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The Colorful Peter O’Toole

by Legacy Staff

Actor Peter O’Toole is often referred to as one of his generation’s greatest thespians.

Actor Peter O’Toole was a legend even before his death Dec. 14, 2013, at 81. He broke out with his performance in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, and then spent the next 40 years dazzling in films such as Becket (1964), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980) and Venus (2006). His career also featured stage, television and voice work. He is often referred to as one of his generation’s greatest thespians.

O’Toole was as well-known off-screen as on it. He was a heavy drinker and smoker known for his long binges and unpredictable behavior. He joked that he once went drinking in Paris and woke up in Corsica. He fell asleep with a lit cigarette and set his bed afire. Too drunk to figure out the fire extinguisher, O’Toole said he kissed the first firefighter who arrived to douse the flames.

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Although O’Toole stopped drinking in 1975 after a health crisis, he said he did “not regret one drop” of those late-night binges with his best-known partners in crime, Richard Burton and Richard Harris.

Here are five stories from O’Toole’s life that may provide some insight into the character he became:

1. Born in Ireland, O’Toole grew up in a tough neighborhood in Leeds, England, son of a nurse and a racecourse bookie with heavy leanings toward alcohol. He called himself a “slum Mick.” “I’m not from the working class. I’m from the criminal class,” he often said. He described his home life this way in a 1963 Esquire interview: “When my father would come home from the track after a good day, the whole room would light up; it was fairyland. But when he lost, it was black. In our house, it was always a wake … or a wedding.”

2. O’Toole began wearing green socks as an act of teenage rebellion and wore them until the end of his life. Green was considered an unlucky color on the racetrack, so wearing it was a way the 14-year-old O’Toole could secretly and safely defy his father, the actor said in a 2007 USA Today interview. “It has since become a superstition,” he said.

3. During the filming of 1968’s The Lion in Winter, O’Toole’s finger became trapped between two boats while shooting on a lake. “Bloody agony it was. Took the top right off,” he later told The Daily Mail. O’Toole dipped his stub into a glass of brandy, pushed it back into place, and then wrapped the finger in gauze. When he unwrapped it three weeks later, the tip was crooked. “I’d put it back the wrong way, probably because of the brandy, which I drank,” he said.

4. O’Toole was nominated eight times for the best actor Academy Award. He never won, making him the most-nominated actor never to win. He initially declined the lifetime achievement Oscar that academy officials offered him in 2003, noting it seemed to imply his career was over. O’Toole, then 70, asked the academy to hold the award for 10 years or so, writing, “I am still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright.” He decided to accept the honor, however, after learning Henry Fonda was among the acting greats who went on to win “the lovely bugger outright” after his honorary nod. (Fonda received his lifetime achievement statue in 1980 and won the best actor Oscar the following year for On Golden Pond.)

5. O’Toole boasted that he had read and memorized every one of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. “They’re my life companion. They’re at the side of my bed. They travel with me. I pick them up and I read them all the time. I find them endlessly informing, endlessly beautifully, endlessly – they say, they hit the spot so many times on so many things,” he said in a 2007 NPR interview before reciting Sonnet 130 with only a brief hesitation as he searched his brain for the last couplet, according to the interview transcript.

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”

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