Gregory Peck. Rex Harrison. Cliff Robertson. John Wayne. Marlon Brando. Robert DeNiro. Ben Kingsley. Forest Whitaker. These are the people who won Best Actor in a Leading Role Academy Award all eight times that Peter O’Toole was nominated. While he received an honorary award in 2003 – an honor that is often interpreted, and rightly so, as a “sorry you didn’t get this before” award – he has long been credited as holding the unique distinction of being nominated for an Oscar, without ever taking home the trophy, more times than anyone else. That designation was solidified last year when the Lawrence of Arabia star announced his official retirement from acting (after he wrapped filming on two yet-to-be-released titles: Mary and Katherine of Alexandria).
O’Toole passed away today at age 81 from what THR reports as “a long illness” following decades of battling various ailments resulting from his notorious alcoholism.
He was one of the most decorated and recognized of the many great film actors from across the Atlantic and was even offered knighthood in the late 1980s, which he rejected for political reasons. He was a classic thespian who regularly revisited the stage and reportedly knew all of Shakespeare’s sonnets by heart well into his elder years. Yet there’s something strangely fitting about the fact that O’Toole was never formally recognized with a competitive Oscar, a statue that he publicly and openly desired. Even though he played the title role in what is probably the most celebrated Hollywood epic ever made, there seems to be something underappreciated and misrecognized about his contributions as an actor, something that goes beyond Oscar season politics and superficial awards campaigns.
Peter O’Toole’s star persona continued the legacy of prior British stars, namely Laurence Olivier: a classical form of acting focused on precise, calculated delivery via regimented theatrical training. O’Toole has a face and a voice ready-made for British period pieces and costume dramas. Implicitly carrying the learned authority of an Empire, it makes sense that his most famous role is that of a colonialist.
But O’Toole’s fame came about during a postwar era in which the empire was a thing of history books. Spontaneous and unruly working-class young men began to replace Britain’s masterpiece tradition, like O’Toole’s Becket co-star Richard Burton or his 1972 Best Actor competitor Michael Caine. So O’Toole was, at the outset of his renown, already something of a nostalgic figure stuck between generations, a British aristocrat swimming against a sea of swinging Londoners. As a result, he has always seemed a bit older than he really was. He was an actor who embodied, with some exceptions, preternatural ill-fittedness to depict the contemporary era.
Yet he was hardly carrying the baton of the Olivier tradition in any direct way. Perhaps O’Toole’s greatest accomplishment as an actor was placing his signature idiosyncrasies and strange excesses into the tradition that otherwise dominated his acting persona. He seemed perfectly aware of his ability to convey a figure outside of place and time. Rarely a romantic lead like Olivier, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but O’Toole in bizarre character studies like The Ruling Class and Caligula. He was, after all, an Irishman who often played an Englishman, a man with middle class origins who impeccably exuded nobility, and a lifetime alcoholic who always publicly performed high-functioning poise. O’Toole was a fine actor, both off-screen and on.
The subtlest part of his acting was his suggestion that there lies a carnival personality, a schizophrenic or a manic obsessive under every “Great British Man,” including Lawrence himself. O’Toole was an actor not of his time, yet during the height of his career it’s impossible to imagine him existing during any other moment. He witnessed generational splits, the fall of an empire and the breakdown of the Hollywood system. And O’Toole was the esoteric, one-of-a-kind glue that held these disparate fragments together.
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