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Remembering Peter O'Toole

Bob Haswell /Hulton Archive/Getty Images

His death had been foretold so many times, not least by himself. In 2002, he had consented to accept a tribute from the Telluride Film Festival. But his health was an issue. In the ’70s and ’80s, he had struggled with cancer and alcoholism, and significant parts of his stomach and intestines had been removed. He was entirely handsome still, but gaunt, ravaged and a little unsteady. There had been stories for decades about his drinking. Some said he was on the wagon; others said he owned the wagon, and all interpretations of it. When he appeared at Telluride, after dark, for the guests’ party, the night before the films began, he seemed very pale and deeply aware that Telluride was at 9,000 feet. I was appointed to welcome him at the party and to do whatever I could to take care of him. But I felt in just a moment or two that this man was determined not to have care involved.

I did ask him once he had caught his breath whether a glass of wine might be beneficial.

“Well, thank you,” he said in that astonishingly lovely drawl. “That is kind. As a matter of fact, my doctor did say that a single glass of white wine might be beneficial.”

The wine was provided. He let it dab his thin lips. He seemed to rally. Anyone attached to the festival crossed their fingers.

He did rally. A couple of hours later, our paths crossed again at the party where he was at the heart of a circle of storytelling, the cracked voice still singing. It was possible to guess that a few more glasses of wine had assisted him. There was no hint that he was drunk. Still, I did say something about what his doctor had advised. “My dear chap,” he said, in the friendliest manner. “I have many doctors.”

Peter O’Toole had survived. In his time, he had been the drinking companion of notable hell-raisers—Robert Shaw, Richard Harris, Richard Burton. They had all seemed more robust than O’Toole and they had all died younger. There was an unaccountable mixture of frailty and vitality in him that was as odd as his background. Probably born in Connemara (there had been questions), he had been raised in Yorkshire as the son of a bookmaker. So he roamed the race courses, and somehow acquired that languid, razor-edged voice. He had a training at the Bristol Old Vic in the 1950s that was talked about in the theatre world. In a few years of repertory, he did over fifty parts for very little (they included Hamlet, Vanya, Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger, Waiting for Godot, and the Dame in the theatre’s annual pantomime). Some moments he seemed the subtlest of actors, at others he was part of a barnstorming tradition personified by the much larger than life Donald Wolfit. He had been to RADA for a couple of years but he was not part of the London inner circle.

But he was beautiful, entirely assured and defiant. He looked nothing like T.E. Lawrence, but neither had Marlon Brando or Albert Finney, the two actors he outstripped in the contest for that part. He became world famous in a moment and then he did a run of poor films that were either ill-advised or tempting fate. When Laurence Olivier brought the National Theatre to London at last from its country home, Chichester, he was determined to do Hamlet as the first production. He cast O’Toole, and the actor willfully ignored most of the rehearsals on the first night. The result was bad, and the word was out that O’Toole was unmanageable. The drink was just the oil that made that engine run.

He had his grim reward. Like a character in a fairy story, eight times he was called up for Oscar, and eight times he was denied: for Lawrence of Arabia; for Becket (playing opposite Richard Burton); for The Lion in Winter (starring with Katharine Hepburn); for Goodbye Mr Chips; for The Ruling Class; for the dangerous but intoxicating movie director, Eli Cross, in The Stunt Man; as a kind of Errol Flynn figure in the very funny My Favorite Year; and as the dying actor in Venus. That last one was 2007, by which time he had been granted an honorary Oscar in 2003—though there were reports that he nearly refused it because he saw it as an act of charity.

He was often a risky proposition on stage. I saw him play Jack Tanner in Man and Superman in London in the early ’80s, walking so close to the edge of the stage and seeming to totter so that members of the audience were reaching up ready to catch him. That was shortly after he had done a Macbeth that had the worst reviews in living memory and which were so bad that every performance was sold out. But his swansong was still to come.

Jeffrey Bernard was a journalist who wrote the “Low Life” column for The Spectator –when he could. Alas, the magazine had often to admit “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell,” when he was too drunk to deliver his copy. Keith Waterhouse wrote a play about Bernard, using that apology as his title, and no one could imagine anyone else in the part but Peter O’Toole – if he could stand up long enough. It became the great hit of the actor’s life in the 1980s, and a movie version of it was made in 1999 that O’Toole helped to direct.

To meet O’Toole was to be thrilled, if bewildered, by the restless panache that managed to be life-affirming and self-destructive at the same time. He was very well read, and he wrote two memoirs that are better than most books by actors. Without doubt, he slammed many doors in his career, and earned the reputation of being too difficult. It’s easy to say his Lawrence is all wrong historically, but he carries that film along. The Stunt Man is seldom seen these days, but it is a sardonic dark comedy. In addition, in years when he was working as an alternative to being smashed, he did Captain Tom Cat in Under Milk Wood; Don Quixote in the lumbering Man of La Mancha; Tiberius in the Bob Guccione Caligula; the Roman general in Masada; a brilliant Svengali to Jodie Foster’s Trilby; Henry Higgins in a TV Pygmalion (with Margot Kidder as Eliza); the bicycling tutor in Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, and an enormous amount of rubbish.

He was not like the others. That may have been his cause all along, and there will be O’Toole stories long after respectable actors are forgotten.