Last night great actor Peter O'Toole died. We celebrate his life today.
Peter O’Toole’s portrayal of TE Lawrence in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 is undeniably his most celebrated role and immortalised him in film history. However, he did not receive an Oscar for his performance. In fact, across his career he would receive an Oscar nomination a further seven occasions, without once winning.
For myself, my favourite moment of his is from the opening scene to Keith Waterstone’s Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell. As the lights rise on the interior of a pub in the dead of night, O'Toole's Jeffrey Bernard wakes from under a table and begins coughing fitfully. He rises, struggling and searches for his coat. Bent double from his wheezing, he finally locates the jacket and reaches into the pocket. Still hacking wretchedly, he eventually pulls out a cigarette, raises it to his mouth, finally lights it and inhales before the coughing abates. Jeffrey Bernard breathes deeply, and begins to tell his story.
Although Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell is a stage play, I was watching the show on video. Such was the popularity of O’Toole’s performance when it ran in 1991 that tickets were exchanging hands outside the theatre for £500. The play, written by Keith Waterhouse about the life and times in Soho of his friend, the alcoholic Spectator columnist Jeffrey Bernard, detailed through many humorous, foolish and sometimes touching stories what it was to live this roguish life of alcoholic indulgence. The play’s title is a reference to the line that would regularly replace his column when he was too drunk to submit his article.
The ease with which he carries off this performance must in some way be due to the fact that he himself had lived a similar lifestyle. Though often criticised of squandering their talents, alongside legendary drinkers Oliver Reed, Richard Harris and Richard Burton (who shares O’Toole’s record of eight Oscar nominations and no wins), O’Toole was an unrepentant hellraiser and tales of the group’s outrageous debauchery ensured O’Toole a status of beloved roguish infamy, as well as Hollywood fame.
Peter O’Toole was awarded an honorary lifetime achievement Oscar in 2003 which he initially intended to reject, quipping that he would rather “win the lovely bugger outright.” Unfortunately, he never did, but with performances such as TE Lawrence and Jeffrey Bernard, and such a wealth of stories of his drunken excesses, he will remain an unforgettable figure.
The last of the great screen hellraisers of the 60’s has died.