Update: Peter O’Toole has passed away at the age of 81. We thought this Essentials, written last year after the announcement of his retirement would make a fitting tribute. Rest in peace to one of the all time greats.
We have a story about Peter O’Toole. We can’t remember where we first heard it, and like many such stories, it could well be apocryphal. Supposedly O’Toole, at the height of his 1970s drinking, met a few friends for lunch at a restaurant in London’s Soho. As was his custom, a bottle of wine was ordered—then another, then several more. After the food, they then reconvened to various pubs throughout the afternoon. As evening rolled around, the group got the idea to go and see a play. The drunken crew stumbled into a theater, bought tickets, and took their seats. It was a good few minutes into it that O’Toole froze, then turned to his companion and whispered “Bloody hell, I’m in this fucking play,” before dashing backstage, donning his costume and taking the stage.
Like we said, it’s probably too good to be true, but even so, it does indicate something about O’Toole—his boozing and hellraising (often with close friends like Richard Harris) have sometimes overshadowed his acting in the perception of the public (see a relatively recent Bill Hader sketch on “Saturday Night Live“), despite O’Toole having been nominated for eight Oscars, (he has never won one, barring an honorary award in 2003). But we hope that’ll change with O’Toole’s announcement yesterday, at the age of 79, after a fifty-year career, that he’s retiring from acting.
O’Toole wrote in a statement: “My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfilment and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I’ve shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits. However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay.” He’s never been sentimental about his work, but over his career, he has delivered a string of unforgettable performances, and to mark his retirement, we wanted to highlight five of our favorites. Let us know your own highlights in the comments section below.
“Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962)
O’Toole’s most famous performance, and the one that launched him into stardom, was very nearly someone else’s. Producer Sam Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando, and director David Lean was initially after another rising British actor, Albert Finney, but both turned down the project. After that, Lean recalled another young actor who’d impressed him with a small part in B-movie “The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England,” O’Toole won the part, and the rest was history. And it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the part; one feels that robbing Lean’s images of O’Toole piercing blue eyes (Noel Coward joked to the actor at the premiere “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called ‘Florence of Arabia.’ “) would take away much of the soul of the title character. Lawrence is hardly ever off screen across the film’s epic three-and-a-half-hour running time (and presumably even longer in the recent, longer edit), and for an actor with relatively little experience as a leading man at the time, O’Toole tears into the part, making him a truly strange protagonist for such a blockbuster; charismatic, camp, compassionate, lonely, extroverted, murderous, amused, serious. Not for a second do you doubt that such an unlikely figure could unite the disparate Arab tribes against the Turks. It’s a titanic, iconic performance, the one O’Toole will always be remembered for, and deservedly so.
“The Ruling Class” (1972)
A savage caustic satire, a passion project of O’Toole’s, who’d bought the rights to Peter Barnes‘ stage play, and held on to them until Hungarian-born helmer Peter Medak persuaded him he was the man for the job, “The Ruling Class” was not a success on release (although O’Toole won an Oscar nomination). And it’s not a surprise, particularly, given that the plot involves O’Toole as Jack Gurney, an aristocrat elevated to a title after his father dies through auto-erotic asphyxiation, and who believes at first he is God (complete with hippie-ish ginger locks and beard), and then, after electroshock therapy, Jack The Ripper, ending the film by murdering his wife when she tells him she loves him. The film itself has its flaws; it’s overlong at 150 minutes, and never really escapes its stage origins, with Medak still clearly finding his feet as a director (the cinematography, by Ken Hodges, is particularly weak). But it’s also a good deal of cynical, dark fun (with a terrific supporting cast, in particular “Dad’s Army” star Arthur Lowe as the Gurneys’ Communist butler). And most of all, there’s a performance—or more accurately, several performances—from O’Toole that comes close to being his career best. He’s sweet-natured, yet a little narcissistic when in holy mode, and positively blood-chilling once he gets his personality shift, and deftly navigates the tricky tone throughout. A U.S. re-release a decade later, and a Criterion edition (with a terrific commentary from O’Toole, Medak and Barnes) have helped restore the film’s reputation, but it’s still underseen; hopefully O’Toole’s announcement of his retirement will encourage more people to check it out.
