Peter O’Toole, 1932–2013

The actor who portrayed Lawrence of Arabia

Peter O’Toole was known as much for his hell-raising ways as he was for his acting. He and his buddies Richard Burton and Richard Harris drank, skirt-chased, and laughed their way through two decades and multiple cities. Harris once claimed to have gone for a drink in Paris and awakened in Corsica. “My idea of heaven,’’ he explained, “is moving from one smoke-filled room to another.”

O’Toole was the son of an Irish bookkeeper who moved his family to Yorkshire, England, when O’Toole was a boy, said The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). After working as a newspaper reporter, a jazz drummer, and a vacuum cleaner salesman, O’Toole was so moved by actor Michael Redgrave’s portrayal of King Lear in 1953 that he hitchhiked to London to attend drama school. With an arresting presence, “he seemed destined for greatness on the stage.” But his career shifted largely to the movies on the strength of his performance as the charismatic hero of David Lean’s 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia.

O’Toole “became an overnight sensation” as Lawrence, with his almost pretty face and mesmerizing blue eyes lighting up the screen, said The Washington Post. He was nominated for an Oscar, and also earned nominations for Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969). His star faded in the 1970s as his drinking caught up with him. In 1980, his “overwrought and hammy” performance as Macbeth in London brought derisive laughter.

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O’Toole made a “startling comeback” in the late 1980s, said the Chicago Tribune, having finally given up carousing. He played a kindly English teacher in The Last Emperor (1987) and lit up the West End stage the following year as a boozehound journalist in the hit play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. He accepted an honorary Oscar in 2003 after seven unsuccessful nominations for Best Actor, but tried to defer the honor until he was 80. “I was still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright,” he said. He was nominated for an eighth time, in 2007, only to lose once more. “Acting,’’ he once said, “is just being human. Some make it their entire life. Big mistake.’’

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