I first experienced the genius of Peter OToole when I was 13. I was in Pittsburgh, visiting family for Thanksgiving and had a horrendous tooth problem. As abscess or something. All I know was, I was in an immense amount of pain and it being a holiday, getting into a dentist was not likely, so my family took me to see My Favorite Year, I guess in the hopes that a comedy would take my mind off the pain. I don’t think it did much good, but I loved the film anyway and my admiration for O’Toole was born.
He was a striking man. After seeing David Lean’s 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia, in which O’Toole gained stardom (and his first of eight Academy Award nominations), Noël Coward famously remarked to O’Toole: “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.” It was those eyes…
Throughout the years I saw many of his films and read the first volume of his memoirs (Loitering With Intent: The Child) and must confess, I never got to the second (Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice). Both are now out of print, but one can hope that they will be reissued soon. It’s been suggested to me that I might also give Robert Sellers’ Hell Raisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed a look. I think I will, at that.
Even his “bad” films were fun. I’ll admit to being a bit of a sap, but I loved Creator, his 1985 comedy-drama in which he played a university biologist working on a clone of his dead wife, Lucy. He starred alongside Vincent Spano, Virginia Madsen, Mariel Hemingway and David Ogden Stiers, as well as some wonderful character actors, including Rance Howard, John Dehner, and Kenneth Tigar. By all rights it was t was a silly and rather sentimental film, but O’Toole elevated it to something more.
He had a certain twinkle in his eye that first attracted the attention of that mischievous 13 year-old boy in Pittsburgh. I knew he was out to cause some trouble and I wanted in. His character in My Favorite Year was a rapscallion hiding a deep layer of regret and sadness. In addition to the trouble he was causing, there was always something else, something hidden behind the eyes of T.E. Lawrence, Alan Swann, and Harry Wolper and as I grew older and saw Lawrence, How to Steal a Million, Venus and others, that sense of something living behind his eyes never went away. Like I said, it was those eyes.
Sticking to an ocular theme, a great performance often brings tears to the eyes for its truth and excellence. The emotion that comes off the stage or through the screen is palpable and moving and nothing does that like O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence.
It’s at times like this that I am glad there are still more of his performances that I haven’t seen. It gives me a lot to look forward too, along with the ones I will re-watch. The presentation of his honorary Oscar, given in 2003, four years before his 8th and final nomination, also moved me to tears. While he was awarded an honorary stature, he is still the most nominated actor to have never won an award for a performance. All of them in leading roles.
I loved Peter O’Toole. I guess I’ll say “love,” because after all, his wonderful work will stay with us. It’s just an absolute shame that save for his upcoming performance as Roman orator Cornelius Gallus in Michael Redwood’s Katherine of Alexandria, alongside Joss Ackland, Steven Berkhoff and Edward Fox, there’s no more to come.
They don’t make them like Peter O’Toole, anymore. An actor of stage and screen, an actor of craft and literacy, an artist who became his roles and acted for the love of the words he spoke. He will be missed.