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By TODAY staff and wire

Actor Peter O'Toole, who shot to international fame in the blockbuster movie "Lawrence of Arabia," has died at age 81 in London after a long illness, his agent said on Sunday. 

O'Toole, who survived a bout with stomach cancer in the 1970s but whose health had been damaged by years of heavy drinking and chain-smoking, died in a London hospital on Saturday, Steve Kenis, his agent, told Reuters. 

"Peter O'Toole's family announced today that very sadly Peter died yesterday, peacefully in hospital. He had been ill for some time," Kenis said in a statement. 

His daughter Kate O'Toole said in a statement to MSNBC that the family is "very appreciative and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection." 

"In due course there will be a memorial filled with song and good cheer, as he would have wished," she added. "We will be happy to speak to you all then but in the meantime if you could give Peter O'Toole the respect he deserves and allow us to grieve privately we'd appreciate it."

The swaggering romantic
He grew up in England and trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art where he was in the same class as Albert Finney. 

His piercing blue eyes, tousled brown hair and 6-foot-3-inch frame made him an instant hit with women when he began his stage career in 1954. 

He initially made waves on stage in several key Shakespearean roles, including an acclaimed turn as "Hamlet," before gaining fame in films such as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Ruling Class", "The Stunt Man" and "My Favorite Year." 

Actor Peter O'Toole, who starred in such films as "Lawrence of Arabia" and "The Last Emperor," died Saturday at age 81, his agent confirmed.

Living down his "Lawrence of Arabia" role became a major problem, however, and for most of the 1970s, O'Toole found he was playing nothing but the swaggering romantic actor. 

Because he was so handsome, playwrite Noel Coward once said that had the actor been any prettier, they would have had to call the movie "Florence of Arabia." 

In 1980, he made a humiliating return to the Shakespearean stage in London after a 20-year absence. 

O'Toole's blood-soaked "Macbeth" at the Old Vic theatre provoked outright laughter from the audience and made front-page news for its sheer awfulness. Though it bombed critically, the production played to sold-out audiences.

"The thought of it makes my nose bleed," he said years later. 

For the next few years, O'Toole found it difficult to be taken seriously as an actor. But in the late 1980s, he made a startling comeback. 

He also gave up drinking. Years of abdominal pain and almost continuous consumption of alcohol had led to a diagnosis of pancreatitis and a warning that liquor would soon kill him. 

Taking a bow
In July 2012, the accomplished actor announced that he was quitting the profession

"It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: It won't come back, he said in a statement. "My professional acting life, stage and screen, has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort. ... However, it's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell."

But O'Toole did participate in two other projects after retiring. According to The Hollywood Reporter, he has smalls roles in the upcoming films "Mary" and "Katherine of Alexandria."

Though he has acted in numerous movies over his decades-long career, O'Toole never won an Oscar, though he was nominated eight times, including best actor for 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" and 2006's "Venus." In 2003, the academy presented him with an honorary Oscar, which he initially turned down

He wrote of his reaction, "I was enchanted but said that as I was still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?"

During the 75th annual Academy Awards ceremony, the actor accepted the honorary statuette from presenter Meryl Streep. "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride my foot!" he joked in his speech. "I have my very own Oscar now to be with me 'til death do us part."

As news of his death spread, actors said their goodbyes and shared memories of the thespian.















O'Toole leaves behind children Kate and Patricia from his failed marriage with Welsh actress Sian Phillips, and Lorcan, his son from a relationship with Karen Brown, a former girlfriend.

With additional reporting by Reuters and the Associated Press.