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R.I.P. Peter O'Toole, Star of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Photo of Paula Bernstein By Paula Bernstein | Indiewire December 15, 2013 at 4:43PM

Peter O'Toole, star of "Lawrence of Arabia" died Saturday at age 81.
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Peter O'Toole as Maurice in "Venus." Photo credit: Nicola Dove

One of the best known and most widely respected actors of his generation, who achieved superstar status after his Academy Award-nominated performance in the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia," Peter O'Toole died in London on Saturday at age 81.

"His family are very appreciative and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed towards him, and to us, during this unhappy time," his daughter Katherine O'Toole said in a statement on Sunday. "Thank you all, from the bottom of our hearts."

O'Toole's leading man good looks and commanding screen (and stage) presence captivated audiences and earned him eight Academy Award nominations, but no wins.

With the 2006 film "Venus," O’Toole eclipsed Richard Burton by becoming the most nominated actor never to win a competitive Oscar, according to Variety. When the Academy announced plans to give O'Toole an Honorary Oscar in 2002, he declined, writing that he was "still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honour until I am 80." He accepted the award the following year.

After "Lawrence of Arabia," O'Toole went on to play King Henry II twice, first opposite Richard Burton in "Becket" in 1964 and then alongside Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter" in 1968. Both performances earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor. He earned two more for his roles in "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" in 1970 and "The Ruling Class" in 1973 and later, for "The Stunt Man" (1980) and "My Favorite Year." (1982)

Burton called O'Toole " the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war," with “something odd, mystical and deeply disturbing” in his work, according to The New York Times.

"Lawrence of Arabia."
"Lawrence of Arabia."

Though some critics dubbed him "the next Laurene Olivier," O'Toole suffered through a number of career setbacks and soon became better known for his carousing and drinking -- alongside friends such as Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Francis Bacon and Peter Finch. The New York Times reported that O'Toole lost much of the money he earned on "Lawrence of Arabia" during two nights out with Omar Sharif at casinos in Beirut and Casablanca. He eventually gave up drinking.

Born in Ireland and raised in England as the son of a bookmaker, O'Toole told writer Gay Talese in an interview published in Esquire, "When my father would come home from the track after a good day, the whole room would light up; it was fairyland. But when he lost, it was black. In our house, it was always a wake ... or a wedding."

After leaving school at age 13, O'Toole took on a variety of jobs including a copy boy, a messenger and as a reporter. After a couple of roles in local productions and military service, O'Toole happened into a conversation with Sir Kenneth Barnes, a principal of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, who suggested that he apply. He was accepted on a full scholarship and became a theater student, alongside classmates Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford.

After his 1955 graduation, O'Toole joined the Bristol Old Vic, where he performed for three and a half years before joining the Royal Shakespeare Company. His performances there attracted critical attention and the notice of David Lean, who was looking to cast the lead in his upcoming epic, "Lawrence of Arabia." After Marlon Brando turned down the role, O'Toole won the plum part, which became the role he was most closely associated with for the rest of his life.

O'Toole worked steadily throughout his life until his death -- including memorable film roles in "What's New Pussycat?" "King Ralph" and "The Last Emperor" and parts in TV movies and miniseries such as "Masada" and “Heaven and Hell: North & South, Book III," and "Hitler: The Rise of Evil." He lent his voice to the animated "Ratatouille" and played Pope Paul III in Showtime's "The Tudors." 

In 1999, he won an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Miniseries or a Movie for "Joan of Arc."

In 2000, he was honored with the Outstanding Achievement citation at the Laurence Olivier Awards in London.

In July 2012, O'Toole announced his retirement from acting, saying: “It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back." He clearly had second thoughts about his decision because then accepted roles in two films, "Katherine of Alexandria" and "Mary," neither of which has been released yet.

Fans, actors and directors paid tribute to O'Toole on Twitter. Neil Patrick Harris posted, "So sad to hear about Peter O'Toole passing away. Lucky to have worked with him for a month in Prague. Wonderful man, remarkable talent."

Jennifer Tilly remembered, "Peter O'Toole taught me if I didn't have lines in a scene, I should try to edge out of frame so I could be in my trailer during close-ups!"

Stephen Fry, who directed O’Toole in "Bright Young Things" in 2003, wrote: “Oh what terrible news. Farewell Peter O'Toole. I had the honor of directing him in a scene. Monster, scholar, lover of life, genius …"

This article is related to: Peter O'Toole, Peter O'Toole, News, Obituary, Obituaries