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Hard-living O'Toole dies at 81

Lawrence of Arabia his best-known role

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Peter O'Toole receives an honorary award at the Academy Awards in 2003. He was nominated eight times for an Oscar but never won one.

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Peter O'Toole receives an honorary award at the Academy Awards in 2003. He was nominated eight times for an Oscar but never won one.

LONDON -- Known on the one hand for his starring role in Lawrence of Arabia, leading tribesmen in daring attacks across the desert wastes, and on the other for his headlong charges into drunken debauchery, Peter O'Toole was one of the most magnetic, charismatic and fun figures in British acting.

O'Toole, who died Saturday at 81 after a long bout of illness, was fearsomely handsome, with burning blue eyes and a penchant for hard living that long outlived his decision to give up alcohol. Broadcaster Michael Parkinson told Sky News television it was hard to be too sad about his passing.

"Peter didn't leave much of life unlived, did he?" he said, chuckling.

A reformed but unrepentant hellraiser, O'Toole long suffered from ill health. Always thin, he had grown wraithlike in later years, his famously handsome face eroded by years of outrageous drinking. But nothing diminished his flamboyant manner and candour.

O'Toole began his acting career as one of the most exciting young talents on the British stage. His 1955 Hamlet at the Bristol Old Vic was critically acclaimed.

International stardom came in David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia. With only a few minor movie roles behind him, O'Toole was unknown to most moviegoers when they first saw him as T.E. Lawrence, the mythic British First World War soldier and scholar who led an Arab rebellion against the Turks.

His sensitive portrayal of Lawrence's complex character garnered O'Toole his first Oscar nomination, and the spectacularly photographed desert epic remains his best-known role. O'Toole was tall, fair and strikingly handsome, and the image of his bright blue eyes peering out of an Arab headdress in Lean's film was unforgettable.

Prime Minister David Cameron said Sunday the movie was his favourite film, calling O'Toole's performance "stunning."

In 1964's Becket, O'Toole played King Henry II to Richard Burton's Thomas Becket and won another Oscar nomination. Burton shared O'Toole's fondness for drinking, and their off-set carousing made headlines. O'Toole played Henry again in 1968 in The Lion in Winter, opposite Katharine Hepburn, for his third Oscar nomination.

Four more nominations followed: in 1968 for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, in 1971 for The Ruling Class, in 1980 for The Stunt Man and in 1982 for My Favorite Year. It was almost a quarter-century before he received his eighth and last, for Venus.

Seamus Peter O'Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932, the son of Irish bookie Patrick "Spats" O'Toole and his wife, Constance. There is some question about whether Peter was born in Connemara, Ireland, or in Leeds, northern England, where he grew up, but he maintained close links to Ireland, even befriending the country's now-president, Michael D. Higgins. Ireland and the world have "lost one of the giants of film and theatre," Higgins said.

After a teenage foray into journalism at the Yorkshire Evening Post and national military service with the navy, a young O'Toole auditioned for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and won a scholarship.

He went from there to the Bristol Old Vic and soon was on his way to stardom, helped along by an early success in 1959 at London's Royal Court Theatre in The Long and The Short and The Tall.

The image of the renegade hell-raiser stayed with O'Toole for decades, although he gave up drinking in 1975 following serious health problems and major surgery.

He did not, however, give up smoking unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes in an ebony holder. That and his penchant for green socks, voluminous overcoats and trailing scarves lent him a rakish air and suited his fondness for drama in the old-fashioned bravura manner.

A month before his 80th birthday in 2012, O'Toole announced his retirement from a career he said had fulfilled him emotionally and financially, bringing "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 said. "So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 16, 2013 D2

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