Peter O’Toole, 1932 – 2013

PLAYBOY: Are you afraid of dying?
O’TOOLE: Petrified.
PLAYBOY: Why?
O’TOOLE: Because there’s no future in it.
PLAYBOY: When did you last think you were about to die?
O’TOOLE: About four o’clock this morning. A few weeks ago I watched a commercial on television. It was selling insurance, and I had realized how graphic and Grand Guignol they’d got. There’s a fellow on the beach with his wife and ten children romping around in the sand, and suddenly they all dissolve. And he thinks: “Must insure with Prudential” or whatever. But if I was going to die, I’m afraid I wouldn’t give a damn about anyone. A man in New York once asked me what I’d like engraved on my tombstone, and I said, “Oh Christ, what a pity.”
PLAYBOY: What would you like people to say about you as an actor, when you’re dead?
O’TOOLE: “God rest his soul.” That’s all. While I’m alive, I’ve got only one interest, one concern and one love, and that’s work. Afterward, nothing matters.
Playboy interview, 1965

Thirty-three years old, a mere three years after Lawrence of Arabia, and already the interviewers were fixated on mortality. Such as it was for a man who approached his blessed existence like a gorgeous wrecking ball, determined to prove there was grace and charm in an unabashed, impish hedonism, that the only way to live life was to live it. There were pleasures to be had in the flesh, in the bottle, in the engagement of a mischievous mind. He titled his memoirs Loitering with Intent. There could be no finer description of his engagement with the world: utterly relaxed and yet ready for adventure at a moment’s notice. He was an amazing talk show guest specifically because he had such wild, ribald, yet strangely innocent tales of wanton recklessness. By his telling (and the supporting versions offered up by such drinking buddies as Richard Harris and Michael Caine), the bulk of his life he spent poised to launch into a cascade of joyful destruction. The brandy, after all, was portable.

All that would mean little if he had no other talents, but by God he could act. Famously unrewarded in eight Best Actor Academy Award nominations (losing to Gregory Peck, Rex Harrison, Cliff Robertson, John Wayne, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Ben Kingsley, and Forest Whitaker), a record in futility, O’Toole inspired marvel time and again. He did get a compensatory Academy Award for his entire career, bestowed in 2003, which he accepted with trademark amusement. At that point, I’d spent years frustrated that the Academy took so long to get around to such an honor, sure that the increasingly frail Irishman would keel over before the institution got around to correcting the oversights of the voting membership. Shows what I know. O’Toole was a survivor. He weathered a small fleet of serious health scares in the nineteen-seventies and dodged death who-knows-how-many-times while teetering atop the world, tilting at the windmills of staid convention. He has an artist’s temperament and Rasputin’s endurance. Despite my worries, there was clearly still time, and O’Toole’s promise upon receipt of the award that he intended to again compete properly proved accurate.

His command of the screen was evident from the earliest days of his cinematic career, when he was ushered to stardom by the understated credit “Introducing Peter O’Toole as T.E. Lawrence.” He was ravishing, devilishly charismatic, and vividly intelligent from the beginning. The simplest lines sounded like poetry coming out of his mouth, and the feats of great writing he was often handed became symphonies. He was fully believable when playing a king, exuding the sort of confidence that made the chinks in his armor actually the strongest parts of him. He is the only actor in cinematic history who could regularly play characters with pronounced god complexes and make their self-assessments seem like models of humility. That was what O’Toole carried with him into his roles, a sense that aspirations towards omnipotence were shortchanging the man behind the character.

Oh Christ, what a pity.

And God rest his soul.

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