Larger Than Life

Spending a Day With Peter O’Toole

The actor who became a star overnight with ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ was unforgettable, even if you only met him once—ten years before his death Sunday at 81.

Robert Mora/Getty,Robert Mora

I met Peter O’Toole just once. We spent the better part of a day together in London about 10 years ago, when he had just learned Hollywood was going to give him an honorary Oscar. He’d been nominated seven times without winning, so it seemed like the least they could do.

Hearing Sunday that he had died made me more bereft than I might have imagined—after all, I only met him the one time. But the truth is, once was enough. Some people truly do seem larger than life, and when they’re gone, the world seems a little smaller, a little bleaker, and a lot less fun. In O’Toole’s case, just knowing he was alive and probably up to some mischief made me a happier man.

As Barbara Hershey, his costar in The Stunt Man, put it, “When you meet Peter O’Toole, he does not disappoint.” Before I met him, I wondered how that could be true. Most actors, when you meet them face to face, are anything but larger than life. They are, indeed, often quite ordinary people.

So I had my doubts about what Hershey said. Here, after all, was an actor who first laid claim on the public imagination in 1962 as the impossibly dashing Lawrence of Arabia. This was the man who found a way to be both swashbuckling and hilarious in My Favorite Year and held his own at scenery-chewing with no less than Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. In The Ruling Class, he convinced us that he was Christ—and Jack the Ripper. And off-screen and off-stage, he had engaged in enough drinking and carousing to keep tabloid editors happy for more than half a century. How could a mere man ever hope to live up to a legend that was even larger than larger than life?

Somehow O’Toole managed. By the time we met, time and age had whittled an inch or two off his 6-foot-3 frame. Otherwise, when he made his appearance on a bitter February day in London, striding into a hotel lobby like a performer finding his mark center stage, it was all there: the body still as lean as something fashioned out of knives, the impossibly handsome face still impossibly handsome, albeit weathered, like a piece of limestone from his native Connemara. When he opened his mouth, out came that familiar soft-spoken voice with the slightly jazzy cadence—dry ice with a backbeat. Fifty years ago, at the outset of Lawrence, that voice promised us that “it’s going to be fun.” You can’t help admiring a man who keeps his promises.

At the time, he was riding high on the announcement of his special Oscar. But O’Toole being the contrarian he was, there had been trouble even with the Oscar. The announcement had barely made the news when he made headlines of his own by declining the award. “[Since I’m] still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright,” he asked, “would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?” A couple of weeks later, he reversed himself, blaming the whole thing on “the barrier of a common language. I thought it was a polite inquiry: Would you be interested in receiving...” So, yes, he said, he was going. “With my children. They’re delighted.” And how did he feel about copping a prize he had admitted he’d wanted for 40 years? In a word, “Jolly. Enormous shock. I had no idea.” For the only time all day, he looked a little flustered.

Not for long. He took me to lunch at the Garrick Club, and he was in his element as soon as he walked through the door. Founded in 1831 as a club for theater people and other artistic types, the Garrick was O’Toole’s briar patch, a London men’s club with probably the world’s best collection of art devoted to the dramatic arts. And if O’Toole, a walking encyclopedia of matters theatrical, was your guide, then you were in for a working lunch. There, in the corner, was a portrait of the actress Ellen Terry. Over the mantelpiece, that was Henry Irving, the 19th-century actor-manager who was the first English actor to be knighted. O’Toole, alas, couldn’t be knighted—he was Irish by birth. “I wouldn’t mind being a lord, though,” he said with something of a sigh. In that regard, it is worth noting that the literary character he most resembled—but oddly never played—was Uncle Fred, aka Uncle Dynamite, a recurring P.G. Wodehouse septuagenarian who manages to teach young men a quarter of his age how to have fun, some of it legal, most of it not.

During our interview after lunch (he had the liver, I had…I can’t remember), O’Toole consumed innumerable unfiltered Gauloises, each carefully sleeved in a cigarette holder that became a wand, a sword, a scepter, depending on the point he was making. He wore his trademark green socks, and even now the memory is mint fresh of those long legs that kept getting tangled in a microphone cord like the tines of a fork wrapped in spaghetti. Two bottles of stout supplied the necessary lubrication, and there was frequent recourse to a box of licorice pastilles. With so many props going at once, it looked like life as stage business, Peter O’Toole playing Peter O’Toole. I wondered aloud whether he ever got tired of lugging around his reputation as the playboy of the Western world. “The damage has been done,” he said with a shrug. “There is a legend. There is a myth. And to protest is daft.”

