In the late fifties and early sixties, a new breed of English actor emerged. He represented the best of the two worlds then warring: the actor-manager school that had flourished since the Victorian era and the working-class hero camp of the kitchen sink drama. It was a small contingent but voluble; they burst upon the scene like fireballs across an orderly sky – and flamed out almost as quickly: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Albert Finney, and Peter O’Toole.
The latter is the subject of a new biography by Robert Sellers, a hell-raiser hag making a career of cataloging the professional milestones and social misadventures of the aforementioned (and their bastard sons, like Oliver Reed.) He’s no psychologist, offering scant reason for the prodigious drinking that famously took O’Toole and company down, and not much of a filmographer; his list of O’Toole’s credits omits his lone Canadian contribution, a voice in the Ottawa-produced 1990 animated film The Nutcracker Prince (or perhaps, judging by the film’s initial reviews, Sellers is just being kind). He’s simply content, it appears, to spend as much time as possible with such larger than life company, sticking close to O’Toole’s through an impoverished childhood (in Leeds, not Ireland, as O’Toole proudly professed), acting school (the only school he consistently attended), a hit-and-miss stage career (including a notoriously negligible Macbeth), an even more hit-and-miss film career (Rosebud anyone?) and of course, pub after pub after pub.
It’s a remarkably improbable journey, from tall, skinny post-war juvie to international super-stardom. It takes its first major turn when O’Toole, on an impromptu trip to London, walks through the doors of RADA on a whim (covered in cow shit no less, thanks to a night’s sleep in a barn outside the city). There, one of the directors asks him if he’d like to audition; two days later, thanks to his lightning-quick memory, natural elocutionary gift, and penchant for going over-the-top, he’s offered a full scholarship.
It takes him awhile to find his feet but when he does, the new wave of English actor (Burton was already a star by this time) affirms itself with rafter-ringing brio. A talent no less large than Katherine Hepburn, in fact, with whom O’Toole would brilliantly banter in 1968’s The Lion in Winter, sings his early praises.
A nose job and a little hair dye later, O’Toole is rescued from a handful of small films to anchor Lawrence of Arabia, the psychological portrait cum desert epic with which his name becomes synonymous (even as late as 1995, he made an entrance on Late Night with David Letterman riding a camel). Further, it sets the precedent for the kind of film in which he will mostly appear: big-budget historical dramas, teeming with melodramatic extremism, political intrigue, and frosty wit, shot in exotic locales. Relief, occasional, came in the way of mid-sized larks, like How to Steal a Million and My Favorite Year.
It wasn’t until his final days, shortly before retirement, that he was able to take part in the low-budget, low-key character pieces aimed at solidifying reputations; 2006’s Venus, in fact, was the role in which, admittedly, O’Toole was most naked – though he was prone, offscreen, to literal examples of it, gleefully throwing off his clothes to display the shock-inducing scar that ran from throat to navel, a tragically premature consequence of his alcoholism.
As good a storyteller as the best screenwriters who serviced him, Sellers generously quotes the man (and his equally adept friends and enemies – though most were both), with little investigation into the mysterious tallness of some of O’Toole’s tales. Many are memorable, including the inspiration for the inscription on his tombstone, courtesy of a dry cleaner who affixed a note to an old coat of his that had been covered in blood and beer: “It disturbs us to return work which is not perfect.”
Indeed, O’Toole was far from perfect – as is this “definitive” (really?) biography. Comb its many pages if you will or settle for page 83, where veteran character actor Ian Holm, whom O’Toole held in lifelong contempt, sums the man up in a few pinpoint lines. Holm’s describes him as “strangely ridiculous, often riveting, and unpredictably raw”, tallying his assets as his “independent manner, confidence, star quality, and an air of ruined glory”. “There was something unconsciously gladiatorial and threatening about him”, he adds. Finally, he puts it all perfectly together: “He was an enigma wrapped in charisma and sprinkled with booze”.