Peter O’Toole: A Hellraiser Remembered

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Last year we lost many great actors and directors but few were as widely beloved and revered as Peter O’Toole. The internet was overflowing with obituaries and remembrances of O’Toole during the last few weeks of December and some of our regular blog readers wondered out loud why the Morlocks hadn’t jumped into the fray. I can’t speak for my fellow Morlocks but I often find it very difficult to write about the artists I admire right after they’ve died. It can be a painful and revealing process that feels like you’re pouring salt into an open wound. Unlike typical news sites, the Movie Morlocks don’t have canned death notices waiting to be published once we learn that a much loved Hollywood figure has passed away and words can and often do fail me when I’m trying to discuss someone like Peter O’Toole, who was truly larger than life. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA was one of the pivotal films of my childhood and it encouraged my lifelong fascination with the real T. E. Lawrence but I wasn’t expecting to lose O’Toole this year and I’m not prepared to summarize the deep well of emotions that his death stirred in me. So, instead I thought I’d share some fascinating facts and anecdotes about the early life of the tall and lanky handsome Irishman that can be found in one of my favorite books about Peter O’Toole and his acting compatriots, Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World by Robert Sellers.

BASTARDSbookDon’t Let the Bastards Get You Down is the second book by Sellers that chronicles the emergence of a brilliant group of thespians in Britain during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s that included O’Toole along with fellow school chums, occasional drinking buddies and acting rivals Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Richard Harris, Robert Shaw, Oliver Reed, Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Sean Connery and Tom Courtney. Sellers’ first book was the entertaining Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed but Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down is a more in-depth study of their acting careers and its scope is much broader. Within the pages of Sellers’ books Peter O’Toole comes across as a loveable rogue with limitless acting talent who occasionally gets derailed by booze, drugs, sex and his all too healthy ego. I especially love the way Sellers is able to incorporate so many little known facts and tall tales about O’Toole into a wider narrative about post-war Britain and the impact that this motley bunch of performers had on Hollywood. Here are just a few of the most memorable anecdotes about O’Toole that can be found in Sellers’ book.

poburtonPeter O’Toole & Richard Burton on the set of BECKET (1964)

Peter O’Toole’s first job was with The Yorkshire Evening News. He began working as a “tea boy” for the newspaper and later became a junior reporter but he eventually abandoned the position claiming, “I soon found that, rather than chronicling events, I wanted to be the event.” Soon afterward he took up acting.

As a young man, Peter O’Toole suffered from a stammer and lisp. He  alleged that they were cured during his brief stint with the British Navy after he was kicked in the chin by a large Swede during a navel rugby match. Apparently O’Toole’s tongue was split open during impact and had to be carefully stitched back together. When the injury healed his stammer and lisp were no longer noticeable.

po1Peter O’Toole on the set of THE STUNT MAN (1980)

While studying acting at RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) O’Toole found work in television and low-budget films as a stunt man. His classmates recalled seeing the nimble actor often covered in bruises and bandages. Some of the humorous pseudonyms O’Toole used while working as a stunt man included Charlie Staircase and Walter Heathrug.

Peter O’Toole was given his first screen test in 1959 at the request of Katherine Hepburn who spotted the young actor in a stage play and was immediately charmed by him. Hepburn was in London during the filming of SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959) and there was considerable tension on set between her costar Montgomery Clift and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Mankiewicz tried to have Clift replaced numerous times so Hepburn asked producer Sam Spiegel to give O’Toole a screen test in case they needed to hire another actor for Clift’s role. Hepburn thought O’Toole would make a great doctor but during the screen test, O’Toole kept joking around and didn’t take the opportunity seriously so Spiegel dismissed him without a second thought until the two were forced to work together three years later on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA at director David Lean’s insistence.

po5Peter O’Toole & Katharine Hepburn on the set of THE LION IN WINTER (1968)

The third film Peter O’Toole appeared in was THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (1960) directed by Nicholas Ray and it’s the last film featuring O’Toole with the face he was actually born with. O’Toole was supposedly eager to work with the director of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE but the production ran into some difficulties and there were conflicts on set. Ray didn’t seem to understand O”Toole’s sense of humor and he also thought the actor’s nose was too large and suggested that he should consider getting a nose job, which O’Toole agreed to. This clash between Ray may have led to O’Toole’s preoccupation with plastic surgery, which seems a shame to me because he’s ridiculously handsome in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS and his nose is perfectly regal and not the least bit distracting.

