Vale Peter O’Toole – One in a Million, Stealing Our Hearts

Well, it was pitch dark and there he was.
Tall, blue eyes, slim, quite good-looking… in a brutal, mean way, Papa.
A terrible man!

said….Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn) to her father, the brilliant art forger Charles Bonnet (Hugh Griffiths). Many of the iconic much remembered moments for me about the brilliant career of British born great actor of stage and screen and of Irish and Scottish descent, the enigmatic and captivating Peter O’Toole (1932 – 2013) occur in a little heralded William Wyler movie.

He starred in How to Steal a Million alongside his friend, and everyone’s favourite actress of my generation Audrey Hepburn in 1966.

Miss Bonnet and I are old friends. We used to shoot together.

This comedic delight was certainly the Cellini crime caper of the century.

It was vintage Audrey Hepburn style and Peter O’Toole at his most delightful. Their chemistry together on screen was very special.

O’Toole proved that he was truly one in a million by stealing our hearts, while amusingly helping Audrey out of considerable difficulties.

He and Audrey are Simon and Nicole. They spend much of the film having a close encounter of the personal kind, while being enclosed in a very small closet at a spectacular art museum.

They are about the business of carrying out the crime of the century together.

O’Toole had an added advantage when preparing for the role, because he understood not only what a hard life was, but also about the ‘criminal classes’, having grown up in a very difficult neighbourhood at Leeds in England, after his family migrated there from Ireland.

It appears three of his playmates were later hanged, a fact recorded by Robert Sellars in his book “Hellraisers, a ‘rowdy collection of riotous tales’ about the interconnecting life and times of actors Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed published in 2009.

Always a leader of the pack, but a man who stood firmly outside the establishment, always beyond the boundaries O’Toole, together with his carousing colleagues and hellraisers were all brilliant actors of their day.

O’Toole it seems liked to say “I’m not from the working class…I’m from the criminal class.”

He lived his life to the full, hard, fast, and according to his own rules, of which there were few. His mishaps and madcap moments were many and his reputation for being outrageously eccentric, full on.

Peter O’Toole won a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, following a short and inglorious early chequered career as a failed car salesman and a failed reporter.

Fortunately for us he found out that he would rather be ‘the event’ instead of writing about one, so he decided to take up acting.

He truly loved and embraced the Theatre wholeheartedly. His early successes were on stage. He appeared as a Cockney Sargeant in the play The Long and The Short and The Tall.

At the time his understudy was another aspiring actor, also a bit of a lad in his youth Michael Caine. He related years later how after a foray to find a plate of egg and chips, he and O’toole woke up on the floor together two days later with curtain up in only a few hours.

At the Royal Court Theatre the stage manager was waiting for them to turn up for the show so he could give them the news the restaurant owner had been in and banned them both from his establishment for life.

O’Toole’s first role was in the 1959 movie Kidnapped, which starred Aussie actor Peter Finch. His being in the cast ensured they became firm friends because Finch was also known for his legendary booze sessions.

O’Toole spent much of his life drunk and disorderly loving every minute of it until Doctors told him he had to give it up for his health.

He immediately did so and did not look back, only forward, an incredible mark of a man determined to stay the course and confound everyone.

Reading the stories of his numerous memorable moments, one is amazed he lived to be 81 at all, retaining not only the love and affection of friends and family, but also all those who followed his nutty personal journey and sterling acting career.

Favourite O’Toole movies of mine are also Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968).

For Becket fellow actors Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole were both nominated for Best Actor and the film was also nominated for eleven other awards including Best Supporting Actor for John Geilgud.

It was also nominated for 2 Golden Globes for Best Drama and Peter O’Toole was nominated as Best Actor in a Drama. It won both.

For the Lion in Winter he starred alongside awesome American actress Katherine Hepburn, whom he is known to have admired. She became a ‘grand passion’, despite her being 25 years his senior.

As the ageing Eleanor of Aquitaine she had no peer. Hepburn won an Oscar for her role while he, as usual, was nominated and lost. One of his biggest surprises was when she punched his lights out on set for keeping her waiting, proving to him at least, ‘she loved him’.

To say Peter O’Toole was charismatic is an understatement and indeed the only way to describe many of his awesome on screen magical moments.

He shot to instant stardom in 1962 when he appeared as David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, a role that he made his own.

No one really can understand how or why he did not win a much deserved Academy Award as best actor in this role. Instead he graciously accepted, after losing numerous nominations, an honorary award for the depth and breadth of a truly amazing acting career in 2003 from fellow thespian Meryl Streep.

His legendary portrayal of Lawrence remains beyond compare, revealing to his the broad based complexity of the actor and the character who were both unique and fascinating figures of modern times.

Lawrence was an arch-hero whose life was all at once a triumph and sacrifice and his capacity to astonish remains undimmed today primarily because of Peter O’Toole’s singularly great achievement, at helping us through his movie magic to understand who Lawrence really was as a man.

In so doing he also allowed us to catch a glimpse of his own genius, and certainly proved the iconic line from Lawrence of Arabia – ‘nothing is written’.

Peter O’Toole by Douglas Kirkland, 1964

Vale Peter O’Toole, you are a legend and a bright shining star on the screen, and in the firmament of life. All who encountered you on their life’s journey were both enriched and enlightened by the experience

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, December 2013

Watch the Trailer of his first movie Kidnapped

Watch the Trailer of Lawrence of Arabia

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