It was a funny thing. A few weeks ago–completely out of the blue and for no reason at all–I began to Google pictures of Peter O’Toole as a young man. And Lord, what a handsome man he was, before age, alcohol, and illness had their way with him. Later that day a friend of mine called me. “Well, we lost Peter O’Toole,” she said. That spooked me, I confess…was that Rod Serling lurking in the corner? But then I thought, “Of course. If anybody would have loved to give an old fan a wink and a tip of the hat before going on his merry way, it would be Peter O’Toole.”
O’Toole, though he worked in a modern age, was not a modern actor. He was a full-out, old-fashioned bravura performer, swooping and snorting and using that wonderfully eccentric voice of his to reach the furthest balcony in the house. No particular method or theory of acting troubled him–you wanted a king? Very well–he clapped a crown on his head, threw a robe around his shoulders, and bam! Got your king here. He had, for lack of a better word, style. No matter what horrid dreck he ended up starring in, that style and swagger never failed him, even when he was so ill and frail a strong wind could have broken him into matchsticks. If he had been born a couple of decades sooner, he would have given Errol Flynn a run for his money. He was born to play dragon slayers, pirate kings, and elegant highwaymen, all leavened with an outrageous sense of humor and absurdity.
He was a master of physical comedy as well, those stick-insect arms and legs of his waving in outrage or excitement. Check him out in My Favorite Year, descending from a rooftop tied to a fire hose, nattily attired in a white Palm Beach suit and maintaining a perfect dignity, for a master class in the art.
Oddly enough, the one role where he remained relatively restrained and subdued was the one for which he became most famous: T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. The film certainly was boisterous enough–all those swirling sandstorms, charging camels, and fiery explosions–but he was not. T. E. Lawrence is made up of interiors–he barely raises his voice in most scenes. His Lawrence is all whispers, fiercely driven and unknowable, with the bland good manners of the Oxford don that Lawrence was. He drives generals and princes to distraction. “It’s my manner, sir,” he says pleasantly at one point. “It looks to be insubordinate, but it isn’t really.”
It was a stunning performance for such a young man, but I always preferred his King Henry in Becket: sharp, witty, feline sly, and with a wry sense of the performance and ruthless politics needed to remain in power. It’s why, in the end, he walks out of the tomb, red robes billowing around him, and Becket does not.
I guess what defines Peter O’Toole for me is the absolute joy he took in performing. You can see it in his eyes as he exchanges lethal insults with Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter. To have juicy dialogue to speak, to clash with co-stars worthy of his steel: that’s what he lived for. Most actors today have irony and even snarkiness to spare, but only a handful of the very best possess that joy in the work. Contemporary actors are a glum, anxious lot, most of them.
At the end of The Lion in Winter O’Toole’s Henry II is standing alone on a muddy riverbank. He’s just had a hell of a time–attempted assassination, betrayal after betrayal by those he loves best, and the loss of his sons. You would expect him to be melancholy at the very least, as he waves goodbye to his beloved and hated wife as she departs on the royal barge for another year in exile. He suddenly bellows to her, “You know, I hope we live forever!” As she nods, laughing at him, he bellows again, “Do you think there’s a chance of it?” And he tips his magnificent shaggy head back and roars with laughter, stretching his arms out as if to embrace the absurdity and glory of his life and the world at large.
Well, speaking from the viewpoint of that bony, spotty fourteen-year-old who fell in love with him while eating stale Raisinettes in the first row of the grubby Park Cinema in Roselle Park, New Jersey, I can say with absolute certainty, “Pete, you got that covered.”