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Dreamy misfit who loved ‘bravura acting’

Dec. 16: Peter O’Toole, an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak whose performance in the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia earned him overnight fame and established him as one of his generation’s most charismatic actors, died on Saturday in London. He was 81.

His daughter Kate O’Toole said in a statement that he had been ill for some time.

Blond, blue-eyed and well over six feet tall, O’Toole had the dashing good looks and high spirits befitting a leading man — and he did not disappoint in Lawrence, David Lean’s wide-screen, almost-four-hour homage to T. E. Lawrence, the daring British soldier and adventurer who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks in West Asia in World War I.

The performance brought O’Toole the first of eight Academy Award nominations, a flood of film offers and a string of artistic successes in the ’60s and early ’70s. In the theatre — he was a classically trained actor — he played an anguished, angular tramp in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and a memorably battered title character in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

In film, he twice played a robust King Henry II: first opposite Richard Burton in Becket (1964), then with Katharine Hepburn as his queen in The Lion in Winter (1968). Both earned Oscar nominations for best actor, as did his repressed, decaying schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1970 and the crazed 14th Earl of Gurney in The Ruling Class in 1973.

Less successful was his Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, Arthur Hiller’s 1972 adaptation of the Broadway musical, but it emphasised that his specialty was increasingly becoming the outsider or misfit: dreamy, romantic, turbulent, damaged, or even mad, but usually larger than life.

O’Toole threw himself wholeheartedly into what he called “bravura acting”, courting and sometimes deserving the accusation that he became over-theatrical, mannered, even hammy. His lanky, loose-jointed build; his eyes; his long, lantern-jawed face; his oddly languorous sexual charm; and the eccentric loops and whoops of his voice tended to reinforce the impression of power and extravagance.

Burton called him “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war”, with “something odd, mystical and deeply disturbing” in his work.

Some critics called him the next Laurence Olivier. As a young actor, O’Toole displayed an authority that the critic Kenneth Tynan said “may presage greatness”. In 1958, the director Peter Hall called O’Toole’s Hamlet in a London production “electrifying” and “unendurably exciting” — a display of “animal magnetism and danger which proclaimed the real thing”.

He showed those strengths somewhat erratically, however; for all his accolades and his box-office success, there was a lingering note of unfulfilled promise in O’Toole.

It was no surprise when Olivier chose O’Toole to inaugurate Britain’s National Theatre Company in 1963 with a reprise of his Hamlet. But the first night left most critics unmoved and unexcited and the actor himself lamenting “the most humbling, humiliating experience of my life”.

“As it went on,” he said, “I suddenly knew it wasn’t going to be any good.”

A production in 1965 of David Mercer’s Ride a Cock Horse, in which he played an adulterous alcoholic, was booed at its London opening.

In the movies, he continued to be a marquee name, though he drew only mixed reviews for a subsequent run of performances: as the cowardly naval officer seeking redemption in Lord Jim, Richard Brooks’s 1965 adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel; as a playboy in What’s New, Pussycat?, a 1965 comedy with Peter Sellers that was written by a young Woody Allen; and as the Three Angels in The Bible: In the Beginning, John Huston’s 1966 recreation of Genesis. And his sadistic Nazi general in Anatole Litvak’s Night of the Generals(1967) was panned outright.

His carousing became legend, particularly in the 1970s. As he himself said, he had long been “happy to grasp the hand of misfortune, dissipation, riotous living and violence”, counting Burton, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Francis Bacon, Trevor Howard, Laurence Harvey and Peter Finch among his drinking companions. He lost much of his Lawrence earnings in two nights with Omar Sharif at casinos in Beirut and Casablanca.

Though he won many lesser awards during his career, triumph at the Academy Awards eluded him, perhaps in part because he had made no secret of his dislike of Hollywood and naturalistic acting, which he considered drab.

He was nothing if not ambitious, but success would come on his own terms, not the movie industry’s. He had made that plain at 18, when an acting career was already in his mind. In his notebook he made a promise to himself: “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.”

Peter Seamus (some sources say Seamus Peter) O’Toole was born on August 2, 1932, in the Connemara region of the West of Ireland, the son of Constance, a Scotswoman who had been a nurse, and Patrick, an itinerant Irish bookmaker whose dandified dress and manner earned him the nicknames Spats and Captain Pat.

O’Toole liked to tell interviewers that his background was “not working class but criminal class”. The father was left with a bad right hand after all its knuckles were systematically broken, presumably by creditors.

When Peter was a baby, the family moved to England and settled in a tiny house on a black-cobbled street in an impoverished section of industrial Leeds with a “reek of slag and soot and waste”, as he described it in an autobiography.

Peter was an altar boy at the local Roman Catholic church and displayed a gift for creative writing, but he left school at 13 and became a warehouseman, a messenger, a copy boy, a photographer’s assistant and, eventually, a reporter for The Yorkshire Evening News. A poor journalist by his own admission, he was fired by the editor with the words, “Try something else, be an actor, do anything.”

It was a constructive nudge. (He had already tried his hand at amateur dramatics.) After an obscure debut as a rum-swigging seafarer in a melodrama called Aloma of the South Seas, Leeds’s well-regarded Civic Theatre cast him in the lead role of Bazarov in an adaptation of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

Though military service intervened, his aspirations came to fruition quickly. At 20 and almost penniless, he went to Stratford to see Michael Redgrave as King Lear.

By his own account, he spent the night in a field filled with hay and manure, hitchhiked to London and ventured into the lobby of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There he chanced to fall into conversation with the principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes, who encouraged him to apply for an audition. He did, and received a full scholarship. Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford were among his fellow students.

After graduating in 1955 he was invited to join one of Britain’s premier repertory companies, the Bristol Old Vic. He performed with the troupe for three and a half years, and it was there that his Hamlet so impressed Hall. It brought O’Toole, at 27, national attention, and Hall induced him to join his newly founded Royal Shakespeare Company.

In Stratford his Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew and Shylock in The Merchant of Venice won critical acclaim and the admiration of Lean, who was casting his screen biography of Lawrence.

At six feet two, O’Toole was not an obvious choice for the role of a five-foot-four scholar-soldier, and the producer, Sam Spiegel, had found him bumptious in a meeting. But after Marlon Brando turned down the role, Lean lobbied for O’Toole and won the day.

His casting led to a mesmeric yet meticulous performance that brought world renown and an Oscar nomination to an actor whose only notable screen appearance to date had been as a priggish young officer in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England in 1960.

Whatever his later reputation as a roisterer, O’Toole was conscientious when it came to preparing for a role.

In the two-odd years it took to shoot Lawrence, he read all he could about the man, studied Bedouin culture, lived in a Bedouin tent, taught himself the essentials of Arabic and learned to ride a camel.

His acting method, he wrote in his autobiography, was a process that blended “magic” with “sweat”, a matter of allowing a text to flow into his mind and body until he fully inhabited the character — “that simple, that difficult”.

O’Toole admitted to being “a very physical actor”.

“I use everything — toes, teeth, ears, everything,” he said.

After his triumphs of the 1960s and early ’70s, he entered his most troubled period. His earlier binges had led to arrests for unruly behaviour; now they caused memory loss and debilitating hangovers. In 1975, he developed pancreatitis and had part of his intestines removed.

Then his much-loved father died, and Sian Phillips, whom O’Toole had married in 1959, left him for another man, explaining later that her relationship with an egoistic star had become too tempestuous and “too unequal”. Divorce followed in 1979.

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