Born Peter Seamus Lorcan O’Toole in Connemara, Galway County, Ireland on August 2, 1932, he was the son of a nurse and a professional gambler, and was raised in Leeds, England most of his life. O’Toole spent 7 or 8 years at a Catholic school where he was often beaten for not being left-handed or on one occasion, because he drew a picture of a horse urinating which the nuns found offensive. He was forcibly expelled when he was 13. Early in his life, he was a messenger, journalist-in-training and a photographer before he was conscripted into the British Royal Navy. It was while serving as a radio signaler that he decided to try to be a poet or an actor. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art along with classmates, Richard Harris, Peter Finch, and Albert Finney.
It was there that he met and married Welsh actress, Sian Phillips, in 1959. They had two daughters: Kate and Patricia. Sian appeared with Peter in two films, but is best known for her role as Livia in the TV miniseries, I, Claudius.
Peter worked as a stage actor primarily in Shakespearean productions until he was chosen in 1962 by David Lean for the part of T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. Taking over two years to film on location, it is a classic. According to Premiere magazine’s list of “100 Greatest Performances of All Time”, his performance is ranked number one. But Mr. O’Toole would not have agreed. He preferred his performance as Petruchio in “The Merchant of Venice”. In fact, he preferred Shakespeare overall. Nevertheless, the role catapulted him to international fame, and was quickly followed by numerous others including Lord Jim, Becket, The Lion in Winter, and many more.
Nominated for the Best Actor Oscar 8 times, he holds the dubious record for the most nominations without winning . He was also nominated for playing the same person more than once in different films: the Saxon king, Henry II. Peter O’Toole was finally presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003 when he quipped, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride!”
O’Toole’s life was marked by gambling and alcoholism. He remarked in one of his interviews with Charlie Rose that “he and Omar (Sharif) lost nine months pay in one day gambling in Marrakesh after filming Lawrence of Arabia!” His career reached its’ zenith in the early 1970s, but by the end of that decade, he nearly died from a digestive disorder exacerbated by his alcoholism. During this same period, his wife left him for a younger man, his father died, and so did his dog. These events were followed by some poor career choices. He faltered in front of audiences as “Macbeth” and took a regrettable part in Caligula in 1980. Panned by critics and viewers alike, O’Toole seemed to be losing his step.
But he wasn’t. Instead of continuing downhill, O’Toole moved in with his two teenage daughters. Firmly planted with them, he emerged as a chain-smoking teetotaler. His next role (bringing him his sixth Oscar nomination) was in The Stunt Man. This black comedy was followed by My Favorite Year. Having regained his professional footing, he began a relationship in his fifties with American model Karen Brown with whom he had a son, whom he named Lorcan. Lorcan means “fierce” in Scottish and although one might consider O’Toole quirky and whimsical before fierce, he took many stands in his life which are noteworthy.
In the 1950s he actively protested the British involvement in the Korean War and continued in that vein during the Vietnam War. He allegedly turned down a knightship for personal and political reasons. He remarked in an interview that “one is considered British when honored and Irish when drunk”.
Through the 1990s, O’Toole continued primarily onstage in London where he played in “Man and Superman”, “Pygmalion”, and “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell” to rave reviews. He also spent time writing his memoirs. The first, Loitering With Intent: The Child was released in 1992 and was a New York Times Notable Book. The second, Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice was about his year training to be an actor, and the third, Loitering With Intent: The Actor, will be published posthumously. O’Toole promised his readers that this last book would contain “the meat” of his life.
Peter O’Toole is survived by his actress ex-wife, Sian Phillips, and three children: Kate, an actress in her own right, and her sister, Patricia, from that union, and Lorcan Patrick O’Toole, also an actor. A private family gathering has been planned for next Saturday in Clifden, County Galway, Ireland. Peter O’Toole will be remembered for not only his skill as an actor and writer, but his optimistic effervescence and overall good humor. He once said, “I don’t miss booze. I still cause mayhem. I’ll always love to frolic, but now I can remember what I’ve done.” May we remember him as the superlative man that he was.
Friday, May 22, 2015, Watertown, NY