Defining Role

Michael Korda on the Role That Defined Peter O’Toole’s Success

Like the man he famously played, Peter O’Toole, who died Sunday at 81, could never escape his great performance, says the writer of ‘Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia.’

I never met Peter O’Toole, but he one was of those rare actors whose success was defined by a single role. His incandescent performance in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is one that nobody who saw it will ever forget. He was brilliant, seductive, infuriating, and totally convincing, however many nits Lawrence scholars will always pick about O’Toole’s Lawrence versus the real one.

I suspect that the real one would have been quietly amused, as he was by Lowell Thomas’s flamboyant description of him as “The Prince of Mecca,” “the Uncrowned King of Arabia,” and ultimately “Lawrence of Arabia,” an identity T.E. Lawrence could never escape.

That is not to say O’Toole was not good at other things. He was superb as Henry II in The Lion in Winter, and very good in The Ruling Class. But ultimately he and Lawrence merged in the public mind into one figure, so much so that O’Toole’s screen performance as the ambivalent scholar-hero, the reluctant celebrity, and the self-accused sadomasochist affects everything written since then about the real man. Noel Coward’s quip, on seeing Lawrence of Arabia, that, “Peter O’Toole is so pretty they ought to have called the film Florence of Arabia,” was clever, but unjust. Pretty O’Toole was, but he was also a great actor, and brought off a sustained and perhaps unique four-hour performance of genius. Like poor Lawrence, he spent the rest of his life in the shadow of that great achievement, and unable to surpass it—it’s as if Olivier had been trapped in his role as Henry V for the rest of his life.

A pity, because O’Toole, besides looks, had acting genius, a great gift for comedy, and unfailing, perfect delivery of every line. I am sorry he has gone and that he never found a way to repeat the performance of a lifetime any more than “Colonel Lawrence”—another identifier TEL tried to escape—did.