Peter O’Toole, whose performance as the charismatic and tortured T. E. Lawrence in David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia” made him an instant movie star, died Saturday at the age of 81 after a long illness.
A prodigious actor and an equally prodigious drinker, he was nominated for eight Academy Awards – “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Becket” (1964), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), “The Ruling Class” (1972), “The Stunt Man” (1980), “My Favorite Year” (1982), and “Venus” (2006,) but he never won. When he was given an honorary award in 2003, O’Toole, who had survived a series of almost fatal illnesses including stomach cancer in the 1970s, tried to turn the award down, writing the Academy that he was “still in the game.” In 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, the actor, who had protested against the Vietnam War, turned down a knighthood.
Blonde, blue-eyed, and beautiful, the classically trained (at Britain’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) Irish actor was often brilliant and often eccentrically bad on stage, never quite fulfilling critic Kenneth Tynan’s words that at his best O’Toole’s performances “may presage greatness.” He frittered some of that promise away with his drinking companions Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Peter Finch, and Laurence Harvey.
Although O’Toole’s performance as the flamboyant, perhaps homosexual soldier who rode through the desert enlisting desert tribes to fight against the Turks and for the British in World War I lost the Oscar to Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it is now considered one of the eight or 10 best movie performances of all time.
O’Toole is survived by two daughters – Kate and Pat – from his marriage to Sian Phillips, and a son, Lorcan, from his relationship with Karen Brown.