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Remembering Peter O'Toole

Screen legend Peter O’Toole died today at age 81. The eight-time Oscar nominee retired from acting last year after a 50-year-long career that included iconic roles in The Lion in Winter, Lawrence of Arabia, and My Favorite Year. His filmography ran the gamut of genre, from slapstick comedy (How to Steal a Million) to period drama (Beckett) to animation (Ratatouille) to undefinably weird (The Ruling Class). Only recently, O’Toole made the Film Experience Team Top 10 Greatest Losers list twice for his roles. His performances were often surprising, always brave, and never boring,


Peter O’Toole means a great deal to me. The first time I encountered him was on a miserable day when I was sick at home. I happened to flip to The Lion in Winter, and was immediately shocked from my stupor by the crackling energy and vicious repartee he swapped with Katharine Hepburn. Watching them felt like touching a live wire. Years later, when I told my mother that I didn’t like epics, she sat me down for 3 ½ hours of The Lawrence Of Arabia. I was made into a believer, and I have loved him ever since.

Peter O’Toole played insanity better than any other actor, and considering the old adage that it takes a madman to play one, maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. He was the Irishman who turned down a knighthood. He was the actor who tried to refuse an honorary Oscar on the basis that "I am still in the game and might win the bugger outright." He was a handsome star with striking blue eyes that carried a hint of madness in them. He was a poet, and according to drinking buddy Richard Harris he could be a bit of a bastard too. All in all, he was a marvel of a man.

Goodbye, Mr. O’Toole. To borrow a line from The Lion in Winter: we would have been great fools not to love you.

(Post your favorite performances and memories in the comments below.)


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Reader Comments (28)

I was sad to hear of Peter O'Toole's death. A terrific actor.

Favourite performance (out of those I've seen): a three-way tie between Lawrence of Arabia (he's so much more subtle and layered than the film itself), The Stunt Man (where he is as scheming as the Devil but totally plausible) and My Favourite Year (simply great fun).

I must see The Lion in Winter.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

As thrilling as he was in Lawrence of Arabia, I prefered his crackpot genius in The Ruling Class and his astonishing work in The Stunt Man. Those three performances cement him in the firmament for me.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Beckett and My Favorite Year for perfs but Lawrence of Arabia is hard to beat as one of the all time greatest films ever made. He was perfect as the odd man out in the center of it all.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

The Lion in Winter and Lawrence of Arabia are obvious choices but his turn in The Last Emperor is really essential to why that film worked. Other actors would've come across as the white outsider that Western audiences need in seeing a 'different world' on screen but O'Toole underplays it in a way where it's still John Lone's movie and pretty much The Forbidden City's film.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

lovely goodbye anne marie. I feel remiss in never catching up on his complete Oscar Nominated Box Set. should do that.

December 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

He gave such a wonderful performance in The Lion in Winter, such a great film. RIP.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Haven't seen many of his films, but he KILLED IT in Ratatouille. One of my favourite voice performances ever.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

CMG: You're so right - he's excellent in The Last Emperor - a believable teacher to the teenage Pu Yi and a great ally and support to the adult ex-emperor. Very much in-period, too.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

So very saddened by this loss - he was truly one of a kind. I know it doesn't really matter that he didn't win an Oscar, but he's one I really, really wish had gotten his.

Lawrence is the performance everyone should see. But I have a soft spot for his turn in the underrated "How to Steal a Million," where he was so dashing he put Cary Grant to shame.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterprincesskaraoke

I don't remember white people in The Last Emperor. But I saw it theatrically as a child and only remembered the beginning where the focus was on a child.

I hate the term rest in peace since the dead are already at peace which is the a luxury of being dead no longer concern with the things that ail you in life.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

What a horrible week! First the great Eleanor Parker, yesterday film noir queen Audrey Totter and now Peter O'Toole. All so wonderful in their unique way and no one like them to take their place.

My favorites of his performances are many but the leading ones would have to be The Lion in Winter, My Favorite Year and his beautiful work in the little known Creator. Not a great piece of film though pleasant but his performance in it is inimitable. That's the real test, most good actors can be good to great in superior material with top flight talent both before and behind the camera but to be outstanding when what you have to work with is pedestrian reveals the real talent.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I fell head over heels in love with him in Lawrence of Arabia, but I also loved his joie de vivre in How to Steal a Million. And there were some lines in The Stuntman that I loved. I don't remember what they were anymore, but I went to see the film several times just to hear them. That voice...

