Peter O’Toole, the glorious star of stage and screen, has passed away at the age of 81. For many years I considered him my favorite living actor. Even before I saw the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for the first time at a Film Forum screening when I was age sixteen (accompanied by my mother, who has loved the film ever since she saw it thirteen times in 1963 alone), I was a dedicated fan.
I think I was a fan from the moment I saw How to Steal a Million (1966), a heist film which is really a darling romantic comedy, co-starring the lovely Audrey Hepburn (another favorite since childhood). Who could forget the first time the audience sees O’Toole, his brilliantly blue eyes peering out from behind a forged painting?
Seeing Lawrence of Arabia and understanding what a stunning cinematic experience it is made me forever appreciative of O’Toole’s talent. It is without a doubt my favorite film. Each time I see it I find something new in it, something to admire or to question, and that is exactly what film should do. A truly great film never becomes boring; it will always hold something inexplicably magical for the viewer, a treasure trove of detail and nuance. Much of that ongoing joy and excitement is thanks to Peter O’Toole as Lawrence.
I have often delighted in hearing my mother’s story about her encounter with O’Toole at the New York premiere of Becket in 1964. She managed to grab a bit of his shoulder. He locked eyes with her and gave her a smile as if to say: “Oh, you poor child.” Decades later, while walking in Manhattan’s midtown area, near Carnegie Hall and the Osborne Apartments, we passed a gentleman on the street who my mother was convinced was O’Toole. I wonder, if we had stopped to ask and if it had indeed been him, if she would have reached for shoulder #2. I like to think she might have, perhaps for continuity’s sake.
My adoration extends beyond the aforementioned films and into the 2000s: Becket (1964, pictured above with Richard Burton), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), The Night of the Generals (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Ruling Class (1972), My Favorite Year (1982), Creator (1985), King Ralph (1991), “Casanova” (2005 mini-series), Venus (2006), Ratatouille (2007 voice work), and Dean Spanley (2008) all feature fine work from O’Toole.
Obviously there is much of his oeuvre that I have yet to see. I long for the day when I can finally see Lord Jim (1965), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), Murphy’s War (1971), The Stunt Man (1980) and The Last Emperor (1987), to name a few titles. Each time I see another of his films or other works is always a marvelous experience of discovery.
Rest in peace, good sir. The flame goes out but the sun still rises.