Death became Peter O’Toole, rabble-rouser, actor, the last of the “hellraisers”, who died Sunday at 81—only a year past the age to which he asked the Academy Awards to defer his lifetime achievement trophy, because he was “still in the game”. When he finally accepted the honorary statuette at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, he claimed it was “until death us do part”. With his rangy build, his soulful blue eyes, his reputation of being mad, bad and dangerous to know, he always seemed to be haunted by his own mortality. Nominated for an Oscar eight times in his storied career, never to win, even for his defining role as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), where he plays the doomed and brilliant TE Lawrence, wandering the desolate expanses of the Sahara, O’Toole retired from acting at 80, and the lights went out on an era of dissolute, self-destructive, carousing heavy drinkers who seemed able to switch from terrible to brilliant on a dime.
If Lawrence was the definitive young O’Toole, Venus (2006), for which he won his final Academy Award nomination, was a masterly performance in a role that could’ve been him in real life. An aged actor calls his ex-wife to tell her that he’s been cast as a corpse on TV. “Typecast again!” is her response. Age has withered the actor, but when a young woman sees his obituary in the paper, it is accompanied by a photo of Lawrence-era O’Toole, whereupon she exclaims: “He was gorgeous!”
By the time Hollywood claimed him, O’Toole already had a distinguished career on the British stage—playing Hamlet in the National Theatre Company production directed by Laurence Olivier and the original angry young man, Jimmy Porter, in Don’t Look Back in Anger. Though O’Toole seemed to be the successor to British theatre greats who had made the jump to cinema, on stage he was thought to have brought a gritty realism to the mannered, declamatory Shakespearean theatre of the time. “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere,” he said in Ratatouille (2007). His character, Anton Ego, was talking about the rat-chef Remy, but he could just as easily have been speaking of his alter ego.