Peter O'Toole, Always in Character

In a fantasy sequence in the 1967 movie Casino Royale—not a straight Bond flick, like the 2006 version, but a famously messy spoof—Peter Sellers, playing one of several rival 007s, sees a haggard-looking Scots bagpiper emerge from soundstage fog. "Are you Richard Burton?" the piper asks, and Sellers retorts, "No, I'm Peter O'Toole!" At which the piper—played by O'Toole himself—is overcome by emotion. "Then you're the finest man who ever breathed," he says, and vanishes into the mist.

What's nice is that O'Toole has the wit to say it in character—that is, in character as a demented Scots piper who reveres Peter O'Toole, with nary a hint of a wink to the audience. It's not just that he obviously knew it would be funnier that way, and we can only imagine how Burton's peculiarly preening self-contempt would have soured the cameo. No matter how silly the job at hand was, O'Toole just couldn't help acting. But he also seldom made it look like a job, which was a key part of his charm during a career that spanned half a century.

Oddly enough, his most famous role is the major exception. As T.E. Lawrence in David Lean's 1962 Lawrence of Arabia—the part that made him a star—O'Toole wasn't exactly in a position to play up his genius for nonchalance. In hindsight, you can see the effort he's making to stay keyed up to Lawrence's hysterical pitch of intensity, not to mention how his wit is kept on short rations by Lean's essentially humorless conception. One of Lean's limitations was his apparent fear that people might not think he was a Great Director if he had any use for drollery, and in any case, O'Toole must have been under extraordinary strain. Not only was he a 29-year-old unknown cast in the title role of an enormous epic, but Lawrence's filming went on for so long—well over a year, often under arduous conditions—that there's probably still a second unit or two out shooting in the Moroccan desert somewhere.

No doubt, there are people who think O'Toole frittered away his talent by not tackling similar acting "challenges" again and again, especially given our time's predilection for seeing brilliance in actors who can do just about anything convincingly onscreen except relax. But O'Toole's only other real try at a Lawrence-ish role—as the title character in Richard Brooks's typically overwrought Lord Jim (1965)—must have convinced him that turning those celebrated baby blues into something you'd expect to find on Elizabeth Taylor's pinky as he gibbered for the camera wasn't fit work for a man who enjoyed life. If most of his credits look like pleasure cruises compared to Lawrence, he'd earned them. Better yet, the pleasure in question was one we all got to share.

O'Toole was elegantly at home in the broth of silly brio that was pre-counterculture 1960s moviemaking. He's fetchingly self-amused as the womanizer Sellers is psychoanalyzing in '65's What's New, Pussycat?—based on Warren Beatty's amorous career, incidentally, and originally slotted to star Beatty himself until the actor tangled with the young Woody Allen over the script. Even in an ostensibly solemn prestige picture like 1964's Becket—based on Jean Anouilh's play, and starring O'Toole as Henry II opposite Burton in the title role—you can tell how much he's enjoying himself. Perhaps more remarkably, he's energizing his co-star to do the same; as they vie to see who can extract the most irony and/or entertainment value from Anouilh's faux-mordant, faux-profound dialogue, he and Burton are having a great time engaging in a cutting contest.

O'Toole was to play Henry II again just four years later in The Lion in Winter, based on a James Goldman play whose idea of sophisticated quips made Anouilh look like Shakespeare. He brought even Goldman's worst lines more panache than they deserved, but even though Katherine Hepburn—playing Eleanor of Aquitaine—was his senior by a quarter-century, the subtext for O'Toole fans was plain. Youth was gone and maybe even willfully gone, considering that the next big part he tackled was Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1969.

With youth went his relatively short stint as an A-list box-office name. But because he was Peter O'Toole, he kept on being rediscovered—by American audiences, that is, British ones having never wholly lost sight of him. He spent the '70s and much of the '80s specializing in eccentrics: the demented peer in 1972's The Ruling Class, the megalomaniac movie director in 1980's The Stunt Man. But since few of those projects found sizeable audiences Stateside, he was largely off America's radar until My Favorite Year (1982) let him play someone else—the part was supposedly based on Errol Flynn—with every bit as much first-hand knowledge as if he'd been playing himself. That may be the ideal O'Toole formula, right down to 2006's Venus. The movie was so calculated to serve as a sentimental last hurrah that his objective interest in doing a good job of acting is movingly dry-eyed. Even fresh off an Academy Award nomination for that one—his eighth, and he never won—he was also no snob. The kiddies may know him best as the voice of restaurant critic Anton Ego in 2007's Ratatouille.

Starting with that voice's combination of immaculate diction and distinctive personality, O'Toole had all the qualities we associate with his spectacular generation of British actors. What made him different, I think, was his eloquent and often eccentric body language, not a Brit specialty. Who remembers how Burton moved onscreen—or Albert Finney, or Michael Caine? Part of what made David Lean cast O'Toole in Lawrence must have been his ability to make his lanky frame look like a house of cards with a mission in life. He played Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, but that just proves how limited Hollywood's imagination is: He should have played the windmill. In an otherwise forgettable 1984 TV adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's Kim, O'Toole's odd, unworldly capers as he sees the Ganges at last have stayed with me for going on 30 years.

Talk of his generation also brings up the obvious, which is that the likes of O'Toole, Burton—and Richard Harris—drank more on most nights than most of us will in a lifetime. To my knowledge, O'Toole never deplored that; he just allowed as how he'd gotten too old for such shenanigans. But unlike most of his peers, he never lost his elegance, or his debonair sense of what did and didn't matter. That's why it's so satisfying to learn that, when a bomb threat phoned in to the set of Otto Preminger's Rosebud turned out to be a prank played by critic Kenneth Tynan, O'Toole—despite being in frail shape at the time—supposedly showed up at Tynan's door and briskly beat the hell out of him. Never let it be said that this man didn't have the right values in life.

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