Peter O’Toole has died at age 81; the actor who became a star after his portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia has ridden of into the sunset for the last time. O’Toole’s agent announced that the star had died in a Wellington Hospital in London after suffering from a protracted illness.
I was very saddened to read this little bit of information on the net. Still, one can perhaps hope that he is premature in his assertion that he is retiring from acting.
The man who shot to international stardom in Lawrence of Arabia is the same man who, after battling illnesses that would have brought most of us to our collective knees, did two films back to back while still recovering, The Stuntman and My Favorite Year, oh and taking time out to do a mini-series in between.
And just when I thought that Peter would be relegated to those supporting smaller roles that is the perpetual home of older stars, he did Venus. Venus, a complete British Comedy/Drama was filled with ‘old’ thespians and it was a brilliant film. It gave Mr O’Toole his eighth Academy Award nomination (he lost to Forest Whitaker) making this his eighth nomination with no win.
He has been awarded the ‘life-time’ achievement award, which he initially declined until his children told him off for it. I can only think that the ‘hallowed’ Academy thought that Peter was going to die, that is generally when they finally unbend enough to award someone who has been overlooked for years.
That O’Toole is beyond talented is obvious. The strength of his performances are astonishing. He has never, to my knowledge, given a lacklustre performance. When I think of his voice, that wonderfully mellifluous voice that I would kill to have, I get goose bumps. His voice and his way of speaking his lines has developed into a sort of musical cadence as he aged. It is almost like a signature, one that allows you to immediately know without looking that it is O’Toole.
The first thing I saw him in was not Lawrence of Arabia. I first saw him in The Lion in Winter. He and the powerful Katharine Hepburn striking sparks off each other. I then saw him in Beckett with Richard Burton. Brilliance. I did not watch Lawrence of Arabia until late one night on television. *On a side note, I read once that Peter had been hired on the strength of a stage performance he had been seen in by the producers, in the interim between being hired and turning up for costume fittings, they were horrified to see he’d had a nose job.*
But I did not fall in love with Peter O’Toole as an actor until I saw him in a small comedy directed by Richard Benjamin, My Favorite Year. Playing an ageing movie star who agrees to do a mainstream comedy variety show to pay his tax bill. The star is a raging alcoholic and does not realize that the show will be broadcast live. The pathos. comedy, sadness and courage that O’Toole gave his character made this film an unforgettable experience and shot the film to the lead of my favourites. Based on real events (I think the star in question was Errol Flynn and the show was Sid Caesar‘s) the ending never fails to give me a lump in my throat.
Peter O’Toole has suffered illness and a battle with the bottle his entire career. The effects of both these have left him lean and aged, like a worn out whippet, but the power is still there. The ability to rise above his age and illness and still give the kind of performance that shines. Watch Venus, at 73 he still has the ability to tug the heartstrings and make us chuckle, almost at the same time.
So Peter O’Toole has finally had enough. The acting world should put on black armbands and fly their flags at half-mast.
He may be “down but not out” but let’s just hope that maybe he can be enticed to act again for the right role. I would still like to see him earn his Oscar properly, as I am sure he would, and not just have the conciliatory one the Academy farmed out to him.
When I was a boy I had a list of actors about as long as my arm that I wanted to meet. There was also a shorter list of actors I actually would have done anything to work with. I have had a long love affair with Theatre, Film and to a slightly lesser degree television. Ever since I came to the momentous conclusion that I wanted to be an actor, I have been in awe and enamoured of any actor whose performances move me.
Top of the list of “meet-a-bles” was The Duke. John Wayne was, to me anyway, the master of reacting. He also had a knack (one that was enhanced by his “script doctor”) of speaking in very natural tones, but with that Duke cadence that will be forever remembered.
Dean Martin ran a close second. Again, mainly because of the almost lackadaisical way he had of delivering his dialogue. I am talking about his better films here. His method of delivery was so natural, it was as though he had not memorised dialogue, but made it up as he went along.
Richard Burton, with that beautiful voice, enthralled me literally from the first second I heard him speak. I wanted more than anything to see him in Camelot. When I think of actors his name is always first on the list, closely followed by Lawrence Olivier, Richard Harris, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. All actors I so intensely admired and would have given anything to have worked with.
And who could forget the man with the sing-song, musical voice Peter O’Toole. This long lanky actor was also in the league of Oliver and Connery and Burton and Caine. Mr O’Toole announce today that he is retiring from acting. Another legend gone. The world has lost a great actor, not through death, but from age.
There was only one actress that fell into both categories and that was Elizabeth Taylor. My high school drama teacher had worked with her and she swore that they were the same age until suddenly Ms Taylor started getting younger each year. I don’t know about that, but I do know that Pat Collier still thought very highly of Ms Taylor and would sing her praises monthly.
I actually saw Sean Connery in a Holiday Inn restaurant/bar in Alamogordo New Mexico in 1981. He walked within a foot of my and a friends table. Even out of make-up and sans toupee he commanded the room. I was so shocked by his appearance in this out of the way place, that I was practically speechless. I found out later that he was making a film with Katherine Ross and Robert Conradat the White Sands National Park.
Of course most of the actors I wanted to meet are all gone. They are treading the boards on some other plain of existence or they have “semi” retired. Of course I never really got into the business enough to insure I met anyone. I have met and auditioned for Jonathan Demme. The year was 1976 and the film was Fighting Mad with Peter Fonda.
I got the part, after a very patient Jonathan kept making me re-read it. He kept reminding me that I wasn’t on a stage so I had to tone down my performance. I left thinking I had blown it. It was a good part too. I was going to be saved by Peter Fonda’s character at the beginning of the film. I got the phone call two weeks later and went in to sign the contract with my dad.
Alas, I never got to work on that film. Due to money problems, the company (Palo Alto Productions) started cutting costs where they could and got a young stuntman to do my scene – presumably cheaper than if I had done it. I found this out from a friend of mine who was a Gopher on the film.
I have since worked on small things here and there. Life, love and the support of first one family and then another sort of side tracked me from my “artistic pursuit.” I am slowly and hesitantly backing into my first love. Writing. Before I had decided in my youth to tread the boards, being a writer was my big dream.
Maybe one day, if I actually get my ageing butt in gear and start looking for it, I will get work acting again. But until that time, I’ll write my blogs and try to stretch my literary muscles in preparation to write the next great American or English novel.