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Movie icon Peter O’Toole dead at 81

Peter O'Toole in 'My Favorite Year,' for which he received one of his Oscar nominations.
Courtesy M-G-M

Irish actor and screen legend Peter O’Toole has died in London at the age of 81. The New York Times reports that O’Toole’s daughter says he had been ill for some time. A cause of death has not been released.

The son of an Irish bookmaker, O’Toole had originally contemplated a career as a journalist. He noticed theater though, and after he made his stage debut at the age of 17, his course was set. He made a few obscure British film and TV appearances, including John Guillerman’s “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England” (1960), but he still rated an “introducing” credit when he made his mark in David Lean’s epic and iconic “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962.

Seldom has had any actor made that sort of impression as a virtual unknown in a movie that size. O’Toole received the first of his eight Oscar nominations for that role, which also made him an international star. He did not work for Lean again, according to some reports because after the two year, often arduous location shoot for “Lawrence,” O’Toole was not keen to star in another grueling Lean epic and turned down “Dr. Zhivago” (the part was played by his “Lawrence” co-star, Omar Sharif).

Instead, O’Toole played Henry II in the movie version of the hit play “Becket,” with Richard Burton in the title role. The direction is primitive next to “Lawrence of Arabia” but it’s well worth the time for the performances. He played the same part again in 1968, in the vastly superior “The Lion in Winter,” opposite a marvelously cantankerous Katherine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitane. He was nominated for Oscars for both, and may be the only actor to be nominated for Oscars for playing the same historical figure in two separate movies.

O’Toole also received Oscar nominations for his performance in the movie musical version of “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,” and “The Ruling Class,” in which he played a psychotic English earl, who once cured of his delusion that he’s Christ becomes a serial killer.

His turn in the 1972 movie version of “Man of La Mancha” was less successful commercially and artistically, although it helped cement O’Toole’s growing cinematic image as an outsider. And he did get to work with Sophia Loren.

O’Toole’s carousing became legendary in itself, and it is more than possible that his bouts with the bottle cost him professionally. He did not, after all, win the coveted Oscar statuette despite the eight nominations (he did receive an honorary award in 2003). And it can be hardly be argued that every movie were worthy follow-ups to “Lawrence of Arabia” (although what movies could?). But there’s little excuse for “Supergirl” or “Caligula.”

In 1980 O’Toole starred Richard Rush’s superb “The Stunt Man,” in which he played a megalomaniac movie director opposite Steve Railsback’s quirky fugitive on the on the run blackmailed into standing in for a dead stunt man. In 1982 he brilliantly essayed the role of an aging, alcoholic movie star modeled on Errol Flynn who’s doing an a live TV guest shot to pay off the IRS. And he received Oscar nominations for both. In between he played a tormented Roman general in the TV miniseries “Masada,” for which he received an Emmy nomination.

O’Toole continued to work throughout, in inferior projects, and occasionally good ones, and there was no denying he was always good, even if the material wasn’t. He also continued to return to the stage, and on a personal note, this writer had the opportunity to see him on Broadway in the eighties in a revival of Shaw’s “Pygmalion” opposite Lionel Jeffries, Sir John Mills and the incomparable Amanda Plummer. In the second act, during which O’Toole’s Henry Higgins is interrupting a tea party, he stumbled into a sideboard, nearly knocking over the entire set. His co-stars appeared not to notice. To this day I have no idea whether this was part of the blocking or a genuine accident. Either way, someone was doing some seriously good acting.

O’Toole appeared as recently in 2008 as Pope Paul III in several episodes of “The Tudors,” and as an aging artist who befriends Jared Padalecki in the TV movie “Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.” He appeared in the still unreleased movies “The Whole World at Our Feet” with Armand Assante and “Katherine of Alexandria,” co-starring Nicole Keniheart, Joss Ackland and Steven Berkoff.

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