R.I.P. Peter O’Toole

“I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.”

Sad news from London today that Peter O’Toole, one of the greatest and most commanding actors to ever grace the stage or screen, has died after a long illness at the age of 81.

Though he had starred in an acclaimed British stage production of “Hamlet” in 1955, O’Toole was largely an unknown to moviegoers when he was cast in David Lean’s historical epic “Lawrence of Arabia” in 1962. T.H. Lawrence, the semi-mythical soldier/scholar who helped lead an Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire during World War I, proved to be the role of a lifetime – his striking, bright blue eyes peering out from under an Arab headdress is undoubtedly one of the most iconic images in Hollywood cinema. His complex portrayal of what remains one of the most hotly-debated characters in film history won him instant stardom. Despite that, he couldn’t snag an Oscar for the performance, having the great misfortune to be nominated in the same year as Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (I don’t envy Academy voters their decision that year, not one bit).

O’Toole would go on to be nominated a whopping seven more times for Best Actor, never winning (still the record for Oscar futility). He was awarded an Honorary Oscar in 2003, even though he was still working regularly and wrote the Academy a personal letter begging them to hold off until he was 80: “I am still in the game and might win the bugger outright,” he wrote with characteristic flamboyance. He was indeed nominated one more time for a competitive award, as a lecherous, fading actor in 2006’s “Venus.” His last film role of note was probably as the voice of the withering food critic Anton Ego in Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” the next year; he announced his official retirement from acting in 2012.

There are any number of great films and roles we can remember O’Toole for (“The Stunt Man,” “The Last Emperor,” “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”) but I’ve always been personally most fond of his dual takes on King Henry II in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter.” Opposite some of his greatest peers (Richard Burton in the former, Katharine Hepburn in the latter), O’Toole practically defines screen presence, exploding with passion and rage.

As an actor he never disappeared into his roles – invisibility was the least of his concerns. O’Toole intended to be remembered, and so he will be.

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