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po4Top: Peter O’Toole in THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS (1960)
Bottom: Peter O’Toole & Omar Sharif in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)

During the making of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif became lifelong friends. When the two young actors arrived in Hollywood just before the film’s premiere they visited a Hollywood bistro to see a show by the controversial comedian, Lenny Bruce. O’Toole quickly befriended Bruce and the two apparently got along very well. According to Sellers’ book and Omar Sharif’s autobiography (The Eternal Male), the three headed back to Bruce’s apartment where the comedian began shooting dope. Unbeknownst to them all, the Los Angeles police department had Bruce’s apartment under surveillance and they suddenly broke down the door and arrested all three men. Omar called LAWRENCE OF ARABIA producer Sam Spiegel from the police station and he managed to bail them all out of jail and get the entire story buried before it appeared in any newspapers. In 1962 news of a heroin bust might have destroyed O’Toole’s career and the studio was undoubtedly willing to pay just about anything to cover up the mess, which could have put their big budget blockbuster in jeopardy. Instead, I suspect that the incident might have hindered O’Toole’s Oscar chances. The drug bust may have been kept out of the papers but some members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences undoubtedly heard about the actor’s ill-timed antics.

Further reading:
- A collection of Peter O’Toole obituaries and remembrances from Fandor
- 10 more fun stories about Peter O’Toole from the U.K. Telegraph
- Joseph Wambaugh’s own recollection of Peter O’Toole’s 1962 drug bust

5 Responses Peter O’Toole: A Hellraiser Remembered
Posted By Alan : January 3, 2014 3:08 am

Great read

Posted By tdraicer : January 3, 2014 4:16 pm

Thanks for this. I find it hard to picture a world without him in it, and I haven’t been this sad over a star’s death since James Mason.

I do want to mention a personal favorite, the sadly under-rated film Creator. I remember Ebert unfavorably comparing it to Terms of Endearment. I don’t think the two had much in common, but I’d much rather watch Creator in any case.

Posted By robbushblog : January 3, 2014 4:53 pm

I never knew about the nose job. He looks like a different person in that shot from The Savage Innocence. He will truly be missed. His talent was extraordinary. From Lawrence of Arabia to My Favorite Year to Ratatouille, he always made an incredible impression. That voice is unforgettable. Thank you for this tribute to the great actor.

Note- It’s Tom Courtenay, not Tom Courtney.

Posted By LD : January 3, 2014 10:09 pm

Thank you Kimberly for sharing the Peter O’Toole stories. I also did not know about his plastic surgery.

At my mother’s suggestion, when I was a preteen, I cut two suitable for framing photos out of a movie magazine. One was of O’Toole as Lawrence and the other Sharif as Ali. These I framed and hung in my bedroom. I took them down with the invasion of the Beatles, much to my mother’s chagrin.

For high school freshman English there was a field trip to see BECKET. Amazing an actor’s ability to touch peoples’ lives.

Posted By DevlinCarnate : January 3, 2014 11:21 pm

a fitting tribute to a great actor,i was one of those that complained about the lack of coverage,but i also mentioned the holidays,deadlines,and all the blah blah blahs of real life…hopefully TCM will make him “star of the month” soon so we can see all those performances that made him so charming and charismatic,instead of the usual Lawrence of Arabia….my favorite quote from him is his questioning of the paradox of his name…think about it ;)

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