Peter O’Toole was the hell-raising actor with a one-time prodigious capacity for drink whose wild living often eclipsed, in the public mind, his brilliance as a performer, both on stage and screen.
He has been described as a man who wasted his genius on his legendary, heroic and seemingly endless drinking bouts.
But his performances, ranging from an acclaimed Lawrence of Arabia, through leading Shakespearean parts to comic roles in adaptations of PG Wodehouse, and his masterful title-role performance in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, gave the lie to those who said – as one did – that he “frittered his life away on wine, women and song”.
His days of riotous behaviour were brought to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s, when doctors diagnosed pancreatitis and warned him he would drop dead if he took another drop. He had yards of his intestinal tubing – “most of my plumbing” – removed and he gave up drinking, almost.
Seamus Peter O’Toole was born on August 2, 1932. No living person is sure whether his birthplace was Connemara, Dublin, or Leeds. But his boyhood upbringing was certainly in Leeds. He attended a Catholic school but renounced religion at the age of 15.
His working life started on the Yorkshire Evening News, where he worked for some five years. But the editor finally told him: “You’ll never make a reporter – try something else.”
He partly predicted his future in an early poem he wrote, saying: “I will not be a common man because it is my right to be an uncommon man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony” – something which proved to be true, in a typically larger-than-life way.
After completing his National Service in the Royal Navy he became “quite by chance”, as he says, an actor.
“I hitched to London on a lorry, looking for adventure. I was dropped at Euston Station and was trying to find a hostel. I passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and walked in just to case the joint.”
He ultimately took up a scholarship, “not out of burning ambition but because of all the wonderful-looking birds”.
His West End debut in 1957 was in a disastrous comedy called Oh My Papa, which was booed at the Garrick as the curtain fell on the opening night. The drinking spree which followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings for being drunk and disorderly.
But he put that disaster behind him. He was soon well on the road to fame, winning the 1959 Best Actor of the Year award in Willis Hall’s The Long And The Short And The Tall.
When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company where he consolidated his position by tackling roles like Hamlet, Shylock and Petruchio. He was a lover of George Bernard Shaw and performed many of the big roles in his plays.
But it was his performance in his first big film, in 1961, as Lawrence Of Arabia that launched him as an international name. That performance was described by Sam Spiegel as “unequalled in modern cinema”.
He starred in a series of films like The Lion In Winter, Beckett, Lord Jim, The Last Emperor and My Favorite Year which were box office successes, and others, like What’s New Pussycat, King Ralph, High Spirits, and Caligula which were not all successful.
O’Toole said he enjoyed acting for “the gallantry and gamble” and he relished the rollercoaster big risks involved. His Macbeth in 1980 received what were regarded as the worst set of reviews in living memory and O’Toole’s ranting and blood-spattered performance made front page news.
It was around the mid-1970s and the time of his life-saving surgery, that his wife of some 20 years, actress Sian Phillips, with whom he had two daughters, left him for a younger man.
Later he was to have a relationship with the American model Karen Somerville. This produced the longed-for son, Lorcan.
He continued acting well into his twilight years, which included a role alongside Brad Pitt and Australian star Eric Bana in the 2004 blockbuster Troy.
Throughout his career, O’Toole had been nominated for an Academy Award eight times, the most recent being for Best Actor in the 2006 film Venus, but never won one.
But the dubious honour was tempered in 2003 when he received an Honorary Academy Award for his body of work.
O’Toole died on Saturday after a long illness.