Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81, was not an actor’s actor. He did not gain or lose weight for film roles or contract pneumonia wearing a shabby period overcoat on and off the set. He could not maintain his accent off-screen because he never adopted one on-screen. He did not crave acceptance from his fellows. Nor did he care about critics. He saw himself as a “professional,” a plier of a trade rather than an arbiter of high artistic standards: “I’ll accept anything—a poetry reading, television, cinema, anything that allows me to act.” Acting for him was “my business,” “what I do for a living.”
Like his fellow lapsed Catholic Anthony Burgess, who alternated verse novels and Malay translations of Sophocles with scripts for failed musicals and straight-to-television biblical epics, O’Toole was totally unscrupulous about doing rubbish. Only two years after his triumph as Henry II in Beckett he played all three of the angels who visit Abraham after his circumcision in John Huston’s Italian-financed shlockfest The Bible: In the Beginning. In the 1980s he lurched from Man and Superman to Supergirl, in which he played Zaltar, an alien whose loss of the mystical Omegahedron gets the plot rolling. He would take any part: monarch or merchant seaman, incestuous aristocrat or virtuous soldier, megalomaniacal film director or undercover CIA man, friendless castaway or decadent Roman emperor.
He reserved his enthusiasm for women, Shakespeare (all of whose sonnets he committed to memory) 19th-century fiction (“George Eliot is my only steady girlfriend. We go to bed together every night”), rugby, and cricket and racing, good talk, booze, and unfiltered cigarettes smoked through his trademark holder. He was a louche prince with nothing but contempt for Hollywood philistinism and a world-class contrarian (“I can’t stand light; I hate weather; my idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another”).
Nearly all the notices I have read of his death begin with some variation on the theme that he was “the greatest actor of his generation.” This is a fudge from obituarists unsure what to make of the old rogue, who took acting both more and less seriously than any of his contemporaries. His was an anti-naturalistic, highly mannered approach completely out of keeping with the method acting rubbish that was beginning to catch on, especially in America. O’Toole was at heart a 19th or even a 16th-century actor. I for one like to imagine him living quite comfortably 400 years ago, wearing a glazed linen doublet and emerald hose and blowing smoke rings out of a long, intricately carved pipe, having a good long run as Hotspur at the Globe by day, philandering and tossing back endless cups of sack by night.
O’Toole claimed not to know where he was born, or precisely when. His two birth certificates told him that it must have been in June or August of 1932, in either Connemara or Leeds. He decided to split the difference and credited the latter date and the former place. The son of a roving Irish bookmaker whose knuckles had been shattered by creditors, he called himself a product of the “criminal” rather than the “working” class. He was raised a Roman Catholic and served for many years at Mass, but abandoned the faith as a teenager. Throughout his life he referred to himself as a “retired Christian.”
After leaving school at 13 O’Toole spent several years doing a series of low-paying jobs. He lifted crates in a warehouse, played drums in a jazz combo, and sold vacuum cleaners door to door before being hired and fired at the Yorkshire Evening News, where an exasperated editor advised him to take up acting. He took this, rightly or wrongly, as an endorsement of his talent (already he had had some experience with amateur dramatics) and after spending his last shilling on a ticket to see Michael Redgrave as Lear, he spent one night in a field reeking of manure and bummed a ride to London the next day. He soon earned a scholarship to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
The classical training he received at the Royal Academy defined his work and later put him at odds with the Brandos and Redfords who confused their risible self-seriousness with genuine artistry. O’Toole emphasized the importance of the physical in his acting (“I use everything—toes, teeth, ears, everything”) but what really sticks, especially in the later years, is his voice. He always sounds so pleasantly pissed off. Hearing his effortless but clearly unnatural, gravelly yet mellifluous RP is like listening to Mozart’s final piano concerto arranged by Ornette Coleman or eating two tablespoons of honey after smoking a pack of Natural American Spirit periques. It is a shame that, unlike Jeremy Irons, whose satiny-smooth, slightly hammy Lolita is the only recording of a novel I have ever listened to in its entirety, O’Toole never broke into the audiobook market.
He will mostly likely be remembered for his stints in historical dramas, above all in Lawrence of Arabia. He shows us every side—reckless warrior and cunning diplomat, fountain of virility and masochistic homosexual—of the baffling eponymous hero in that film. Six feet tall, blue-eyed, and impossibly handsome, he made David Lean’s epic the masterpiece that it was immediately recognized as, and a steady stream of offers began flowing his way. Throughout the next half-century he did much memorable work in film and television and on the London stage. He propped up many a dud and did not quite succeed in propping up many more. He soared and bombed in Shakespeare and Shaw and O’Casey. He put virtually every other screen Wodehousean to shame playing Lord Emsworth in a 1995 television version of Heavy Weather and went mostly unseen, including by me, in Thomas Kinkade’s Home for Christmas (box office gross $41,724). My two favorite O’Toole performances are from late in his career: the title role in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (O’Toole had known the hard-drinking Spectator columnist, his exact contemporary, on and off for many years and even had a girlfriend stolen by him) and Maurice, an aging O’Toole-like English actor who falls hopelessly in love with a friend’s vulgar but beautiful niece, in Venus.
Much has been of the fact O’Toole never won an Academy Award, despite his having been nominated eight times. Why? He was competely indifferent to public honors (though he claimed that he would have accepted a peerage). O’Toole tried to prevent the Academy from giving him an honorary Oscar in 2003, but when his protests proved unsuccesful, he made no fuss about the matter and accepted the award with a pro’s resigned grace. Aprops of this, and of his career in general, is a conversation recorded in Richard Burton’s Diaries:
“[A] couple of boys from the BBC were over today to record my voice and they told me you’ve had a bit of a stick from the critics.” “Yes.” “How are the houses?” I asked. “Packed.” “Then remember this my boy,” I said (he is 4 years younger), “you are the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war and f--- the critics.”
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