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Obituary: Peter O'Toole

Peter O'Toole in Venus

Obituary by Jack Foley

SCREEN legend Peter O’Toole has died at the age of 81, his agent has said.

The actor passed away on Saturday, December 14, 2013, at London’s Wellington hospital, where he had been treated for a long illness.

An acting great, O’Toole will be most fondly remembered for his iconic portrayal of TE Lawrence in Sir David Lean’s 1962 film classic Lawrence of Arabia. But his other memorable roles extended to Becket, The Lion In Winter, Goodbye, Mr Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favourite Year and Venus (pictured), all of which landed him Oscar nominations.

In all, O’Toole was nominated eight times for best actor in a leading role, but never won – making him the most-nominated actor never to win the award.

He did receive an honorary Oscar in 2003, having initially turned it down by letter, in which he asked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to delay it until he was 80, saying he was “still in the game and might win the bugger outright”.

Born Peter Seamus O’Toole in 1932, the man himself was not certain of his birthplace or date, noting in his autobiography that while he accepted August 2 as his birth date, he had a birth certificate from each countryboth Ireland and England (citing Leeds), with the Irish one giving a June 1932 birthdate.

He was the son of Constance Jane Eliot (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph O’Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player and race course bookmaker.

Upon leaving education, O’Toole started to find work as a trainee reporter and photographer on the Yorkshire Evening Post, until he was called up for national service as a signaller in the Royal Navy.

But upon completing that, he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and spent two years studying his biggest passion, acting, alongside the likes of Albert Finney and Alan Bates, in what O’Toole would later describe as “the most remarkable class the academy ever had”.

After learning his craft, however, O’Toole began to find roles in the theatre, gaining recognition as a Shakespearean actor at the Bristol Old Vic and with the English Stage Company.

He made his TV debut in 1954 but had to wait until 1959 to make the leap to the big screen, when he secured a bit- part in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.

Three years later, however, he landed the role that would transform his life: T. E. Lawrence. The film’s director, David Lean, only turned to O’Toole after both Marlon Brando became unavailable and Albert Finney turned it down. But he seized the opportunity with both hands, landing an Oscar nomination in the process, and putting to screen one of the great film performances of all-time.

Thereafter, he continued to underline his reputation as one of cinema’s true outstanding talents. He remains one of only a handful of actors to be Oscar-nominated for playing the same role in two different films, playing King Henry II in both 1964’s Becket and 1968’s The Lion in Winter.

And his passion for Shakespeare saw him play Hamlet under Laurence Olivier’s direction in the premiere production of the Royal National Theatre in 1963.

Further career highlights included starring alongside Peter Sellers in the Woody Allen scripted comedy What’s New Pussycat? and his performance in Waiting for Godot alongside Donal McCann at the Irish capital’s Abbey Theatre – a role that enabled him to fulfil a lifetime ambition.

And that’s not forgetting his famed starring role in Keith Waterhouse’s stage play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

Outside of work, O’Toole also had something of a reputation as a hell-raiser, with his love of drinking garnering many headlines, especially when put together with fellow actor Richard Burton.

But in the mid-‘70s he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and was warned by medics that more alcohol would prove fatal, prompting him to give up drinking and to declare: “If you can’t do something willingly and joyfully, then don’t do it.”

In more recent years, O’Toole won an Emmy Award for his role in the 1999 mini-series Joan of Arc and secured his final Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Maurice in the 2006 film Venus, directed by Roger Michell.

He also won widespread acclaim for his portrayal of King Priam in the summer blockbuster Troy alongside Brad Pitt and for his vocal performance in the Pixar animated film Ratatouille, in which he played Anton Ego, a food critic.

Last July, after a career spanning 50 years and at the age of 79, O’Toole said he was retiring from the stage and screen, saying: “I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell. The heart for it has gone out of me. It won’t come back.”

However, reports emerged last month that he was being lined up for a role as a Roman orator in Katherine of Alexandria, a film scheduled for release next year.

Tributes

British Prime Mininster David Cameron was among those to pay tribute to O’Toole, saying: ““My thoughts are with Peter O’Toole’s family and friends. His performance in my favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, was stunning.”

O’Toole’s daughter, Kate, said the family was overwhelmed “by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed towards him, and to us”.

While O’Toole’s agent said he was “one of a kind in the very best sense and a giant in his field”.