Paul Greenberg: Peter O'Toole, the chronic actor

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: December 30, 2013
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Seamus Peter O'Toole was an alcoholic and actor but, thankfully, not in that order. He would win worldwide recognition after he played the title role in David Lean's magnificent “Lawrence of Arabia,” which was not only a grand spectacle but historically accurate in its broad outlines.

And why wouldn't it be magnificent? It combined producer and director's camera-eye with a screenplay by Robert Bolt, he of “A Man for All Seasons.”

Years before he achieved international stardom, O'Toole had been a critically acclaimed Shakespearean actor with the Bristol Old Vic, and his apprenticeship paid off in performance after performance, especially in his 1955 “Hamlet.”

By 1964, young O'Toole was playing opposite the at least equally talented (and more stentorian) Richard Burton in “Becket.” What a pair — as fine a couple of actors as Welshman and Irishman could be, which is fine indeed. Though their “Becket” may not have matched the one produced by David Merrick on Broadway in 1960 that paired Lawrence Olivier with Anthony Quinn, with those outsized talents switching the roles of Henry II and Thomas Becket on successive nights.

O'Toole would play Henry again in “The Lion in Winter” opposite the incomparable Katharine Hepburn, who was never in a scene she didn't steal — till she met up with Peter O'Toole. Who was better in this tour de force? Let's just call it a tie, with ties going to the lady. Suffice it to say they made the formidable Anthony Hopkins look like an amateur — almost as unschooled as the dunce of a character he played. Thus does real quality shine. Like a diamond in a chest of mere rubies and emeralds.

Offstage, O'Toole had many faults (whose are few?) and his personal life would eventually became a shambles, given his drinking and carousing. His alcoholism, an insidious disease, ruined his health — but it could not obscure the man's basic character. His honesty shone right through his various addictions. If he could be devilish, at least he never pretended to be any kind of saint. In a couple of nights' casino-hopping in Casablanca and Beirut with his co-star in Lawrence, the soulful Omar Sharif, he managed to lose most of his earnings from that film — and never look back. He was always a gentleman despite his background not in the Irish working class but criminal class. (His father was a small-time bookmaker who was always being chased by his creditors, and had the crushed knuckles of a crippled hand to show for it.)

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