In Memoriam: Peter O’Toole, 1932 – 2013

Peter O'Toole prepares for his role as Lawrence of Arabia, 1961.

Peter O’Toole prepares for his role as Lawrence of Arabia, 1961.

 “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).

In Creator ('85) O'Toole is a who has dedicated decades of research to cloning his long-dead wife.

In Creator (’85) O’Toole is a scientist who has dedicated decades of research to cloning his long-dead wife.

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.


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  1. sennacherib
    Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:57 am | Permalink

    Peter O’Toole. I believe Barry is right in that acting is a craft and as such is a learned process and I do not have the industry background to comment on an actor’s competence.  I also agree with him in that whether I like an actor or how an actor has done a role is a matter of personal taste. That being said O’Toole was someone who I enjoyed immensely.  It has been said when an actors magic works “they step out of the movie for you”, in O’Toole’s case he drew me into the movie. It has been said that one of O’Tooles weaknesses was over acting, probably so but at least he dared. If not for those who do we’d never get the extra ordinary (though we have to suffer through a lot of less than ordinary). To me he was Henry II, he was Lawrence, and he was larger than life and I’m glad I saw him.
    On a side note my tribe (the Irish) do not die, we just wander off (something about drinking, dancing, and singing) and are never seen again.

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  2. Johnny
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    Having known O’Toole from LoA and then Goodbye Mr. Chips, The Stunt Man and especially My Favorite Year were sensational revelations of his abilities. All those nominations and never a winner. Another in a long line of examples that Oscars are not a true measure of the best of the best.
    Any movie fan that has not seen My Favorite Year should buy, beg or steal a copy ASAP. I waited seven years after it was released to see it and have watched it at least once a year since then. It is so such much fun to watch from start to finish. I have three copies on dvd after giving away 4 other copies to my kids and friends.
    Also see him in How To Steal A Million with Audrey Hepburn. A funny light comedy elevated by two great performers.

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  3. Jeremayakovka
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Am fortunate that the first (let alone, any) time I saw LofA was on 70mm at the Ziegfeld Theatre in midtown Manhattan. Nothing else will ever compare.

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  4. Bill Brandt
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

    After you wrote about Lawrence of Arabia, I went to Amazon and bought a Blu-Ray version.

    Saw it in a new light. (Robert has never let me down – immensely enjoying the Ava Gardner book, too!)

    I was reading how difficult it was to make that movie – IIRC 100 days out in the blazing desert – I am wondering if Faye – or Peter – knew they were making one of their few signature movies after the wrap – or did time tell them later?

    On O’Toole and LoA – something that stuck with me was – was it you who told us or the DvD special features? – but when O’Toole’s character was given an Arab robe and dagger Lean told him that he needed to fill that scene in – and it was O’Toole’s improvisation for about 5-10 minutes that made that scene – and his transformation from British officer to Arab leader.

    On the scarcity of break-out roles – Faye and O’Toole should count themselves lucky. Some just as capable under the right script and direction – never get them.

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  5. antoineclarke
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    I agree about the Lion in Winter. Casting Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor was inspired, and Peter O’Toole holds his own.

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  6. indygirl
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I love My Favorite Year.  I’m always reminded of that line “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star” when I see somebody like Julia Roberts or Tom Cruise try to take on a role that’s outside their limited range. 

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    • Barry
      Posted December 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Of course, they are actors. You may not like the work, but they, Julia, Tom, and anyone else you care to name, know how to do it. Stop making a religion out of it. Acting, like carpentry is what it is. Requires knowledge, skill, craftsmanship and taste. What you are disagreeing with is taste. Fine. You are not in the club. They are. And, while I am on my horse about this, the most disgusting thing I can think of about actors is Dustin Hoffman pontificating after winning the Academy Award. The Line, in My Favorite Year is about weakness and alcoholism played for laughs. It is no more true than the stupid interpretation of “Print the legend” in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

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      • kishke
        Posted December 18, 2013 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        I thought the point was the difference between acting live before an audience and doing it before a camera.

