Public AffairsBiography & Profiles / December 15, 2013

Peter O'Toole, A Life Even Larger Than 'Lawrence'

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Peter O'Toole, A Life Even Larger Than 'Lawrence'

Peter O'Toole, the Hollywood legend who was made famous in his title role in Lawrence of Arabia, died on Saturday in a London hospital. The 81-year old Irishman was nominated for eight Oscars in his distinguished career, and was known as a bit of a hellraiser.

To those who hadn't seen the actor perform on the London stage, O'Toole was seemingly catapulted into fame. But it may be more accurate to say he charged into it. As T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia, O'Toole was tall, handsome and sensitive.

The role earned him his first Oscar nomination, though he lost to Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. That established something of a pattern in O'Toole's career. He would be nominated for eight Oscars, but never won until he was awarded an honorary one in 2003.

"Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot," O'Toole said as he accepted it. "I have my very own Oscar now, until death us do part."

O'Toole said that the magic of the movies entranced him as a child. Born in Ireland to a wandering bookmaker and raised in England, he didn't start acting until after a two-year stint in the Royal Navy.

It was there that he decided to chase his childhood dream. He described the experience on NPR's All Things Considered after the release of the movie Venus in 2006.

"I mentioned that I wasn't particularly satisfied with what I was doing in civilian life, which was working for a newspaper," he recalled. "And the skipper said to me one night, have you any unanswered calls inside you that you don't understand or can't qualify? I said, well, yes, I do. I quite fancy myself either as a poet or an actor."

From there he entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and started a career on stage that would carry him to London and eventually, to the silver screen.
In 2012, 50 years after his launch into stardom and a month before his 80th birthday, O'Toole announced his retirement from acting.

What he would not quit though, he said, was his love of the theater. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he said that theater at its most basic level is "the human speech as an artform. That is what I truly believe, and that is what makes acting, for me, such a worthwhile thing to do."

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