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Acting legend O’Toole dies

8 Oscar nods define a storied career

Associated Press
Actor Peter O’Toole, the charismatic actor nominated eight times for an Academy Award, has died. He was 81.

Peter O’Toole, the willowy and mesmerizing actor who became an overnight sensation in the 1962 film epic “Lawrence of Arabia,” died Saturday in a London hospital. He was 81.

His death, confirmed by his agent, came after a prolonged, unspecified illness.

During his long and colorful career, O’Toole received eight Academy Award nominations with no wins – an unprecedented streak for an actor. In 2003, he settled for an honorary Oscar, which he accepted with customary relish.

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. My foot,” he said, clutching the Oscar for lifetime achievement.

His first Oscar nomination was for his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence, the British archaeologist, soldier and adventurer who led Arab tribesmen against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. O’Toole’s acting helped make director David Lean’s film a classic and placed the actor in a pantheon of beloved, roguish British and Irish actors of the postwar era.

O’Toole never fully embraced the Hollywood culture and was identified instead with a flamboyant, theatrical and hard-drinking cohort of stage and screen stars who included Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Peter Finch. O’Toole spoke with exquisite diction and careful delivery.

He told the Washington Post in a 1978 interview that “my passion is language. The most satisfying thing for me is having worked with fine writers.” His voice evoked a very cultured British manner, although he was claimed by Ireland as a favorite son, and he identified himself as an Irishman.

His friend Michael Higgins, the Irish president, issued a statement after O’Toole’s death that said the actor “was unsurpassed for the grace he brought to every performance on and off the stage.”

“Ireland, and the world,” Higgins said, “has lost one of the giants of film and theater.”

Peter Seamus O’Toole was born Aug. 2, 1932, although where isn’t definitively known; he said his birthplace was either Connemara in the western part of Ireland or the northern English city of Leeds, where he grew up. His father, Patrick “Spats” O’Toole, was an Irish bookmaker, and his mother, Constance Jane Eliot, a Scottish nurse.

He studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and joined the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, where he became noticed as an actor of extraordinary presence in spite of his youth and inexperience.

His early success with “Lawrence of Arabia,” however, did not guarantee a smooth career, although it was prolific and at times highly celebrated. Among his performances onstage, he was acclaimed for his Hamlet and his portrayal of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, as well as his role as a sad and poignant Fleet Street hack in “Unwell,” first performed in 1989 and reprised to packed West End audiences a decade later.

Apart from “Lawrence,” he received Oscar nominations for his leading roles in “Becket” (1964), “The Lion in Winter” (1968), “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1968), “The Ruling Class” (1972), “The Stunt Man” (1980) and “My Favorite Year” (1982). His final Oscar nomination came in 2006, when he played an aging lothario in “Venus.”

O’Toole acknowledged that his career was marked with hits and flops and that he accepted some roles to pay the rent. His carousing with Burton, Harris and other actors became fabled but by the mid-1970s, he swore off the booze after a successful surgery for pancreatitis. He later said,“We did in public what everyone else did in private.” Looking ever more drawn and haunted as the years passed, he continued to smoke strong French cigarettes in a black cigarette holder.

His marriage to actress Sian Phillips ended in divorce. He is survived by two daughters from that marriage, Pat O’Toole and Kate O’Toole, and by his son, Lorcan O’Toole, by Karen Brown.