By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist December 15, 2013 at 2:04PM
Update: Peter O'Toole has passed away at the age of 81. We thought this Essentials, written last year after the announcement of his retirement would make a fitting tribute. Rest in peace to one of the all time greats.
We have a story about Peter O'Toole. We can't remember where we first heard it, and like many such stories, it could well be apocryphal. Supposedly O'Toole, at the height of his 1970s drinking, met a few friends for lunch at a restaurant in London's Soho. As was his custom, a bottle of wine was ordered—then another, then several more. After the food, they then reconvened to various pubs throughout the afternoon. As evening rolled around, the group got the idea to go and see a play. The drunken crew stumbled into a theater, bought tickets, and took their seats. It was a good few minutes into it that O'Toole froze, then turned to his companion and whispered "Bloody hell, I'm in this fucking play," before dashing backstage, donning his costume and taking the stage.
Like we said, it's probably too good to be true, but even so, it does indicate something about O'Toole—his boozing and hellraising (often with close friends like Richard Harris) have sometimes overshadowed his acting in the perception of the public (see a relatively recent Bill Hader sketch on "Saturday Night Live"), despite O'Toole having been nominated for eight Oscars, (he has never won one, barring an honorary award in 2003). But we hope that'll change with O'Toole's announcement yesterday, at the age of 79, after a fifty-year career, that he's retiring from acting.
O'Toole wrote in a statement: "My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfilment and material comfort. It has brought me together with fine people, good companions with whom I've shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits. However, it's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay." He's never been sentimental about his work, but over his career, he has delivered a string of unforgettable performances, and to mark his retirement, we wanted to highlight five of our favorites. Let us know your own highlights in the comments section below.
O'Toole's most famous performance, and the one that launched him into stardom, was very nearly someone else's. Producer Sam Spiegel wanted Marlon Brando, and director David Lean was initially after another rising British actor, Albert Finney, but both turned down the project. After that, Lean recalled another young actor who'd impressed him with a small part in B-movie "The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England," O'Toole won the part, and the rest was history. And it's hard to imagine anyone else in the part; one feels that robbing Lean's images of O'Toole piercing blue eyes (Noel Coward joked to the actor at the premiere "If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called 'Florence of Arabia.' ") would take away much of the soul of the title character. Lawrence is hardly ever off screen across the film's epic three-and-a-half-hour running time (and presumably even longer in the recent, longer edit), and for an actor with relatively little experience as a leading man at the time, O'Toole tears into the part, making him a truly strange protagonist for such a blockbuster; charismatic, camp, compassionate, lonely, extroverted, murderous, amused, serious. Not for a second do you doubt that such an unlikely figure could unite the disparate Arab tribes against the Turks. It's a titanic, iconic performance, the one O'Toole will always be remembered for, and deservedly so.
A savage caustic satire, a passion project of O'Toole's, who'd bought the rights to Peter Barnes' stage play, and held on to them until Hungarian-born helmer Peter Medak persuaded him he was the man for the job, "The Ruling Class" was not a success on release (although O'Toole won an Oscar nomination). And it's not a surprise, particularly, given that the plot involves O'Toole as Jack Gurney, an aristocrat elevated to a title after his father dies through auto-erotic asphyxiation, and who believes at first he is God (complete with hippie-ish ginger locks and beard), and then, after electroshock therapy, Jack The Ripper, ending the film by murdering his wife when she tells him she loves him. The film itself has its flaws; it's overlong at 150 minutes, and never really escapes its stage origins, with Medak still clearly finding his feet as a director (the cinematography, by Ken Hodges, is particularly weak). But it's also a good deal of cynical, dark fun (with a terrific supporting cast, in particular "Dad's Army" star Arthur Lowe as the Gurneys' Communist butler). And most of all, there's a performance—or more accurately, several performances—from O'Toole that comes close to being his career best. He's sweet-natured, yet a little narcissistic when in holy mode, and positively blood-chilling once he gets his personality shift, and deftly navigates the tricky tone throughout. A U.S. re-release a decade later, and a Criterion edition (with a terrific commentary from O'Toole, Medak and Barnes) have helped restore the film's reputation, but it's still underseen; hopefully O'Toole's announcement of his retirement will encourage more people to check it out.