‘Lawrence of Arabia’ lead actor Peter O’Toole, 81, dies after a long illness

Reuters, LONDON

Tue, Dec 17, 2013 - Page 7

Actor Peter O’Toole, who shot to international fame in the film classic Lawrence of Arabia, has died aged 81 in London after a long illness, his agent said on Sunday.

O’Toole, who survived a bout with stomach cancer in the 1970s but whose health had been damaged by years of heavy drinking and chain-smoking, died in a London hospital on Saturday, his agent Steve Kenis said.

O’Toole appeared in many acclaimed films, but is best remembered for his lead role in David Lean’s 1962 blockbuster Lawrence of Arabia in which he played T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British army officer who fought with Arab irregular troops against Ottoman Turkish rule in World War I.

O’Toole’s striking good looks and charm sustained him through a stage and film career of more than 50 years that swung wildly between triumph and disaster, garnering him eight Oscar nominations but, to the disgust of his admirers, no win.

The most-nominated actor never to win the award, he eventually and reluctantly accepted an honorary Oscar in 2003.

Before doing so, he composed a hand-written open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Later describing his reluctance to accept the award, he wrote: “I was enchanted, but said that as I was still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?”

Believed to have been born in Ireland, O’Toole grew up in England and trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he was in the same class as British actor Albert Finney.

His piercing blue eyes, tousled brown hair and 1.90m frame made him an instant hit with women when he began his stage career in 1954.

He initially made waves on stage in several key Shakespearean roles, including an acclaimed turn as Hamlet, before gaining fame in films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips, The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man and My Favorite Year.

Living down his Lawrence of Arabia role became a major problem and for most of the 1970s, O’Toole found he was playing nothing but the swaggering romantic actor.

In 1980, he made a humiliating return to the Shakespearean stage in London after a 20-year absence.

O’Toole’s blood-soaked Macbeth at the Old Vic theater provoked outright laughter from the audience and made front-page news for its sheer awfulness.

For the next few years, O’Toole found it difficult to be taken seriously as an actor. However, in the late 1980s, he made a startling comeback.

He also gave up drinking. Years of abdominal pain and almost continuous consumption of alcohol had led to a diagnosis of pancreatitis and a warning that liquor would soon kill him.

A cameo role as the kindly but bemused English teacher in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 Oscar-winning film The Last Emperor showed the public a new side to the hell-raiser they had come to expect.

A year later, at the age of 56, he won rave reviews for playing his old Soho drinking pal in the play Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell in a part that seemed to mirror his own misfortunes.

He had announced he was retiring only last year.