Blond, blue-eyed and wearing blazing white robes in Lawrence Of Arabia, Peter O’Toole was handsome enough — many said beautiful enough — to carry off the scene in which director David Lean simultaneously made stars of both his title character and his leading man.
The scene: a wrecked train, blown up by Lawrence and surrounded by his Bedouin followers, one of whom has just smashed a news photographer’s camera. O’Toole’s Lawrence explains that the man thinks the camera will steal his soul. The photographer asks if he can take Lawrence’s picture and tells him to “just walk.”
So he walks, as the men around him chant his name — and then, responding to their cheers, he leaps atop the train wreck, striding down its length as the wind whips his robes. Silhouetted in the sun, he might as well be a god.
Peter O’Toole died Saturday. He was 81.
The part of T.E. Lawrence — which at one point could have been Marlon Brando’s for the asking — earned O’Toole his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Within a few years he had two more nominations — both, oddly enough, for playing King Henry II, who battled Katharine Hepburn in Lion in Winter, and who thought he could outsmart Richard Burton in Becket.
O’Toole was always larger than life, whether playing dreamers and mad romantics on stage, where his classical training made him a matinee idol; or in public, where his drinking and carousing were legendary; or on screen, where he earned another Oscar nomination playing a hard-drinking matinee idol in My Favorite Year — one who liked to make an entrance, even if it meant swinging into a window from a building’s roof, as he remembers doing in one of his films. When his handler cautions that that was a movie and this is real life, he pauses for a moment, then asks: “What is the difference?”
That may have seemed a reasonable question to O’Toole, whose off-screen drinking buddies included many of the great actors of his generation: Burton, Trevor Howard and Richard Harris. He outlasted them, despite a medical history that had people counting him out in his 40s.
He once told an interviewer that his only exercise was “walking behind the coffins of my friends who took exercise.” But he persevered. In the movie Venus, at age 75, he was charismatic as ever, playing a lusty old actor who realizes there are loose ends in his life he should tie up.
Saying goodbye to his ex-wife (played by Vanessa Redgrave), he notes with a laugh, “We won’t live forever.”
And after more or less clinching another Oscar nomination with that line, he did what he could to disprove it by making every remaining moment count. Twelve roles in the last seven years of his life — from animated food critic in Ratatouille, to Pope in The Tudors — exuberant every one.