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Memorial Tribute to Peter O'Toole
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TCM Remembers Peter O'Toole (1932 - 2013)

Peter O'Toole achieved international acclaim through the deft combination of two types of stardom most often associated with British actors. On the one hand, he was the consummate acting chameleon, in the tradition of such legends as Laurence Olivier and Michael Redgrave, deftly transforming himself into a wide range of characters from film to film. In the cult classic The Ruling Class (1972), he even played a character who transforms himself, from self-styled Messiah to the living incarnation of evil. As such, he paved the way for such recent masters of versatility as Kenneth Brannagh, Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes. In addition, he also personified the British bad boy, a hard-drinking, hard-loving man who lives for pleasure. He even gave that type classical stature in his two Oscar® nominated performances as the carousing King Henry II in Becket (1964), opposite fellow bad boy Richard Burton, and The Lion in Winter (1968), where he matched wits with Katharine Hepburn. Even after winning his battle with the bottle, he still shone as characters who lived life on the edge, including the megalomaniac film director in The Stunt Man (1980) and the alcoholic actor in My Favorite Year (1982), a comic take-off on Errol Flynn. O'Toole's most recent follower in the bad boy tradition has been Colin Farrell, the charismatic young actor who, like O'Toole, was born in Ireland.

O'Toole came by his bad boy ways naturally. He was the son of a bookie and dropped out of school at the age of 14, starting out as a messenger at a Yorkshire newspaper and working his way up to cub reporter. His interest in acting developed slowly but he first hit the stage in an amateur production at the age of 17. Then after two years in the Royal Navy, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he studied alongside such fellow carousers as Albert Finney and Richard Harris. An acclaimed West End performance in Willis Halls' war drama The Long and the Short and the Tall led to film work -- a bit part as a Mountie rescued by Eskimo Anthony Quinn in The Savage Innocents and an effective turn as a swashbuckler in Disney's remake of Kidnapped (both 1960).

Then director John Guillermin cast him as a security officer in The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (also 1960). His stand-out supporting role could have turned him into the next Peter Sellers, but instead it was spotted by director David Lean, who was casting a role already turned down by Marlon Brando and Albert Finney - T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). O'Toole's charismatic performance as the controversial military leader made him an international star and brought him the first of seven Oscar® nominations for Best Actor. He worked on the film for more than a year, interviewing people who had known Lawrence, learning to ride a camel and shooting for months under harsh conditions in remote desert locations. After the film became a hit, he would admit to never having sat through it in its entirety: "I kept thinking 'That's where the camel bit my hand' or 'Imagine, I was only 27 then.' And that awful music they put to it."

With his success as Lawrence, O'Toole was the logical choice to star in Lean's next epic, Dr. Zhivago (1965), but he turned it down rather than spend another year of grueling location work with the meticulous director. His decision sparked a rift between the two that would not be mended until shortly before Lean's death in 1991. Instead, O'Toole moved into a series of high profile projects, including the film version of Becket -- the first of his films to feature his wife, Sian Phillips -- a comic change of pace in What's New, Pussycat? (1965), which marked Woody Allen's big-screen writing and acting debuts; and an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim (1965), which got him exiled from Cambodia when he made unflattering comments about shooting on-location there. He demonstrated his musical talents with the film version of Man of La Mancha (1972) and an Oscar®-nominated performance in the title role of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969).

But the drinking that had made headlines earlier in his career caused him severe problems in later life, ending his marriage to Phillips and leading to serious stomach surgery. O'Toole scored a comeback and another Oscar® nomination in 1980 with The Stunt Man, followed by another nomination for My Favorite Year. He then appeared in television adaptations of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1983) and Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1984); provided the voice of Sherlock Holmes for a series of cartoons based on Arthur Conan Doyle's classic detective tales; and played a scene-stealing supporting role in the Oscar®-winning epic The Last Emperor (1987). More recent projects included an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's Bright Young Things (2003), written and directed by Stephen Fry; the all-star epic Troy (2004), with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom; and Richard Attenborough's production of Closing the Ring (also 2004), co-starring Shirley MacLaine, Ryan Phillippe, Dennis Hopper and Brenda Blethyn.

O'Toole shared with Richard Burton the questionable distinction of having received seven Oscar® nominations without winning. The Motion Picture Academy® set out to make up for this oversight earlier by voting him a lifetime achievement award in 2003, but initially O'Toole turned it down, stating that he still had a good ten years left in which to win the award. When he realized that the award was not a sign that people in Hollywood thought his career was over, he agreed to accept it, receiving a standing ovation for his appearance. He even made light of his past record with the Academy Awards®, starting his acceptance speech with, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride my foot!" O'Toole then appeared in several more films and received his eighth Oscar® nomination for Best Actor in Venus (2006); he lost to Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland.

by Frank Miller
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