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Honorary Oscars: Peter O’Toole

Peter O’Toole was born…somewhere, on…a day. The curiosity is that there were two separate birth certificates. One said that he was born in Ireland in June while the other said he was born in Leeds in August. As an actor who would naturally cling to any vestige of vanity, of course he decided to believe he was two months younger. Ehh…maybe he was right anyway?

O’Toole moved quickly from a stint in the Navy to school at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where he was classmates with both Alan Bates and Albert Finney. Upon graduation he quickly gained a reputation for his work in Shakespearean stage plays. He also made a splash in the original play The Long and The short, and The Tall, which he won Best Actor for in the West End in 1959.

His television and film work was much less prestigious at first, but he did have a small role in the Disney production of Kidnapped (1960). Later that same year, O’Toole got what was probably the biggest break of his life when director David Lean fought to cast him in his multi-million dollar epic Lawrence of Arabia. Actors such as Albert Finney, Marlon Brando, Anthony Perkins, and Montgomery Clift had also been attached to the project, but a series of circumstances ended with Lean acquiring his first choice for the role. He became an absolute sensation as T. E. Lawrence.

Famous playwright and wit Noel Coward responded to O’Toole’s countenance, saying “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia”. The actor’s unique brand of sensitive masculinity and impressively dynamic, but nuanced acting style seemed to some like the logical next step after Brando. The film was the number one earner at the box office for the year, taking in almost $45 million and was nominated in ten categories at the Academy Awards.

In most years O’Toole may have been the runaway favorite for Lawrence of Arabia, but as it turned out 1962 provided some competition it was hard to overcome. After all, that was the year that Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. As a promising newcomer, it’s easy to see why the Academy put O’Toole off this time around. Lean’s movie was loved at least as much for its technical aspects as for O’Toole’s performance, and there film took home not just Best Picture and Best Director, but also wins for its score, cinematography, and three other categories. It continues to rank high for many cinephiles and has a place on the AFI list of the top 100 American films of all time…despite it being almost exclusively British.

O’Toole and his friend Jules Buck began their own production company even before Lawrence of Arabia had been released. Several projects were bandied about, including a filming of Waiting for Godot, but they ended up settling on an adaptation of the stage play Becket. O’Toole had backed out of a stage production, but chose to make this pairing with Richard Burton his direct follow-up to his great success in Lawrence of Arabia.

If you haven’t seen Becket yet, I’d encourage you to skip the above clip and go find it on Amazon Prime where it’s currently streaming for free if you have a membership. Its story focuses on the friendship of King Henry II with Thomas Becket, who he eventually elevates to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. The promotion puts the two men at inexorable odds. It’s a wonderful cross of sharp playwriting and the visual scope that only film can provide.

Becket would take in $9 million at the box office and be nominated for eleven Academy Awards, winning for Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately for O’Toole and Burton, they were both nominated for Best Actor alongside Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove and the eventual winner Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. The two men appear to have split the vote and let Harrison in the back door. Hey folks, it’s either this or it’s category fraud…at least this way is honest.

O’Toole would take a mild break from grand histories, joining Woody Allen and Peter Sellers in the very silly What’s New Pussycat and the heist comedy How to Steal a Million with Audrey Hepburn. Just 4 years after Becket however, the thirty-six year old O’Toole returned to play Henry II a second time (as a man of 50). The Lion in Winter is again a historical stage play set in the English court, and is every bit as crackling as Becket before it.

That’s the kind of speech an actor relishes when it’s handed to him, and the script is practically stuffed with sharp scenes at every turn. The film co-starred Katherine Hepburn and also featured early film performances by Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton. It was a hit with legs that eventually took in $22 million and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. While Hepburn managed a tie to share the Oscar with Barbara Streisand, O’Toole lost once again, this time to Cliff Robertson in the saccharine and preposterous Charly.