADA. Among his fellow students were . Albert Finney and Alan Bates. After graduating he joined the Bristol Old Vic's repertory company. He remained there for three and a half years. Afterwards he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company.

It was in 1956 that Peter O'Toole made his television debut in an episode of The Scarlet Pimpernel. He made his film debut in Kidnapped in 1960. Later in the same year he appeared in the films The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960) and The Savage Innocents (1960). He also appeared in episodes of the television show Rendezvous . He was then cast in his breakthrough role as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). He received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in the film. He followed Lawrence of Arabia with Becket (1964) in which he played King Henry II, for which he received his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Over the next several years Peter O'Toole appeared in such films as Lord Jim (1965), What's New Pussycat (1965), How to Steal a Million (1966), The Bible: In the Beginning (1966), The Night of the Generals (1967) , and Casino Royale (1967). He appeared in an episode of ITV Play of the Week.In 1968 he starred in The Lion in Winter, for which he received another Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role. It was one of the few times an actor would be nominated twice for an Academy Award for playing the same role (Mr. O'Toole having previously played King Henry II in Becket). He close the Sixties starring in Great Catherine (1968), the ill fated musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), and Country Dance (1970). He appeared on stage in Waiting for Godot at Dublin's Abbey Theatre in 1970.

The Seventies would turn out to be a mixed bag for Peter O'Toole. He appeared in The Ruling Class (1972), for which he received another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, in addition to the well received Man Friday (1975). He also received another Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for The Stunt Man (1980). Unfortunately he also appeared in several films that fared poorly at the box office, fared poorly with critics, or both, including the notorious Man of La Mancha (1972), Rosebud (1975), Foxtrot (1976), Zulu Dawn (1979), and Caligula (1980). He appeared on the TV series Strumpet City (1980) as well as the mini-series Masada.

The Eighties would see Mr. O'Toole receive yet another Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role for My Favourite Year (1982). He appeared in the ill fated film Supergirl (1984) as well as the films Creator (1985), Club Paradise (1986), High Spirits (1988), Up to Date (1989), Wings of Fame (1990), and The Rainbow Thief (1990). He had a major role in the 1988 winner for the Oscar for Best Picture (as well as several others) The Last Emperor (1987). On television he provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes in a series of animated adventures of the legendary detective. He appeared in the TV adaptations of Man and Superman, Pygmalion, and Kim. He also appeared on the TV series Uncle Silas. In 1987 he appeared on Broadway in a revival of Pygmalion.

The Nineties saw Mr. O'Toole do a good deal of television. He appeared in the TV show Civvies, as well as the mini-series Heaven and Hell: North and South Book III and the TV films Gulliver's Travels, Heavy Weather, and Coming Home. He appeared in the films King Ralph (1991), Isabelle Eberhardt (1991), Rebecca's Daughters (1992), The Seventh Coin (1993), FairyTale: A True Story (1997), Phantoms (1998), and Molokai (1999).

In the Naughts Peter O'Toole received one last Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for Venus (2006). He provided the voice of Anton Ego in the Pixar film Ratatouille (2007). He also appeared in the films Global Heresy (2002), The Final Curtain (2002), Bright Young Things (2003), Troy (2004), Lassie (2005), One Night with the King (2006), Stardust (2007), Dean Spanley (2008), Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage (2008), and Eager to Die (2010). He appeared in the TV series The Education of Max Bickford, Casanova, The Tudors, and The Iron Road. In the Teens he appeared in the films For Greater Glory: The True Story of Cristiada (2012) and The Whole World at Our Feet (2013). His last film, Katherine of Alexandria, will be released next year.

Peter O'Toole was a remarkable actor. In fact, he holds the record as the male actor to be nominated the most times for the Oscar for Best Actor in Lead Role without ever having won. Given the quality of his work, Mr. O'Toole should have won the Oscar many times over. Such was his skill as an actor that he could deliver a good performance even in the worst of films. A perfect example of this is 1969's musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The script was so dull that the film could have been used as a soporific. For the most part the songs were absolutely horrible. And yet Peter O'Toole delivered a great performance in the lead role of Arthur Chipping (not surprisingly, he received another Oscar nomination for the role). Quite simply, even when the film was beneath him, Mr. O'Toole delivered a great performance.

Of course, Peter O'Toole was at his best in truly great films, and he made quite a few. What is more, he played a variety of roles in those films. He may be best known for having played T. E. Lawrence, but he also played such diverse roles as King Henry II (twice, once in Becket and once in The Lion in Winter), art expert Simon Dermott in How to Steal a Million,  General Tanz in Night of the Generals, ageing actor Alan Swann in My Favourite Year, and the voice of egotistical food critic Anton Ego in Ratatouille. Despite the fact that these roles were each very different, Mr. O'Toole performed every one of the them convincingly and with conviction. Few actors had his track record for great performances and few actor had Mr. O'Toole's talent.

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