He was tall, lean and handsome, with vivid blue eyes and a distinctive voice that film critic David Thomson once likened to “a rapier that has been used to stir the cream.”
Peter O’Toole, who donned flowing white robes and rode a camel to movie stardom in David Lean’s epic 1962 film “Lawrence of Arabia,” received the first of his eight Academy Award nominations for best actor for playing T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic British Army officer who fought with Arab tribes during the 1916-18 Arab revolt against Turkish imperial rule.
O’Toole always relished talking about “Lawrence of Arabia,” whose shooting locations included Jordan, Spain and Morocco.
“How could one not, since it was the touchstone of all things excellent and changed my life completely?” he said in a 2001 interview with the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper.
O’Toole, 81, died Saturday in a London hospital, his daughter Kate O’Toole said in a statement. He had been ill for some time, but the specific cause was not disclosed.
In a film career that lasted more than 50 years and began with a small part in Walt Disney’s 1960 family adventure “Kidnapped,” O’Toole also earned best-actor Oscar nominations for “Becket” (1964), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), “The Ruling Class” (1972), “The Stunt Man” (1980) and “My Favorite Year” (1982).
He received his eighth Oscar nomination for best actor in 2007 for “Venus,” a bittersweet British drama about an elderly London actor facing his own mortality who becomes smitten with an actor friend’s free-spirited young grandniece.
Four years earlier, with O’Toole’s glory days as a leading man seemingly long over, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced the 70-year-old actor would be given an honorary Oscar for his “remarkable talents (that) have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters.”
O’Toole asked the academy to defer the honor, saying he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright.”
Onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, however, he expressed his delight in being honored and wryly observed: “Always a bridesmaid never a bride — my foot! I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part.”
Over the years, O’Toole’s many film roles included a 19th-century seaman (in “Lord Jim”), a shy schoolmaster (in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”), a flamboyantly autocratic movie director (in “The Stunt Man”), a faded alcoholic movie swashbuckler (in “My Favorite Year”) and England’s King Henry II — twice — (in “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter”).
But “Lawrence of Arabia,” which won seven Academy Awards including best picture, made O’Toole’s film career.
His Oscar nomination came as a result of his adept handling of what a critic for Variety called “Lawrence’s many moods” — from his “veiled insolence and contempt of high authority” to his “courage, pain, vanity and fanaticism.”
And, the critic noted, O’Toole was sure to attract female fans.
Indeed, with blond hair and a tanned face setting off his piercing blue eyes, O’Toole cut a strikingly handsome figure as Lawrence. Or as Noel Coward famously quipped to O’Toole at a premiere party: “If you’d been prettier, it would have been ‘Florence of Arabia.’ "
Film historian and biographer Joseph McBride said O’Toole made “a number of important films,” but “Lawrence of Arabia” was his “crowning achievement.”
“There are a lot of handsome actors who speak lines well, but there are not as many actors who are as thoughtful and portray human beings in such a complex light as Peter O’Toole,” McBride told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. O’Toole recalled in the Mail on Sunday interview that on the first day of filming “Lawrence of Arabia” in the desert, Lean stood next to him and said, “Well, Pete, off we go on a great adventure.”
“And it was!” O’Toole exclaimed. “I was a young man, keen to get on in the business, working with great people, living in a part of the world that fascinated me, and forming an enduring friendship with Omar Sharif,” who played Sherif Ali.