“My Favorite Year” (1982)
“I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star.” So goes the cry of Alan Swann, O’Toole’s character in this broad-ish studio comedy, and while that’s not an accusation you could ever really level at O’Toole, he found a new lease on life in the early 1980s with a string of comedies. And while he’s also terrific as a crazed, manipulative film director in 1980’s “The Stunt Man,” “My Favorite Year” provides his most definitive comic turn of that era. In Richard Benjamin‘s film, the actor plays a fading matinee idol (clearly modeled after Errol Flynn), the star of swashbuckling pictures who’s been roped into being a guest on a Sid Caesar-type show in the early years of television. A young comedy writer (Mark Linn-Baker) is tasked with babysitting the star who, in an echo of O’Toole’s own well-documented love for the bottle, is a raging drunk, prone to womanizing and bar brawls. The script (inspired by producer Mel Brooks‘ own experiences with Flynn while working on the “Your Show of Shows“) is a little conventional, giving each of the two leads a neat arc, in addition to a somewhat unnecessary sub-plot about a corrupt union boss. But it’s sweet and genuine, and O’Toole is a marvel, delivering the kind of slurred, uproarious drunken turn that was making Dudley Moore a star at the same time, but really making it sing with the experience of a man who’s spent much of his adult life getting his buzz on. But there’s real pathos there too (O’Toole had suffered health problems in the 1970s, having his pancreas and part of his stomach removed, and nearly dying from a blood disorder), particularly in his fears of being found out as a phony—something that anyone who’s found success in any endeavor can identify with.
Initially, when offered an honorary Oscar in 2003, Peter O’Toole wrote the Academy a letter turning it down, telling them he was “still in the game, and might win the bugger outright.” He was eventually persuaded to accept it (watch his terrific speech below), but true to his intentions, found himself back in the Kodak Theater only three years later for Roger Michell‘s “Venus,” and while he was thwarted for the eighth time (Forest Whitaker won for “The Last King Of Scotland“), he couldn’t have found a better Academy swansong than with this role, that sums up so much of what made him special. Reuniting Michell with Hanif Kureshi, the writer of the similarly-themed “The Mother,” the film sees O’Toole play Maurice, an actor reduced to playing a grandfather in a TV soap who strikes up a curious, complicated relationship with the great-niece (Jodie Whittaker) of his best friend (Leslie Phillips). There’s a hamminess to the part that wouldn’t work if he was playing anything other than an elderly luvvie, but it feels firmly authentic here (his scenes with Phillips, and with Vanessa Redgrave as his ex-wife are particularly touching), while Whittaker, in her screen debut, provides a spark of youthful energy that O’Toole responds to; his depiction of a life-long lover given one last brush with a lust that he ultimately knows will never be reciprocated, is rather heartbreaking. And yet O’Toole also plays it with a light touch, once more displaying his gift for physical comedy in a way that belies his age—the scene where he accidentally interrupts Whittaker’s nude modelling class is low-brow, but pitch-perfectly played.
We can see that this might be a controversial choice—how could we deny a place for “The Lion In Winter” or “Becket” in favor of a film in which O’Toole’s indelible face never appeared? But it’s a mark of O’Toole’s performance that his brief supporting role in Pixar and Brad Bird‘s “Ratatouille” got calls for a ninth Oscar nomination from many critics, and it’s as great a voiceover turn as has ever been given by an actor. When he first saunters into the restaurant, O’Toole’s character, food writer Anton Ego, is a sinister, lanky villain, threatening Linguini with imminent critical evisceration, and O’Toole’s lugubrious tones couldn’t be a more perfect match. And yet, as it turns, the character is the emotional heart of the film, his mind changed by a Proustian flashback caused by rat Remy’s cooking, and O’Toole gets a killer monologue by the end, both skewering and justifying the art of criticism; a bold thing for a kids’ flick about talking rodents. And what’s more, O’Toole delivers it like it was a Shakespearean soliloquy, bestowing decades of experience and gravitas, and making that payoff truly sing. If you’re not sure about our pick on this one, just try and imagine how the film would have worked with anyone other than O’Toole voicing Ego.