At the age of 81, Peter O’Toole died on the 14th December 2013. Here Flora Carr reflects on the great stage and screen actor
The first time I saw Peter O’Toole on screen it was in How to Steal a Million (1966). I had been going through my Audrey Hepburn phase and when the film came on the television I demanded that the whole family watch it. As in most Hepburn films, the iconic actress’ lines were snappy, her clothes inspiring and she had the whole ingénue thing down to a ‘T’. But throughout the film, it wasn’t Hepburn I was mesmerised by; it was O’Toole.
It’s not by any means O’Toole’s meatiest role. For that, you could point to his role as Kind Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1998) or perhaps his role as an elderly, dying actor in Venus (2006). Nor is it his most famous role; there you’re far more likely to think of his break-out performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
How to Steal a Million is a comedy, full of mistaken identity, love triangles, confusion and flirtatious banter. Hepburn plays Nicole, the daughter of an art forger. O’Toole plays Simon, a man discovered by Nicole examining one of her father’s pieces in the dead of night and whom she assumes to be a burglar. She then enlists his help to steal back one of her father’s pieces before he is exposed as a forger. It’s playful, fun and silly. And yet O’Toole still manages to dazzle. Through the merest twitch of a smile, he’s more expressive than the rest of the flamboyant cast put together.
In 1966, he was also at the peak of his attractiveness; just four years earlier O’Toole’s performance in Lawrence of Arabia prompted Noël Coward to famously quip “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia”. He’s also unequivocally funny. His glass-cut British accent, combined with his dry sarcasm, results in even making even small exchanges like this memorable.
NICOLE: I didn’t want to keep you waiting, so I got engaged to him. Is it alright? Am I on time?
SIMON: Perfectly. In fact, we have ten more minutes, so if you want to go back and marry him…?
In real life O’Toole was equally full of wit and charm. As a man who received seven Academy Award nominations without winning a single one, when the Academy first offered him an Honoury Academy Award he told them “I’m still in the game, and can win the lovely bugger on my own”. However, when he did accept it in 2003, he jokingly stated “Always a bridesmaid never a bride my foot”.
In other eulogies people may focus on O’Toole’s drinking problems, his failed marriage or even just Lawrence of Arabia, a film that continued to define him even in later years. But instead I’ll continue to think of him as the rakish, gentlemanly, quick-witted and handsome private investigator-come-burglar. In my mind, it was a type-casted role- and a fantastic one too.