An international star since 1962's Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole was Oscar nominated eight times

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated December 15, 2013 01:35 PM
Credit: Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Peter O’Toole, who over a 50-year-career delivered majestic performances as unforgettable characters both noble and notorious, died Saturday at the Wellington Hospital in London following a long illness, his agent Steve Kenis said, according to various reports. He was 81.

In a stunning announcement in July 2012, the acclaimed actor said he was retiring from the arena that made him a household name going back to 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia. “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge,” is how he put it as he bid his profession “a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.”

“He was six years old, O’Toole recalls, when he fell in love with the theater,” read his official biography when he played World War I British hero T.E. Lawrence for director David Lean.

O’Toole, a Connemara, County Galway native of Ireland, first trained to be a newspaperman in Leeds before attending London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and was doing Shakespeare in Stratford Upon Avon when he was cast in the sweeping desert epic.

Fame, and the first of eight Oscar nominations, came immediately, as did a decade of other large roles – among them, King Henry II in both Becket, with Richard Burton, and The Lion in Winter, with Katharine Hepburn – and a reputation for carousing. “I was, after all, the son of an Irish bookmaker,” O’Toole told The New York Times, with a smile, in 1983.

His career and his personal state of health both took significant downturns in the 1970s. His father died, his 20-year marriage to the revered Welsh actress Sian Philips ended, and, after surgery for a long-term stomach ailment, doctors misdiagnosed him with blood cancer.

But, though the beautiful blue-eyed blond matinee idol he had once been was now gone forever, O’Toole came to shine in a vast array of different but truly stellar roles, beginning with two comeback movies in the ’80s: The Stunt Man, playing a dictatorial movie director not unlike David Lean, and My Favorite Year, as a washed-up matinee idol. Both, like his other major roles, earned him Oscar nominations.

In addition, he returned to his stage roots, touring as Henry Higgins in Pygmalion, as well as doing other classics, and he received critical praise for playing the A.D. 73 Roman general Silva in the ABC mini-series Masada.

“I’m a professional,” he told The Times (in what interviewer Judy Klemesrud called “his rich, round, Old Vic-trained voice”), “and I’ll do anything – a poetry reading, television, cinema, anything that allows me to act.” That even included voicing the role of the starchy food critic in Disney-Pixar’s Ratatouille.

O’Toole’s two daughters with Phillips, actress Kate O’Toole and Patricia O’Toole, survive him, as does a son with model Karen Brown, actor Lorcan Patrick O’Toole.

Honorary Oscar

After politely but staunchly declining the Academy’s offer of an honorary Oscar for his then-40 years of career achievement – he had still hoped to win Hollywood’s top prize in a competitive category – O’Toole finally agreed to the tribute in 2003. Presented his statuette by Meryl Streep, O’Toole told the audience, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot. I have my very own Oscar with me now to be with me until death us do part.”

He spoke how he had been enamored of the movies since he was a child, and said that “as I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still.”

He thanked those gifted talents he had worked with who were no longer alive, and he acknowledged the “astonishing, gifted and able” young talent he encountered every time he went to work. But he saved his most moving words for last – and expressed his profound appreciation to the United States, “and of the loves and friendships I have known here for more than half a century, and of how much the nation has given to me both personally, privately and professionally. I am deeply thankful.”

As are we all.