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        • Barry
          Posted December 18, 2013 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

          They call on similar inner resources, but the technical aspects are radically different. Obviously voice work, but films are shot out of sequence with moving cameras and light plans that must be followed. Just try doing it without training, development, talent and concentration. Hard, hard work to play in a film. Donald Sinden, writing about Mogambo and a sequence Clark Gable did, the one in which natives test his courage by throwing spears in and around him, commented about the difference between reality and the movies: both require courage, but Clark did it in reverse. That is, they did not throw spears at him, the special effects people pulled, on film, the spears out, then reversed the process in the final print. Meanwhile, Clark had to play it, as if they were coming at him. In other words, backwards. I don’t think I have explained this with the necessary clarity, but the next time you watch Mogambo, and think of this as a throw away scene, you will think again. In any case, good, bad or indifferent, if you are acting then — you are acting. Just as some mystery writers, in the pulp days, turned out to be Raymond  Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, others did not find that success, but they are a lot of fun, and they are writers. And B picture actors are actors. Personal taste doesn’t speak to that.
          It is a process.

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          • Larry
            Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

            I’d rather watch “Red Dust.” “Mogambo” is a watch-once movie.

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            • Barry
              Posted December 19, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

              Not a point of contention simply an explanation of how film acting works.

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      • Larry
        Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

        Barry writes, “The Line, in My Favorite Year is about weakness and alcoholism played for laughs. It is no more true than the stupid interpretation of ‘Print the legend’ in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”
        The line in “My Favorite Year” is about loss of confidence, an important character aspect for Swann. His character’s growth in self-assurance and humanity is one of the main points making the story worthwhile. Reducing it to vague “weakness and alcoholism” misses the point of that character and the story deriving from the two characters, Swann & Benjy.
        As for “Print the legend,” it was absolutely characteristic of the shame and stark reality of legend and truth, which was at the heart of everything political then and since, and at the foundation of the story. It took all that time for those characters to face up to the reality hiding behind that legend and their parts in contributing to it. The line served as the summary commentary on the pointlessness of exposing reality in the face of legend.

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        • Barry
          Posted December 19, 2013 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

          You have misinterpreted my comment re Print The Legend. It has often been taken as John Ford’s view of the world, when of course, the opposite is so. Something similar in Fort Apache. Use your own eyes and ears. Events have unfolded — so do not accept third party insights without question. Printing the Legend is like printing a lie.

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        • Barry
          Posted December 19, 2013 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

          Re Swann and Benjy. Why is loss of confidence unrelated to weakness and alcoholism? You like the characters? Me too. But, I would not want to know either of these guys. One is a cipher, and the other, Swann, just plain trouble.

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  7. exdemexlib
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    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.
    If you like comedies, and want to see something funny about the British Monarchy,  try  King Ralph ,  where there is a group accident killing the monarch and all immediate heirs, and O’Toole, as Sir Cedric, is tasked with getting the next heir, an out of work Vegas musician, to act as a proper British monarch.  
    O’Toole plays a dignified English Lord, and blends understated comedy and dignity very well.
    (can’t put up a clip, but if you can imagine an exasperated English Lord trying to deal with American informality,  accede to King Ralph’s request, and in private, address him as Your Maj …)

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  8. kishke
    Posted December 18, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Funny clip!

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    • Robert J. Avrech
      Posted December 18, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

      It’s a wonderful film.

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    • Posted December 18, 2013 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      I agree — that was a funny clip. I think I’ve seen the movie, but maybe I’ve just seen snippets. I immediately recognized Mark Linn-Baker (famous for playing Larry Appleton, cousin of Balki Bartokomous [played by Bronson Pinchot] in Perfect Strangers) as the straight man in this clip… O’Toole really does a nice portrayal of the Errol Flynn-esque character! 🙂 I may just have to find that movie online…

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    • Larry
      Posted December 19, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

      I’ve loved that movie ever since I saw it when it came out and I try to watch it whenever I see it available. The capper line in the clip is perfect! Cracked me up when I first heard it. Still my favorite from that movie.
      Don’t forget the impressive job that Joe Bologna did sending up Sid Caesar from “Your Show of Shows.” (BTW, Caesar in Latin is pronounced Kaiser.) Mark Linn-Baker’s character was nebbishy enough that at the beginning of the movie when I first saw it I thought he was based more on Woody Allen although he seemed more like Brooks in humor. Nevertheless, the confidence he gained by the end made him more Brooks, which was the point: Benjy’s growth and Swann’s humanity. Found out later it was Brooks’s production company made the film.
      I guess you could round out the Caesar crew history lessons with “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” (Neil Simon) and, very much peripherally, “Enter Laughing” (Carl Reiner who started out as an actor on Caesar’s show, not a writer, but wrote later on).

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