Peter O’Toole, Star of ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ Dead at 81

Film legend was nominated for 8 Oscars

Actor Peter O’Toole, who found stardom in David Lean’s 1962 masterpiece “Lawrence of Arabia,” has died at the age of 81.

The acclaimed leading man who overcame stomach cancer in the 1970s passed away on Saturday in London following a long illness, his agent Steve Kenis told The Guardian newspaper. O’Toole announced last year he was retiring from acting saying: “I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.”

He held the ignominious distinction of having the most acting Oscar nominations without a win, having been nominated eight times for an Academy Award for Best Actor.

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O’Toole enjoyed one of the most captivating star turns in film history. He was largely unknown when he took over the role of T.E. Lawrence in Lean’s epic biopic about the World War I-era soldier, only earning the role because Marlon Brando had scheduling conflicts and Albert Finney turned the part down. But he was an overnight success as the driven and charismatic desert warrior, whose intense affinity for the Arab cause led him to the mental and emotional breaking point.

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His hair dyed blonde, the lean and angular actor was in stunning contrast to the ocean of white sand behind him, prompting Noel Coward to famously quip, “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been ‘Florence of Arabia.’”

He never matched that initial success, but with a sonorous voice that sent each lilted phrase soaring and piercing blue eyes, O’Toole became one of the most successful film actors of the 1960s. He starred as a succession of kings, aristocrats and hedonists in such films as “The Ruling Class,” “My Favorite Year,” and “Venus.” He also had the distinction of playing King Henry II twice, in “Beckett” and “The Lion in Winter,” earning Oscar nods both times for his efforts.

O’Toole was one of a generation of hard-drinking hell raisers that included Richard Burton and Richard Harris who burst across the British stage and later international screens. They had an emotional intensity that drew on Method acting, but combined it with the theatricality of an earlier generation of actors. Their roles were outsized, and so were their lives, before alcohol and hard-living ultimately caught up with them. Though O’Toole outlived his contemporaries, health problems and erratic professional choices (the less said about “Caligula” and “Man of La Mancha,” the better) derailed his career in the 1970s, until he returned triumphantly with a starring role as a megalomaniacal film director in the 1980 satire “The Stunt Man.”

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He followed that up with one of his most acclaimed roles as an alcoholic movie star, modeled loosely on Errol Flynn, who is terrified of acting on live television in 1982’s “My Favorite Year.” With the exception of 2006’s “Venus,” which found him as a geriatric actor besotted with a working class girl, most of his later roles were supporting ones, where he was trotted out to enliven spectacles such as “The Last Emperor” and “Troy.” For a younger generation, he may be best known for giving voice to the imperious food critic, Anton Ego, in  2007’s “Ratatouille.”

He could still be engaging and eccentric company as a guest on talk shows and late night programming. Back in the hunt for an Oscar in the mid-aughts, he charmed the likes of David Letterman and Jay Leno by recounting his youthful misdeeds while under the influence.

In addition to his film work, O’Toole was a highly acclaimed stage actor. His notable roles included a Laurence Olivier-directed production of “Hamlet,” revivals of “Pygmalion” and “Man and Superman,” and a Laurence Olivier Award-winning performance in “Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.”  Here too he suffered setbacks — in particular, a spectacularly awful “Macbeth.”

O’Toole had a stormy 20-year marriage with “I, Claudius” star Siân Phillips that ended in divorce in 1979.

He is survived by his daughters, Kate and Pat, and son, Lorcan.