Magazine article Variety

A Life and Career Carried out on a Grand Scale

Magazine article Variety

A Life and Career Carried out on a Grand Scale

Article excerpt

His offscreen carousing was legendary but it never overshadowed his work

That Peter O'Toole made it to the ripe old age of 81 doubtless surprised no one more than O'Toole himself.

"The common denominator of all my friends is that they're dead," he joked mordantly in an interview for the 2008 book "Hellraisers," which chronicled O'Toole's career alongside those of his contemporaries Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They represented a generation of British actors whose titanic screen performances were rivaled by their legendary off-screen drinking, carousing and other wicked ways, all of them dead well before their time.

In 1975, at 43, after undergoing emergency stomach surgery that revealed his digestive system had been severely eroded by alcohol, he sobered up. Though on stage and on screen a certain drunken grandiloquence continued to inform many of his greatest performances - like that of a washed-up Hollywood swashbuckler in 1982's "My Favorite Year" (which earned O'Toole the seventh of his eight actor Oscar nominations); a egomaniacal movie director in Richard Rush's "The Stunt Man" (1980); and the real Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard in the 1989 West End play "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell."

"Bernard" was among O'Toole's favorite projects, as was the BBC's "Rogue Male," in which he starred as a British gentleman who attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1939, just before the start of World War II. For the actor, who grew up during the war years and wrote at length about Hitler in the first book of his memoir, "Loitering With Intent," the material struck a particularly personal chord. "I was physically ill at the age of 6, seeing this man," he told Roger Ebert on stage in Telluride, recalling his first glimpse of the German dictator in a newsreel. That was somewhere in Leeds, or one of the other northern English racecourse towns where the young O'Toole lived an itinerant existence with his bookmaker father and nurse mother. "I wasn't born into the working class, I was born into the criminal class," he was once quoted as saying. Three of his childhood friends would go on to be hanged, in separate cases, all on murder charges.

Some two decades later, it was O'Toole's face that was splayed large on the movie screen, first with supporting parts in Disney's "Kidnapped" and Nicholas Ray's "The Savage Innocents" (both I960) followed by the breakthrough of "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962). …

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