The wayward genius of Peter O’Toole

Editor’s Note: Richard Fitzwilliams is a film critic, royal commentator and public relations consultant. He was editor of “The International Who’s Who” from 1975 to 2001. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Story highlights

Irish-born screen and stage actor Peter O'Toole died Sunday at the age of 81

O'Toole was best known for his title role in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia"

Richard Fitzwilliams says O'Toole led a life that was rich in drama and eccentricity

The talented actor's hellraising lifestyle limited his success, Fitzwilliams says

CNN  — 

The Irish born actor Peter O’Toole, who has died aged 81, led a life that was rich in drama and eccentricity.

He was nominated for an Oscar a record eight times and never won. The sheer bloodymindedness with which he then rejected an honorary Academy Award in 2003 was characteristic of a man who juggled triumph and disaster with panache.

Richard Fitzwilliams

O’Toole wrote to the Academy: “I am still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright. Would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?”

He was persuaded to accept only when told that the likes of Paul Newman and Henry Fonda had subsequently won the real thing. When receiving the award from Meryl Streep at the ceremony he quipped: “Always the bridesmaid, never a bride my foot!”

It was the same unconventional streak that led to his refusal of a knighthood in 1987 and lent him a dangerous edge, which was also rather glamorous. He was a fantastic showman whose versatility was phenomenal.

Read more: ‘Giant of film and theater’ dies at 81

O’Toole will always be remembered for his brilliant, many-faceted depiction of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s classic 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia,” where he portrayed one of the most extraordinary human beings of the 20th century with amazing skill.

O’Toole’s physical beauty in the role, with his memorably penetrating blue eyes, was remarkable and created an indelible image forever associated with the actor.

This role was deeply complex as he conveyed Lawrence’s courage, vision and genius as well as the more disturbing aspects of his personality, his blood lust, sadomasochism and flamboyance.

His abilities here were also mirrored elsewhere in a career which reached dizzying heights, fell to desperate lows and which spanned over five decades.

In uniform Lawrence was comically ill at ease, and it remains ironic that O’Toole’s excellent performance as the ramrod stiff Guards officer in “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England” was pivotal in Lean’s choice of him for the role.

Robert Bolt’s superlatively succinct dialogue in “Lawrence” also contained much humor. O’Toole excelled in humorous roles in star vehicles such as “How to Steal a Million,” or playing a veteran actor who lusts after a friend’s young grandniece in “Venus,” his last Oscar-nominated film.

His performance as the gentle, much-loved schoolteacher Mr Chipping opposite Petula Clark in the musical version of “Goodbye Mr Chips” was a revelation, and he also showed sensitivity as the kindly royal tutor in “The Last Emperor.”

‘Worst Shakespeare production of century’

In “Lawrence of Arabia” the character of Lawrence suffers in an endless search for his identity and O’Toole used his expressive face in this and several other angst-ridden roles with varying effect.

He was unfairly criticized for his portrayal of the eponymous hero in “Lord Jim,” hammed it up somewhat as a psychopathic German officer in “Night of the Generals” and, as the tormented Henry II opposite Richard Burton in “Becket,” he was extremely moving in a superbly-cast film that received critical acclaim.

O’Toole also played Henry II in “The Lion in Winter,” the film adaptation of a lively play about the king’s dysfunctional marital life, which allowed him to carry off a rip-roaring role with zest opposite Katharine Hepburn.

Read more: Five of Peter O’Toole’s best

The role of Henry II saw him become one of only five performers to be nominated for an Oscar twice for playing the same character.

O’Toole also possessed a highly distinctive voice which could convey a great variety of moods with seemingly effortless skill.

He could, however, overact badly.

In “The Ruling Class” he played a mad aristocrat in a ridiculous role, though it too was Oscar nominated, and he was wasted as King Priam in the dreadful epic “Troy.” Playing Tiberius in Bob Guccione’s grotesque “Caligula” was no career highlight either.

But he had no shortage of success. His Oscar-nominated roles in “The Stunt Man” – where he admitted basing his portrayal of a martinet of a director on his experiences with David Lean making Lawrence – and in “My Favorite Year,” where he played an alcoholic actor past his prime, were very highly regarded.

Along with the others in the first night audience at the Old Vic I roared with shocked laughter at his “Macbeth” in 1980. The evening was a bizarre farce which was considered the worst Shakespeare production of the century.

It was on the same stage years later that he triumphed with his wondrously comic portrayal of the loveable but alcohol-soaked Soho writer in “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell,” which showed glorious comic timing. I particularly remember the roars of mirth when he carried off the celebrated “egg trick.”

Undoubtedly a hellraiser

O’Toole had a highly distinguished theatrical career that included a controversial uncut “Hamlet” directed by Olivier to launch the National Theatre Company in 1963 and a much praised Professor Higgins in “Pygmalion” in 1984.

He was also undoubtedly a hell-raiser in the same mold as Richard Burton and Richard Harris and stories about his heavy drinking were legendary.

Debonair in appearance – with his trademark cigarette holder – O’Toole had a zest for life that would have been difficult to surpass, a considerable fondness for women, and was also a fine raconteur, as I discovered on meeting him.

Despite advancing age, the standard of most of his performances remained high but undoubtedly had he chosen a more conventional lifestyle his achievements would have been even more substantial.

But it was in “Lawrence of Arabia” that O’Toole was at his greatest.

The film, regarded by many critics as one of the finest ever made, captured the essence of a legend and it was the highlight of the career of Peter O’Toole, a truly wayward genius.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Richard Fitzwilliams.