O’Toole died this weekend at 81 and it was too soon. 81 is not long enough, not today. And especially not long enough for a particularly gifted actor who received his 8th Academy Award nomination at the age of 73 (Venus). Sadly, the Academy took O’Toole for granted because they continued to nominate him for his electric performances but never gave him a statuette until he finally accepted an honorary Oscar.
It would be a crying shame if more people did not remember Peter O’Toole because he was one of a kind. A presence on screen that was absolutely unique for his ability to light up the screen like the great movie stars, but deliver powerful nuanced performances that had you hang on every word like only the finest stage actors can.
A snippet of his eclectic filmography is illustrative.
He was a virtual unknown when David Lean cast him as T.E. Lawrence in the classic “Lawrence of Arabia”. It was a gamble, but O’Toole delivered a performance up to the film’s epic power.
In 1965 he shared the screen with a demented Peter Sellers in “What’s New Pussycat” playing a comically obsessed lothario as written by Woody Allen in Allen’s first screenplay.
In 1972 he played an insane English royal who believes himself to be Jesus Christ in “The Ruling Class”
in 1968 at the age of 36 he played a 52 year old Henry II opposite Katherine Hepburn’s Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter”
In 1982 he played an aging, alcoholic swashbuckling movie star scared to death to do a live TV performance in “My Favorite Year”
O’Toole did high drama, low comedy, romantic leads and character turns. And through it all his personality and intensity came through.He could go toe to toe in intensity with Katherine Hepburn or Richard Burton or trade bon mots in light comedy with the likes of Audrey Hepburn. Great films or bad films you watched O’Toole, whatever he did because he made it interesting, personal, vital and impossible to look away.
As Kenneth Turan wrote in his remembrance:
In thinking back over O’Toole’s career, I kept coming back to a line from “My Favorite Year,” when the desperate Swann insists, “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star.” Peter O’Toole was magnificently both, and he proved it time and time again.