Barbara Hershey, his co-star in "The Stunt Man," put it best. "When you meet Peter O'Toole," she once said, "he does not disappoint." But how can this be true? Here, after all, is the actor who first strode into the public imagination in 1962 as the impossibly dashing "Lawrence of Arabia." This is the man who found a way to be both swashbuckling and hilarious in "My Favorite Year" and held his own at scenery-chewing with no less than Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter." In "The Ruling Class," he convinced us that he was Christ--and Jack the Ripper. And off-screen and off-stage he's engaged in enough drinking and carousing to keep tabloid editors happy for nearly half a century. How could a mere man ever hope to live up to a legend that's larger than larger than life?
Somehow he manages. True, he's a bit shorter, time and age having whittled an inch or two off that original 6-foot-3 frame. Otherwise, when he makes his appearance on a bitter February day in London, it's all there: the body still as lean as something fashioned out of knives, the impossibly handsome face still impossibly handsome, albeit weathered, like a piece of limestone from his native Connemara. When he opens his mouth, out comes that familiar soft-spoken voice with the slightly jazzy cadence--dry ice with a backbeat. Forty years ago, at the outset of "Lawrence," that voice promised us that "it's going to be fun." You can't help admiring a man who keeps his promises.
The folks who dole out Academy Awards obviously feel the same way. In January, they announced that the 70-year-old O'Toole, who's been nominated for best actor seven times but never won, will receive an Oscar for lifetime achievement at the ceremonies next week. The announcement had barely made the news when O'Toole made headlines of his own by declining the award. "[Since I'm] still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright," he asked, "would the Academy please defer the honour until I am 80?" A couple of weeks later, he reversed himself and now blames the whole thing on "the barrier of a common language. I thought it was a polite inquiry: would you be interested in receiving..." So, yes, he's going. "With my children. They're delighted." And how does he feel about copping a prize he admits he's wanted for 40 years? In a word, "Jolly. Enormous shock. I had no idea." For the only time all day, he looks a little flustered.
Not for long. He is taking a guest to lunch at the Garrick Club, and he is in his element as soon as he walks through the door. Founded in 1831 as a club for theater people and other artistic types, the Garrick is his brier patch, a London men's club with probably the world's best collection of art devoted to the dramatic arts. And if O'Toole, a walking encyclopedia of matters theatrical, is your guide, then you're in for a working lunch. There, in the corner, is a portrait of the actress Ellen Terry. Over the mantelpiece, that's Henry Irving, the 19th- century actor-manager who was the first English actor to be knighted. O'Toole, alas, can't be knighted--he's Irish by birth. "I wouldn't mind being a lord, though," he says with something of a sigh.
During the interview, O'Toole consumes innumerable unfiltered Gauloises, each carefully sleeved in a cigarette holder that becomes a wand, a sword, a scepter, depending on the point he's making. He's wearing his trademark green socks. Those long legs keep getting tangled in a microphone cord like the tines of a fork wrapped in spaghetti. Two bottles of stout supply the necessary lubrication, and there's frequent recourse to a box of licorice pastilles. With so many props going at once, this looks like life as stage business, Peter O'Toole playing Peter O'Toole. You wonder aloud if he ever gets tired of lugging around his reputation as the playboy of the Western world. "The damage has been done," he says with a shrug. "There is a legend. There is a myth. And to protest is daft." So, while he'd rather talk Shakespeare, he cheerfully supplies a story from the '50s that involves himself and the late Richard Harris searching for women and drunkenly knocking on a door in the middle of the night in London. It seems that when there was no answer, O'Toole scrambled up the drainpipe, knocked on the window and gained entry. "But when I look back, there's Harris still on the ground. He must not have had my experience with drainpipes growing up in Limerick." When Harris did try to climb, he got about only four stories up before the drainpipe broke away from the wall, leaving him in midair. So O'Toole and his new female companions summoned the authorities. "When they'd got him down, I shouted from the window, 'Officers, arrest that drunken Irishman. He was trying to break into our home!' "
The son of an Irish bookie, O'Toole made his professional debut at the Bristol Old Vic in 1955, playing the cabdriver in Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker." "I had one line: 'What's he want?' I had slightly more to say in 'Uncle Vanya': 'Dr. Astrov, the horses are here'." The groom in "Vanya" inspired the first of many eccentric O'Toole interpretations. "I decided he was Stalin. So on I came with the limp and the cropped hair. And I blew the line. I said, 'Dr. Horses, the Astrovs are here'." Many more eccentric interpretations would follow. Of his roundly panned version of "Macbeth" in 1980 at the Old Vic, a fellow actor observed, "You have to be brilliant to be that bad."
By 1959, he'd won the London Theatre Critics' award for best actor. By 1962, he was in "Lawrence," one of the few movies to ever justify joining the words intelligent and epic in the same sentence. In the movie, T. E. Lawrence becomes a megalomaniac, a killer and finally a mystery even to himself. A lot of us lost our innocence at that movie when we were kids. If you tell O'Toole that "Lawrence" has haunted you all your life, he'll laugh. "My dear sir, it haunted me for the rest of my life" (box).
The movie made O'Toole a huge star overnight--and he spent the rest of his life looking for a suitable encore. He's come very close at least twice, in "The Ruling Class" and "My Favorite Year." Otherwise, he's fashioned a checkered film career playing leads and supporting roles whose only common denominator is his characters' resolute rejection of the ordinary ways of making do. "The good parts are the people who don't make do. They're the interesting people. Lear doesn't make do." But there's no sense O'Toole is winding down. In 1999, again at the Old Vic, he won raves in a for-the-ages performance as the title character in "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell."
So here is Peter O'Toole at 70, a man of diverse parts: actor, scholar, author of two won-derfully wayward installments of his autobiography. Long divorced, he dotes on his grown children and guards his solitude. "I'm the most gregarious of men and love good company, but never less alone when alone." Oddest fact: he's also a cricket instructor. "I became a professional cricket teacher about 20 years ago. I had a son born to me when I was 50, and I thought, he needs someone to bowl to him."
Serene, content--if it's acting, it's the performance of a lifetime. "Life turned out much better than I thought. I knew after a little while that I could act. Films were never in my budget. Didn't occur to me till much later. I hoped for a long, good life, which I've had and I'm having as an actor. I didn't expect the rest." Neither did we. On the screen, on the stage and in the flesh, Peter O'Toole does not disappoint.