“I woke up one morning to find I was famous. Bought a white Rolls-Royce and drove down Sunset Boulevard wearing dark specs and a white suit, waving like the Queen Mum. Nobody took any f—ing notice, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.”
—Peter O’Toole on his sudden fame and fortune after Lawrence of Arabia.
Faye Dunaway once told me that playing the notorious outlaw Bonnie Parker in Bonnie and Clyde (’67) was the greatest gift, and the greatest curse, of her legendary career. Bonnie’s character, said Faye, most closely resembled who she was. “Playing her was not a great stretch. I just dug deep.” “And of course,” continued Faye, “I was young. I thought that great roles come along all the time. Which, of course, they don’t.”
I pointed out that her role in Network (’76) was great, and her work as the heartless, TV exec, was brilliant. Faye agreed that the role of Diana Christensen was spectacular. But, Faye insisted, no film, no performance, will ever equal the personal and professional tsunami that was Bonnie.
When I heard that Peter O’Toole died, I immediately flashed back to my conversation with Faye. Like Faye, O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia was a brilliant film with an incandescent performance that made the young Irishman an international star. Like Faye, O’Toole’s subsequent career existed under the endless shadow of his Lawrence.
It’s shocking. When I look at O’Toole’s lengthy filmography, which stretches from 1956 – 2013, I’m struck by just how many Peter O’Toole films I have never see. The man worked hard.
Of course, there were other towering performances besides Lawrence: He burned up the screen in: Becket (’64), The Lion in Winter (’67), Goodbye Mister Chips (’69), The Ruling Class (’72), The Stunt Man (’80), Masada (’81), and one of my favorites, My Favorite Year (’82).
I also have great affection for the little known, little seen Creator (’85), in which O’Toole plays a grief-stricken scientist seeking to clone his dead wife. O’Toole’s performance is, quite often, very un-O’Toole. The great Irishman (in a not-so-great film) reins in some of his more extravagant impulses. Instead, he goes for the jugular of understatement at just the right moments.
In My Favorite Year, O’Toole plays a movie star modeled on Errol Flynn and, of course, Peter O’Toole, who’s attempting a comeback in live TV. O’Toole, unlike far too many serious Shakesperian actors, was a natural comedian, and in this little gem of a movie, O’Toole lets loose with a performance which, to my mind, is as memorable as Lawrence.