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGena

Great actor and movie star.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I second Beckett. One of the best performances I have ever seen.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJS

I was just watching 'Becket' for my own blog the other day. I had never seen the movie and was really surprised by how good it is, and how incredible Richard Burton and O'Toole are in the lead roles. Nobody really talks about that movie anymore, but I think it would be a good time to watch it if you haven't.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConrado

No one has been talking about his performance in the hilarious and heartbreaking Venus from 2006 which should have finally won him the Oscar. Great performance in a really good film.

As for best, I'm gonna give it to his aged Henry II in The Lion in Winter. He's even better than Hepburn, which is no easy task (however I did think Tracy was better than Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but guess who got the Oscars in 1967 and '68?).

He does save The Ruling Class from being a mess of a movie just through his sheer lunacy. The Stunt Man may be the best portrayal of a movie director ever. And My Favorite Year is so fun and it gives me warm memories.

His Goodbye Mr. Chips movie is forgettable considering the greatness of the Robert Donat original, but I did like Petula Clark. Becket was funny at times but I did think Richard Burton was better.

As for Lawrence of Arabia, well it may be the best debut leading role ever for an actor. I can't think of anything that tops it.

I never understood why he wasn't nominated for Supporting Actor for The Last Emperor, possibly the best performance of his that wasn't recognized. He was also the best part of Troy, but then of course he was. And he's the reason why Ratatouille is one of the better Pixar movies not called Toy Story.

He will be greatly missed, but now he can be with all his drinking buddies again and raise hell up in heaven.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSean Troutman

He should've won the Oscar for The Stunt Man. When I rented it in the nineties the way in which he combined androgyny and power was nothing I'd seen before.

The Lion in Winter isn't very good, to be honest: Broadway warhorse given (broad) Oscar treatment. O'Toole is certainly the best thing in it, despite being better in Becket.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAlfred

Peter O'Toole: the man who could even make the orange pancake makeup and eyeliner of Lawrence of Arabia look sexy. He was my very first movie crush.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

I loved his deft touch with comedy - so elegant! And I loved the no holds barred way he dove into great dramatic roles. What I like best about The Ruling Class is that he plays two roles in it. Since the only DVD I own with him in it is How To Steal A Million, I think I'll go watch that right now.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Joan Fontaine also passed away today (she was 96). Two legends on the same day. How sad....

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichter Scale

So so fun in Lion in Winter!!! (Kate too!) So many could learn from him the right amount of ham for Broadway-plays-turned-movies.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

Peter O'Toole, Tom Laughlin, and Joan Fontaine in one day-rough Sunday for Hollywood.

December 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Sad news. RIP!! Lawrence and Lion are his very finest, I believe, but I loved him throughout his career, even later years, with Venus and even his voice work in Ratatouille. I love Anton Ego's monologue in the end of the movie, a scene that helps elevate that picture to a higher level. I know it by heart, and it describes my take on the O'Toole filmography. I find myself coming back to it, hungry for more! :)

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

What a shame that he wasn't tapped to carry on with Dumbledore when Richard Harris died. (There was a movement, but it didn't succeed.) Instead we got six interminable films of Gambon camping it up and refusing to read the novels for the backstory. O'Toole would have given us the many obsessed and ambiguous layers of Albus Dumbledore.

To go with so many other wonderful obsessed, ambiguous and half-mad characters he gave us. I suppose Mr. Chips is sane. Sane-ish, anyway.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCassandra7

I saw "The Ruling Class" in a film class I took in college and it was easily the most interesting film in the course. Next to "Lawrence of Arabia", I still like it more than any of his other performances. It is a damn shame that failing health forced his retirement, and I will regret not seeing additional movies his presence could have made even more special.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Calling How To Steal A Million a slapstick comedy is like calling Lawrence Of Arabia a representation of the adventures of one Thomas Edward Lawrence. Yes, there are a few brief moments of slapstick in it, but... Maybe you meant O'Toole's blink and you'll miss him cameo in Casino Royale 1967.
Hm, given the Academy's tendency to over-nominate him, it's really strange that Peter never won. I mean, they can nominate him for two forgettable performances (Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Venus) and a downright campy one (Becket), grant a lead actor nomination for The Stunt Man even though that role might have been better suited in supporting, but they can't give him an Oscar for The Lion In Winter and award Cliff Robertson in Charly instead? Strange. And I'm also not convinced that the nomination for My Favorite Year really had to be. But Lawrence, Lion, and The Ruling Class admittedly had to.
Anyway, Peter O'Toole, leading man in two of my ten favorite films (Lawrence Of Arabia and The Lion In Winter) and without a doubt the greatest eyebrow actor in motion picture history, is no longer with us. Guess I've got to watch one of his movies now.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

It's not everyday one can say their favorite actor of all-time has died. I am so very sad.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

"I'm not an actor, I'm a movie star!"

He was both and he was magnificent. I had a crush on him, too, right to the end.

December 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAR

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