Today is (perhaps) the birthday (1932) of Peter Seamus O’Toole, an Anglo-Irish stage and film actor. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and then began working in the theatre, gaining recognition as a Shakespearean actor at the Bristol Old Vic and with the English Stage Company, before making his film debut in 1959. He achieved international recognition playing T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for which he received his first Academy Award nomination. He received seven further Oscar nominations – for Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982) and Venus (2006) – and has the dubious honor of holding the record for the most Academy Award acting nominations without a win. He won four Golden Globes, a BAFTA and an Emmy, and was the recipient of a Honorary Academy Award in 2003 which the Academy doles out to clearly meritorious actors who have performed to great acclaim for decades, yet have never won an award – usually proving nothing more than that democracy rewards a certain kind of popularity over quality.
O’Toole was born in 1932. Some sources give his birthplace as Connemara in Ireland’s County Galway, while others say Leeds in the north of England. O’Toole himself was not certain of his birthplace or date, noting in his autobiography that, while he accepted 2 August as his birth date, he had a birth certificate from each country, with the Irish one giving a June 1932 birthdate. He grew up in the Hunslet industrial area of south Leeds, son of Constance Jane Eliot (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph “Spats” O’Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player, and racecourse bookie. When O’Toole was one year old, his family began a five-year tour of major racecourse towns in Northern England.
O’Toole was evacuated from Leeds early in World War II and went to a Catholic school for seven or eight years, St Joseph’s Secondary School at Joseph Street, Hunslet, where he was “implored” to become right-handed. “I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood – the black dresses and the shaving of the hair – was so horrible, so terrifying,” he later commented. “Of course, that’s all been stopped. They’re sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day.”
Upon leaving school O’Toole worked as a trainee journalist and photographer on the Yorkshire Evening Post, until he was called up for national service as a signaler in the Royal Navy. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) from 1952 to 1954 on a scholarship after being rejected by the Abbey Theatre’s drama school in Dublin by the director Ernest Blythe, because he couldn’t speak the Irish language. At RADA, he was in the same class as Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. O’Toole described this as “the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren’t reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty.”
O’Toole began working in the theater, gaining recognition as a Shakespearean actor at the Bristol Old Vic and with the English Stage Company, before making his television debut in 1954. He first appeared on film in 1959 in a minor role in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England. O’Toole’s major break came when he was chosen to play T. E. Lawrence in Sir David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), after Marlon Brando proved unavailable and Albert Finney turned down the role. His performance was ranked number one in Premiere magazine’s list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time. The role introduced him to US audiences and earned him the first of his eight nominations for the Academy Award for Best Actor. T. E. Lawrence, portrayed by O’Toole, was selected in 2003 as the tenth-greatest hero in cinema history by the American Film Institute.
I first saw Lawrence of Arabia as an 11-year old when it first came out (in a cinema in Adelaide). Can’t say I understood much of it then, but I have since seen it many times and enjoy it immensely despite the fact that there is scarcely an Arab actor to be seen, Lawrence’s family have deeply objected to the film’s portrayal of him, and many historical and cultural depictions are plain wrong. As ever – read the book (although I recommend not believing Lawrence in total either). The fact is that it is a magnificent film, and, in many ways, O’Toole makes it what it is. Call it semi-fictional if you will, but its lampooning of British colonial values is, in my humble opinion, quite masterful, and O’Toole is brilliant. O’Toole as Lawrence is one of the classic icons of the 20th century.
Thence he went on to a lifetime in film and on stage, many of his performances memorable, but none matching Lawrence.
Richard Burton said of Peter O’Toole:
He looked like a beautiful, emaciated secretary bird… his voice had a crack like a whip… most important of all, you couldn’t take your eyes off him… acting is usually regarded as a craft and I claim it to be nothing more except in the hands of the odd few men and women who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate it into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing. I believe Peter O’Toole to have this strange quality.
