Peter O'Toole was an actor only one of his kind- the master thespian. When he performed he used every muscle in his face every fibre in his personality every tenor in his voice.
His first notable role was that of T. E. (Thomas Edward) Lawrence in David Lean's “Lawrence of Arabia”. The film had a constellation of famous actors Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif and Jack Hawkins. Peter O'Toole with the Arab headgear Keffieyh and Arab robe thawb looked statuesque. The film depicts Lawrence's military attacks on Aqaba and Damascus. He was however caught in emotional conflicts about killing, about the covert nature of British design and his camaraderie with Arab fighters. He had his reverses once caught by Turks when he was flogged and abused. He had an overwhelming presence in the film. It is regarded as one of the ten great performances in cinematic history. Lawrence of Arabia was first of eight nominations he received for Best Actor Oscar Award. Gregory Peck got the Oscar Award for “To Kill a Mocking Bird”. Peter O'Toole did not get Oscar Award for any of his eight nominations.
Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was followed by “Becket” in 1964. It is the story of King Henry II of England and his protégé Thomas Becket, about how friendship turns into fury when ecclesiastical uprightness would not serve unrighteous commands of an irreligious monarch. The film had Peter O'Toole as King Henry II, Richard Burton as Becket. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was treating Henry as a 'perennial adolescent' he removed him and made Becket the Archbishop. When Becket became increasingly pious and would not acquiesce to the wrongdoings of Henry he fell from grace. In one instance Henry blurted out “Becket is the only intelligent man in my entire kingdom...and he is against me!” Peter O' Toole's delivery of the dialogue was the ultimate in cinematic acting. Every muscle in his face quivered, his lips twitched. Finally, Henry put Becket to sword. Later, he became repentant and submitted to penance when he was flogged, Becket was declared a saint. Peter O'Toole was nominated for the second time but the Oscar award went to Rex Harrison for “My Fair Lady” (1964).
“Lord Jim” (1965) was a movie based on a novel by Joseph Conrad. The story was about a British seaman named Jim. He met a setback in his career for dereliction of duty. Later, he was rehabilitated in a mixed Malayan population. There he received the title Tuan (Lord). He saved the local population from predators. Later a 'gentleman' bandit killed the son of the local chieftain. He met the chieftain and willingly took a fatal bullet from him in his chest. He had that same inimitable performing excellence in Lord Jim.
The next Peter O'Toole movie was “The Night of the Generals” (1967). General Tanz (Peter O'Toole) of German Army is a psychopathic killer of prostitutes. A Polish prostitute is sadistically murdered in Warsaw in 1942. Major Grau (Omar Sharif) of German Intelligence Agency is investigating the murder. Peter O'Toole's portrayal of General Tanz was stunningly real when he exclaimed to his subordinate "How dare you touch my hand!" His icy gaze and glacially impassive face, tremulous gloved hand holding a baton and brutal scorn made the character awe inspiring for cine goers
“The Lion in Winter” was the next movie. For the second time Peter O'Toole played the role of Henry II. It was Christmas of 1183. This Henry was aging but crafty with meddlesome Queen Eleanor (Katherine Hepburn), a plotting mistress and three squabbling sons Richard (Anthony Hopkins in debut role), Geoffrey and John. The fate of the Kingdom was facing a troubled time and the stakeholders were engaging in all kinds of deception. Peter O'Toole was brilliant as Henry. He was nominated for the third time for the Oscar but the Award went to Cliff Robertson for the film “Charley”. Katherine Hepburn however got the Best Actress Award - her third.
“Goodbye Mr. Chips” (1969) was the fourth film for which Peter O'Toole was nominated for Oscar Award but did not get it. The award went to John Wayne for “True Grit”. Goodbye Mr. Chips is the story of school teacher Mr. Chipping. He lovingly became Mr. Chips. Mr. Chips was conservative, disciplinarian and pedantic. In spite of it his keen sense of humour made him exceedingly popular in his long career. Peter O'Toole made it a gem of a character.
“The Ruling Class” (1972) was a comedy. Earl Jack Gurney (Peter O'Toole) suffers from schizophrenia. He thinks he is God. He undergoes psychotherapy to no avail and 'electro shock therapy' apparently cures him of his delusions but he grows violent against women. He murders his mistress and blames his valet. Finally he returns to the House of Lords and makes a fiery speech. He was nominated for the Oscar but the award went to Marlon Brando.
In “The Stunt Man” (1980) Eli Wallach (Peter O'Toole) a combustible film director forces a war veteran who accidentally killed a stunt man on the set to perform the stunts in his place. It was a tough task. The Stunt Man walked out. Peter O'Toole got his sixth nomination for Best Actor but the Oscar Award went to Robert Di Nero for “Raging Bull”.
“My Favourite Year” (1982) a comedy tells the story of a 1954 swashbuckling movie actor Allan Swann (Peter O'Toole). Peter O'Toole as the inebriated actor was in the best of elements. He was nominated for the seventh time but the award went to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi.
In “Venus” (2006) Peter) O'Toole was in the role of an elderly actor of deteriorating health due to prostate cancer. Maurice the actor developed a friendship with Jessie the great-niece of one of his friends. They go to the seaside and there he dies leaning on her. He was nominated for the eighth time but the award went to Forrest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland”.
Peter O'Toole's three other notable films are “The Last Emperor”, “How to Steal a Million” and “The Savage Innocents”. Peter O'Toole was given Lifetime Oscar Award in 2003. He received an offer of peerage but declined it.
An Irish-British citizen, Peter Seamus O'Toole was born on August 2, 1932 and died on December 14, 2013 at the age of 81.
Peter O'Toole will remain the mark of theatrical panache for all ages.
The writer is a film and music buff.