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Peter O'Toole: The Chronic Actor

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Seamus Peter O'Toole was an alcoholic and actor but, thankfully, not in that order. He would win worldwide recognition after he played the title role in David Lean's magnificent "Lawrence of Arabia," which was not only a grand spectacle but historically accurate in its broad outlines.

And why wouldn't it be magnificent? It combined producer and director's camera-eye with a screenplay by Robert Bolt, he of "A Man for All Seasons."

Years before he achieved international stardom, Peter O'Toole had been a critically acclaimed Shakespearean actor with the Bristol Old Vic, and his apprenticeship paid off in performance after performance, especially in his 1955 "Hamlet."

By 1964, young O'Toole was playing opposite the at least equally talented (and more stentorian) Richard Burton in "Becket." What a pair -- as fine a couple of actors as Welshman and Irishman could be, which is fine indeed. Though their "Becket" may not have matched the one produced by David Merrick on Broadway in 1960 that paired Lawrence Olivier with Anthony Quinn, with those outsized talents switching the roles of Henry II and Thomas à Becket on successive nights. (Who knew that Quinn could do Shakespeare? And superbly.)

Peter O'Toole would play Henry again in "The Lion in Winter" opposite the incomparable Katharine Hepburn, who was never in a scene she didn't steal -- till she met up with Peter O'Toole. Who was better in this tour de force? Let's just call it a tie, with ties going to the lady. Suffice it to say they made the formidable Anthony Hopkins, who was also in the film, look like an amateur -- almost as unschooled as the dunce of a character he played. Thus does real quality shine. Like a diamond in a chest of mere rubies and emeralds.

Offstage, Peter O'Toole had many faults (whose are few?) and his personal life would eventually became a shambles, given his drinking and carousing. His alcoholism, an insidious disease, ruined his health -- but it could not obscure the man's basic character. His honesty shone right through his various addictions. If he could be devilish, at least he never pretended to be any kind of saint. In a couple of nights' casino-hopping in Casablanca and Beirut with his co-star in Lawrence, the soulful Omar Sharif, he managed to lose most of his earnings from that film -- and never look back. He was always a gentleman despite his background not in the Irish working class but criminal class. (His father was a small-time bookmaker who was always being chased by his creditors, and had the crushed knuckles of a crippled hand to show for it.)

Peter O'Toole's alcoholism had reduced him to a physical wreck by 1975, when he had to undergo major surgery. He claimed to have given up drinking after that crisis, but he never denied the root of his health problems and, even after sobering up, didn't become one of those reformed drunks who are always lecturing others, or who spend the rest of their lives pining after their drinking days. Not even the whiskey could hide the basic integrity lurking under all his vices.

Somehow he would live till 81, but his latter years were scarcely robust ones. Both delicate and daring in his best roles, he would become only a spectral figure in the background whenever spotted in old age. Happily, he had spent a lifetime addicted to acting, too, which was his great good fortune and -- most of the time -- his audience's.

If you seek his epitaph, he wrote it himself in the course of an interview on TCM's Word of Mouth: "Many years ago I sent an old, beloved jacket to a cleaner, the Sycamore Cleaners. It was a leather jacket covered in Guinness and blood and marmalade, one of those jobs ... and it came back with a little note pinned to it, and on the note it said, 'It distresses us to return work which is not perfect.' So that will do for me. That can go on my tombstone." Amen.

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