In 1959, he married Welsh actress Siân Phillips, with whom he had two daughters: actress Kate and Patricia. They were divorced in 1979. Phillips later said in two autobiographies that O’Toole had subjected her to mental cruelty, largely fuelled by drinking, and was subject to bouts of extreme jealousy when she finally left him for a younger lover. O’Toole and his girlfriend, model Karen Brown, had a son, Lorcan Patrick O’Toole (born 17 March 1983), when O’Toole was fifty years old. Lorcan, now an actor, was a pupil at Harrow School, boarding at West Acre from 1996.
Severe illness almost ended O’Toole’s life in the late 1970s. His stomach cancer was misdiagnosed as resulting from his alcoholic excess. O’Toole underwent surgery in 1976 to have his pancreas and a large portion of his stomach removed, which resulted in insulin-dependent diabetes, but caused him to stop drinking. In 1978, he nearly died from a blood disorder. He eventually recovered, however, and returned to work. He lived on the Sky Road, just outside Clifden in Connemara from 1963, and at the height of his career maintained homes in Dublin, London and Paris (at the Ritz, which was where his character supposedly lived in the film How to Steal a Million). Finally, he made his home solely in London for professional reasons. He was reportedly offered a knighthood in 1987, but turned it down for personal and political reasons.
In an interview with National Public Radio in December 2006, O’Toole revealed that he knew all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. A self-described romantic, O’Toole regarded the sonnets as among the finest collection of English poems, reading them daily. In Venus, he recites Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”). O’Toole wrote two memoirs. Loitering With Intent: The Child chronicles his childhood in the years leading up to World War II and was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992. His second, Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice, is about his years spent training with a cadre of friends at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
O’Toole was interviewed at least three times by Charlie Rose on his eponymous talk show. In a 17 January 2007 interview, O’Toole stated that British actor Eric Porter had most influenced him, adding that the difference between actors of yesterday and today is that actors of his generation were trained for “theatre, theatre, theatre”. He also believes that the challenge for the actor is “to use his imagination to link to his emotion” and that “good parts make good actors”. However, in other venues (including the DVD commentary for Becket), O’Toole credited Donald Wolfit as being his most important mentor. In an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (11 January 2007), O’Toole stated that the actor he most enjoyed working with was Katharine Hepburn; he played Henry II to her Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.
Here’s a typical interview clip with Johnny Carson:
Although he lost faith in organized religion as a teenager, O’Toole expressed positive sentiments regarding the life of Jesus Christ. In an interview for The New York Times, he said “No one can take Jesus away from me…there’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.” He called himself “a retired Christian” who prefers “an education and reading and facts” to faith.
O’Toole died on 14 December 2013 at Wellington Hospital, London, aged 81. His funeral was held at Golders Green Crematorium in London on 21 December 2013, where he was cremated in a wicker coffin.
I gave you a recipe for Bedouin lamb and rice here in honor of Lawrence https://www.bookofdaystales.com/lawrence-of-arabia/ I’ve also given you many Irish recipes including, of course, Irish stew. So here’s a dish from O’Toole’s home town: Connemara chicken. I have no idea of its provenance, but it’s a great dish.
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
4 strips streaky bacon
1 yellow onion, minced
1 cup button mushrooms
½ cup Irish whisky
1 tbsp fresh rosemary, chopped fine
1 tsp dried oregano
¾ cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
Heat a heavy iron skillet over medium high heat and then add the bacon strips. Cook until they are really crisp, turning often. Remove, pat off the grease with paper towels, and crumble. Set aside.
Sauté the chicken breasts until they are lightly browned on both sides. Remove and set aside.
Add a little butter to the skillet if there is too little fat left. Add the onions and mushrooms and sauté until softened.
Turn the heat to high, add the whisky, and let it reduce for a few minutes. Lower the heat to medium and add the cream, rosemary, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer.
Add back the chicken and bacon and simmer for about 10 minutes so that the sauce reduces somewhat. Be careful not to overcook the chicken.
Serve with boiled, buttered new potatoes.