Born August 2, 1932 in Connemara, County Galway, Ireland and raised in Leeds, England, Peter O’Toole was the son of a Scottish nurse and an Irish bookie. Originally intent on becoming a journalist, his interest turned to acting and by 17 he was already on stage. He made his screen debut in a minor role in the 1960 version of Kidnapped, but had major supporting roles in the same year’s The Day They Robbed the Bank of England and The Savage Innocents. It was his fourth film, however, that made him a star at the age of 32 when David Lean cast him in the title role of 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia for which he received the first of his eight Oscar nominations. He lost to Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.
His next role as Henry II in 1964’s Becket brought him his second Oscar nomination. He lost to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady.
The title role in the 1965 film of Joseph Conrad’s 1900 novel, Lord Jim and a dangerous Nazi in 1967’s The Night of the Generals were major hits as was the 1966 comedy How to Steal a Million opposite Audrey Hepburn, but it was his reprise of Henry II opposite Katharine Hepburn in 1968’s The Lion in Winter that would earn him his third Oscar nomination. He lost to Cliff Robertson in Charly.
Not known as a singer, O’Toole nevertheless came off extremely well talk-singing his way through the 1969 musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips for which he received his fourth Oscar nomination. He lost to John Wayne in True Grit.
O’Toole received excellent notices for 1971’s Murphy’s War, faltered a bit with 1972’s peculiar Under Milk Wood but came roaring back with the same year’s deft comedy, The Ruling Class. He was expected to top that with the year-end release of Man of La Mancha but when that film was almost universally panned, Oscar fell back on The Ruling Class for which he received his fifth Oscar nomination. He lost to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Spending the remainder of the 1970s in forgettable projects including the infamous 1979 version of Caligula, O’Toole emerged once again at the top of his game as the eccentric director in 1980’s The Stunt Man for which he was nominated yet again for an Oscar. He lost to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull.
He was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the epic 1981 mini-series Masala and returned to the big screen as a beloved matinee idol turned drunk in the comedy, My Favorite Year earning his seventh Oscar nomination. He lost to Ben Kingsley in Gandhi.
O’Toole spent most of the 1980s in TV roles and the occasional film, the highlight being 1987’s Best Picture Oscar winner, The Last Emperor in which he played a supporting role.
The 1990s provided more of the same and when it looked like his career was permanently on the downside, the Academy granted him an Honorary Oscar at the 2002 awards. O’Toole at first considered it an insult as he was still a working actor, but he was talked into attending the ceremony and graciously accepting his award.
O’Toole had one more shot at a competitive Oscar when he was nominated for the dry 2006 comedy, Venus. He lost to Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, breaking his own record as the performer most nominated for an Oscar without winning. Now at eight nominations and no wins, he’s in good company. Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr and Thelma Ritter are tied for second place with six nominations each.
Still in demand, but in less and less more prestigious films, O’Toole has decided to put an end to his still glorious career. He announced earlier this week that he is retiring from show business. The actor, who will be 80 on August 2nd, said in a statement on July 10th that “his career on stage and screen fulfilled him emotionally and financially and put him in the company of fine people.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), directed by David Lean
O’Toole’s portrayal of the flamboyant British military figure who led the Arabs against the Turks in World War I established the screen persona that would keep him busy for most of the next fifty years.
Lean’s film is visually and emotionally stunning and would be a classic no matter who had the lead role, but O’Toole’s enigmatic performance takes it beyond the scope of a mere blockbuster and into the realm of the unforgettable.
BECKET (1964), directed by Peter Glenville
O’Toole’s portrayal of the young Henry II opposite Richard Burton’s Thomas Becket was a tour-de-force for both Oscar nominated actors but the general consensus is that O’Toole’s wary king has the edge over Burton’s reluctant saint.
O’Toole is constantly fascinating whether sparring with Burton, his enemies, the church, his court or his family including Martita Hunt as his mother, Empress Matilda and Pamela Brown as his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
THE LION IN WINTER (1968), directed by Anthony Harvey
O’Toole reprised his role of Henry II opposite a formable Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine. The 36 year-old actor went toe to toe with the 61 year-old legend as the battling royals and both earned Oscar nominations for their efforts – O’Toole, his third and Hepburn, her eleventh and third win.
The two stars dominate the film, but supporting players Anthony Hopkins, John Castle, Nigel Terry, Timothy Dalton, Jane Merrow and Nigel Stock all provide strong supporting characterizations.
GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969), directed by Herbert Ross
Robert Donat’s great Oscar winning performance in the 1939 version of James Hilton’s classic is almost impossible to equal, but O’Toole manages to come close in this extended version updated by several decades to include events that occurred during World War II, receiving his fourth Oscar nomination for his efforts.
O’Toole has to do something that Donat didn’t – sing – inasmuch as this is a musical. Petula Clark, better known for her singing than her acting is merely competent reprising Greer Garson’s role as Mrs. Chipping. O’Toole then wife Sian Phillips is splendid as a musical comedy star.
THE RULING CLASS (1972), directed by Peter Medak
O’Toole’s comic genius was never given freer reign than in this wittily observant comedy that pokes fun at Britain’s upper classes and political institutions, earning his him fifth Oscar nomination.
O’Toole’s 14th Earl of Gurney is a raving lunatic who believes he is Jesus Christ because as he says, “I found that whenever I prayed to God, I was talking to myself.” Supported by some of Britain’s finest character actors including Alistair Sim, Coral Browne, Harry Andrews and Arthur Lowe. O’Toole cannily manages to upstage them all instead of the other way around.
PETER O’TOOLE AND OSCAR
- Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Nominated – Best Actor
- Becket (1964) Nominated – Best Actor
- The Lion in Winter (1968) Nominated – Best Actor
- Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) Nominated – Best Actor
- The Ruling Class (1972) Nominated – Best Actor
- The Stunt Man (1980) Nominated – Best Actor
- My Favorite Year (1962) Nominated – Best Actor
- Honorary Award (2002) – Oscar – For his remarkable talents which have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters..
- Venus (2006) Nominated – Best Actor