More visible than he has been in ages, Peter O’Toole turned up this year in a “Lassie” remake and as the prophet Samuel in the Biblical drama, “One Night With the King.” The 74-year-old actor also stands a very good chance of landing his eighth best-actor Oscar nomination for an end-of-2006 release called “Venus.”
Hard to believe, but he’s never won. It’s been 43 years since he received his first nomination, for the title role in “Lawrence of Arabia,” which Premiere magazine recently named No. 1 on its list of the greatest performances ever committed to celluloid.
O’Toole lost that year to Gregory Peck’s formidable Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and in the years to follow he would lose repeatedly, sometimes to less memorable competitors. So far, the Academy has awarded him only an honorary Oscar for the body of his work. He almost turned it down.
Still, you can’t fault the Oscar voters too much. They were always there for him when he gave a major performance. Unlike many legendary actors who are overlooked in their prime or recognized when they’re doing mediocre work, O’Toole was nominated when he deserved to be.
Trained as a British stage actor, the Irish-born O’Toole was officially “introduced” on film in “Lawrence,” although he’d made three movies previously, including Disney’s “Kidnapped” (1960) and “The Savage Innocents” (1960), which featured his “Lawrence” co-star, Anthony Quinn.
Plenty of other forgotten films followed “Lawrence,” though often they had large ambitions. There was nothing wrong with casting O’Toole as Conrad’s “Lord Jim” (1964), or as Don Quixote/Cervantes in “Man of La Mancha” (1972) or even as three angels in “The Bible ...in the Beginning” (1966). But the movies failed to live up to their source material.
O’Toole has salvaged such mediocrities as “Creator” (1985) and “King Ralph” (1991), and he’s done marvelous work in such classy television productions as “Rogue Male” (1976) and “Masada” (1981). In his best films, O’Toole usually manages to mix his natural flamboyance with a sharp intellect. Rarely is he caught napping.
Here are 10 of his most alert performances:
“Lawrence of Arabia” (1962)
Now that we know a little more about Iraq, David Lean’s landmark epic about the country’s birth pangs plays almost like a critique of 21st Century foreign policy. When T.E. Lawrence says he wants to bring the Arabs their freedom, after calling them “a little people, a silly people, greedy, barbarous and cruel,” he sounds more like an occupier than a liberator. Still, it’s never quite that simple. O’Toole’s brilliance allows for other interpretations.
“Becket” (1964)The story of an intense friendship that ends in murder, Jean Anouilh’s fascinating account of the relationship between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, who was appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury under the king’s watch, gives O’Toole the opportunity to demonstrate his flair for comedy. The tone of the film and the performance of his co-star, Richard Burton, is tragic and dour. O’Toole’s gift for puncturing royal pretensions keeps it from going too far in that direction.
“Night of the Generals” (1967)O’Toole gives his twitchiest performance as a catty, unhinged Nazi general who may be guilty of killing prostitutes in early-1940s Warsaw. Known as “The Butcher,” he destroys a Polish neighborhood just for the fun of it, and terrifies underlings with unreasonable requests. The movie didn’t please critics or audiences at the time, but it’s full of surprises, among them the smoothest performance of O’Toole’s frequent co-star, Omar Sharif.
“The Lion in Winter” (1968)O’Toole makes the most of a second chance to play Henry II in James Goldman’s clever, bitchy play about a Christmas reunion that brings together Henry, his estranged wife Eleanor (Katharine Hepburn), and their bratty adult children. Hepburn won a best-actress Oscar, and she should have been joined by O’Toole, who lost to Cliff Robertson’s mostly forgotten “Charly.” What were the voters thinking?
“Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969)An overlong musical reworking of the 1939 movie that won an Oscar for Robert Donat, this adaptation of James Hilton’s novel works in spite of Leslie Bricusse’s disposable songs. That’s largely due to O’Toole’s detailed performance as the beloved schoolmaster and Sian Phillips (Mrs. O’Toole at the time) as a sophisticated actress who didn’t appear in the original story.
“The Ruling Class” (1972)Mad as a hatter, Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, is harmless when he thinks he’s Jesus Christ — because when he’s praying he ends up talking to himself. But watch out when he turns into the reincarnation of Jack the Ripper. It’s hard to imagine anyone but O’Toole tackling the role, which playwright Peter Barnes created to carry his satirical attack on British society.
“The Stunt Man” (1980)O’Toole once more gets to play God, in the form of maniacal movie director Eli Cross, in Richard Rush’s tricky tale of a fugitive Vietnam veteran (Steve Railsback) who finds himself dodging fake bullets and other special effects on the set of a war movie. When the sinister Cross recruits him to replace a deceased stuntman, O’Toole’s truth-or-illusion games really begin.
“My Favorite Year” (1982)This is the backstage comedy in which O’Toole declares “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star.” He plays Alan Swann, a character loosely based on Errol Flynn, who makes this proclamation when he discovers that he’s expected to perform on live television during the early-1950s. In O’Toole’s hands, Swann always has his wits about him, no matter how drunk and pratfall-prone he becomes.
“The Last Emperor” (1987)For once, O’Toole is overshadowed by other performers as well as a lavish production that won nine Academy Awards, including one for his director, Bernardo Bertolucci. Still, O’Toole’s self-effacing performance, as tutor to the last emperor of China (John Lone), is one of his subtlest.
“Venus” (2006)O’Toole plays an aging actor who falls for a much younger woman in Hanif Kureishi’s tenderly awkward tale of an impossible relationship. Doddering, forgetful and impotent, O’Toole claims he has only a “theoretical interest” in the girl, who is both flattered and offended by all the attention. It’s the richest role O’Toole has played since the 1980s.
Nominated in the past for “Lawrence,” “Becket,” “Lion in Winter,” “Mr. Chips,” “Ruling Class,” “Stunt Man” and “My Favorite Year,” O’Toole seems likely to earn his eighth nod for “Venus.” If he’s nominated and the movie turns out to be too slender or eccentric for Academy tastes, he’ll still score a new record for an actor: eight nominations, no wins.