What did Peter O'Toole accomplish in his nearly 80 years on earth? This biographer tried to find out.
Yes, Peter O’Toole did have a life after “Lawrence of Arabia.” And before, too. But most casual moviegoers would be hard pressed to add many entries to his biography—although, with a little time to think about it, they might come up with “Becket,” in which he played opposite Richard Burton, and “Lion in Winter,” in which he crossed verbal swords with Katherine Hepburn. His other starring performances, competent as they were, have passed quietly out of the public consciousness: “The Stunt Man,” “The Ruling Class,” “Lord Jim,” “Murphy’s War,” “My Favorite Year.” In a career of over five decades, he received seven Academy Award nominations for best actor but took home the brass baldy only for a Lifetime Achievement Award in his final years. Nonetheless, he will always be remembered riding a camel under the glaring Saharan sun with those blue eyes looking out from behind his white keffiyeh.
What else did he do in his nearly 80 years on earth? That is the question British biographer Robert Sellers sets out to address. The task proves far more challenging than setting out a chronology of roles and romances. O’Toole was a complicated piece of work. To begin, he adopted the persona of free-spirited, hard drinking, Irish rogue, when in fact, he was born in Leeds, albeit in a family with Irish roots, and at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts had to work on the leaden consonants and swallowed vowels of his Yorkshire accent. He had little that would pass for education in his youth and bounced around in several low-level factory jobs before a turn in the Royal Navy. One might expect that military service would help a young firebrand settle down a bit, but it seemed to have had the opposite effect. His unease with authority matured into blind rage.
O’Toole had contempt for rehearsal schedules but always managed to appear on stage on cue, one way or another. He had a photographic memory and knew his own and everyone else’s lines before the first run-through. He could throw terrible tantrums and argue about every line and interpretation of a play, but once he felt the director knew what he was doing, he took direction well. He even welcomed it. Such a mercurial character with little formal schooling would be expected to be skeptical of academic research, but O’Toole tried to learn all he could about the historical characters he was impersonating on the stage or studio set. After a successful run in the repertory company of Old Vic in Bristol, he might have settled into the comfortable role of a lead actor on the London stage. But then came “Lawrence.”
Robert Sellers seems fascinated by the chaotic side of O’Toole’s life. This trait runs through much of his writing, and he specializes in celebrities and contemporary culture, especially the wild side of his subjects. Nonconformity, as it spills over into anarchy, surely dominates the O’Toole narrative, as it does in Sellers’s earlier works. These include Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed and Hollywood Hellraisers: The Wild Lives and Fast Times of Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jack Nicholson. Sellers seems drawn toward self-destructive behavior like a moth to an alcohol-fueled flame. And so the story of Peter O’Toole is woven from threads of binges, puerile pranks and mutually destructive relationships with many of the great British actors of his generation. It was all great rollicking fun, until it wasn’t anymore. As the drinking took over his life, the leading roles in film came with less frequency. He continued regular appearances on the stage: some with great success, others with less.
Sellers leaves a few loose threads in Peter O’Toole. As O’Toole’s body begins its inevitable journey to oblivion, he turns from drink altogether, but other drugs seem to fill the void in his life. The author is discreet about all of this—oddly so, since he describes the earlier embarrassing escapades in rich detail. As the story turns somber, more specific information could help the reader grasp O’Toole’s life-ending ordeals. Was it cancer, cirrhosis or aggravated ulcers? After following the great actor through these many twists in his life as we try to understand the complexity of his life and talent, I would like to know more about O’Toole’s final years than the iron will that kept him on stage as his body disintegrated around him.
Sellers relates his story as a connected series of anecdotes gathered from multiple interviews and press coverage. Larger questions remain, perhaps for a more analytic biography. First, what is it that generated such outrageously self-destructive—yes, childish—behavior among this postwar generation of great actors? Why were colleagues tolerant, and even more, why were there so few apparent efforts to intervene? Was it merely some juvenile urge to show the world that its rules simply did not apply to one who has achieved celebrity status through talent and hard work?
Second, as O’Toole alternated between theater and film, he seems to have found a mutually nurturing environment for his talent. Why is such dual commitment standard in Britain, and much less frequent in the United States? Surely the 3,000 miles between Broadway and Hollywood explains a lot, but not everything. What is different about actors and the acting traditions in the two countries?
Sellers’s biography provides a highly entertaining read, but only after putting it down did some of these more serious issues start to percolate. Maybe in the long run, the author achieved more than he intended.