So, while he’d rather have talked Shakespeare, he cheerfully supplied a story from the ’50s that involved him and the late Richard Harris searching for women and drunkenly knocking on a door in the middle of the night in London. It seems that when there was no answer, O’Toole scrambled up the drainpipe, knocked on the window, and gained entry. “But when I look back, there’s Harris still on the ground. He must not have had my experience with drainpipes growing up in Limerick.” When Harris did try to climb, he got about only four stories up before the drainpipe broke away from the wall, leaving him in midair. So O’Toole and his new female companions summoned the authorities. “When they’d got him down, I shouted from the window, ‘Officers, arrest that drunken Irishman. He was trying to break into our home!’”

The son of an Irish bookie, O’Toole made his professional debut at the Bristol Old Vic in 1955, playing the cabdriver in Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker. “I had one line: ‘What’s he want?’ I had slightly more to say in Uncle Vanya: ‘Dr. Astrov, the horses are here,’” he said. The groom in Vanya inspired the first of many eccentric O’Toole interpretations. “I decided he was Stalin. So on I came with the limp and the cropped hair. And I blew the line. I said, ‘Dr. Horses, the Astrovs are here.’” Many more eccentric interpretations would follow. Of his roundly panned version of Macbeth in 1980 at the Old Vic, a fellow actor observed, “You have to be brilliant to be that bad.”

By 1959, he’d won the London Theatre Critics’ award for best actor. By 1962, he was in Lawrence, one of the few movies ever to justify joining the words intelligent and epic in the same sentence. In the movie, T.E. Lawrence becomes a megalomaniac, a killer, and finally a mystery even to himself. A lot of us lost our innocence at that movie when we were kids. If you told O’Toole that Lawrence had haunted you all your life, he’d laugh: “My dear sir, it haunted me for the rest of my life.”

He’d been asked about Lawrence so many times that his response was practiced, almost scripted. It was his party piece. But it was a party piece you wouldn’t miss for the world:

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“We all knew at the time that we were doing something very unusual,” he said. Director “David Lean was at the peak of his power. Robert Bolt, historian turned playwright turned scriptwriter—no better man to look at an historical figure. Then the cast: Claude Rains, Jose Ferrer, Jack Hawkins, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quayle, Omar Sharif...I’m leaving people out. One does, because there were so many. And for a young actor, it was intimidating. But! You look into the eyes and you see—actors know actors. It’s like playing jazz. You really have to go there with your trumpet and compete. Then the circumstances: We were in the Arabian Desert for nine months. And I was having the time of my life. Complete faith put in me by David. Now there’s an obsessive. He only lived when he was making a film. He wasn’t particularly happy or clever when he wasn’t making a film. He was an awkward, demanding, mean-spirited git from time to time, I assure you. But not when that camera was turning. My admiration for him was unqualified. He was the leader in every sense of the word. It could have been an archeological expedition, a military expedition. We were doing it under the most extraordinary circumstances, but the first out of the tent in the morning would be David. He said to me on the very first day of shooting, ‘Pete, this is the beginning of a great adventure.’”

The movie made O’Toole a huge star overnight—and he spent the rest of his life looking for a suitable encore. He came close at least twice, in The Ruling Class and My Favorite Year. Otherwise, he fashioned a checkered film career playing leads and supporting roles whose only common denominator was his characters’ resolute rejection of the ordinary ways of making do. “The good parts are the people who don’t make do,” he said. “They’re the interesting people. Lear doesn’t make do.”

The 70-year-old Peter O’Toole I met was a man of parts: actor, scholar, author of two wonderfully wayward memoirs (the second volume, Loitering With Intent: The Apprentice, is one of the best books ever written about becoming an actor). Long divorced, he doted on his grown children and guarded his solitude. “I’m the most gregarious of men and love good company, but never less alone when alone.” Oddest fact: He was also a cricket instructor. “I became a professional cricket teacher about 20 years ago. I had a son born to me when I was 50, and I thought, ‘He needs someone to bowl to him.’”

Serene, content—if it was acting, it was the performance of a lifetime. “Life turned out much better than I thought,” he said. “I knew after a little while that I could act. Films were never in my budget. Didn’t occur to me till much later. I hoped for a long, good life, which I’ve had and I’m having as an actor. I didn’t expect the rest.” Neither did we. On the screen, on the stage, and in the flesh, Peter O’Toole did not disappoint.

Editor's note: Portions of this article were originally published in Newsweek in 2003.