They don't make them like O'Toole any more
Peter O’Toole, who has died at 81, was a mercurial, hell-raising actor who captured and lampooned the break-up of the English ruling classes. He was fiercely proud of his Irish roots, sharing Oscar Wilde’s uncanny grasp of the English characters he made his own.
He refused to kow-tow to the status-quo on the stage, in the cinema or in politics. He opposed both the Korean and Vietnam wars and turned down the offer of a knighthood in 1987.
O’Toole shot to cinema fame in the early 1960s, thanks to his brilliant performance as the enigmatic British officer who breaks from his own side to take a leading role in the Arab rebellion against the Turks – in one of the best-known films of all time, Lawrence of Arabia.
Born in Connemara, County Galway, the son of a Scots nurse and an itinerant Irish bookmaker, O’Toole was to describe himself as “not working class, but criminal class”.
Leaving school at 13 he began work in a variety of trades. Then he became an unsuccessful reporter for the Yorkshire Evening News. After completing military service in the Royal Navy, he was inspired by Michael Redgrave’s performance of King Lear to train as an actor. He won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
His close friends and colleagues included Welshman Richard Burton, Irishman Richard Harris and other actors who transformed the British stage during the 1950s. O’Toole said that they “heralded the 1960s... We did in public what everyone else did in private then, and does for show now”.
And, as the new realism of the British New Wave transformed the theatre and cinema, O’Toole played – and simultaneously subverted – the archetypal ruling class character.
His role as TE Lawrence, in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia, was the perfect vehicle for the 29-year-old actor. His performance, enhanced by astonishing camera-work plus the presence of acting icons like Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Anthony Quinn, caught the imagination of a global audience.
The film’s ambiguous political message haunted an entire generation, mesmerised by O’Toole’s laid-back but thrilling performance, his lanky height, light blue eyes and blonde hair, combined with an exotic sheikh headdress. Through Lawrence’s mysterious persona, O’Toole projected an unforgettable gender-bending charm. So much so that Noel Coward said the movie might have been called “Florence of Arabia”.
The film’s enormous success reflected the anti-authoritarian mood of a post-war generation that rejected the domination of the upper class ruling elite.
His languid manner belied the stress of the two-year shoot in seven countries, during which O’Toole lost two stone, suffered burns, sprained ankles, torn ligaments and concussions. He lived in a Bedouin tent, learned Arabic and how to ride a camel. His approach blended “magic with sweat”, he later wrote.
In 1964 he starred with Richard Burton in Jean Anouilh’s Becket, the story of a Norman King who falls out with his closest confidant. It is a superb portrayal of tortured personal loyalties against the background of political and religious intrigue. Like Anouilh, O’Toole sought to show the contradictions of human reality.
In Peter Medak’s utterly surreal 1972 film The Ruling Class, O’Toole played the paranoid schizophrenic son of a decadent judge in an anarchic send-up of the English aristocracy and its hangers-on.
O’Toole’s legendary hard-drinking wrought havoc to his health and personal life. But in the 1980s he went on to make amazing comebacks, including the film Venus in 2006. He defended Venus co-star Vanessa Redgrave from political attacks, saying he shared her “loathing of injustice”.
Richard Burton remarked that O’Toole looked like a beautiful, emaciated secretary bird – “you couldn’t take your eyes off him” – and that he elevated acting into “something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing”.
Through his fearless if sometimes erratic performances on and off screen, he gave voice to a dramatically-changing world in which people sought to shake off class-bound authority. Do they make them like that any more in Britain? Russell Brand springs to mind. But his is a lonely, if powerful, voice in a sea of conformity that O’Toole would be ashamed of!
A World to Win secretary
16 December 2013