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Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography

by Robert Sellerss

(London Times)

Robert Sellers has already written three books with the word 'hell-raiser' in the title, so he clearly has a limitless appetite for anecdotes about drunken luvvies and there are plenty of them here. Richard Harris remembered appearing with Peter O'Toole in a play at Bristol which had a scene in the middle when neither of them was on stage, so naturally they spent the time in the pub. One day they forgot to return and the stage manager came running to collect them, but Harris tripped as he ran onstage, skidded to the footlights, and heard a woman in the audience say: 'Good God, Harris is drunk!' He looked at her and said: 'Madam, if you think I'm drunk wait until O’Toole makes his entrance.' That's how they were, these 'legendary' hell-raisers of yore, before the pancreatitis set in.

O'Toole was born in 1932 and always insisted he was Irish though he was actually born and grew up in Hunslet, Leeds. His father was a bookmaker, 'a character', his mother a nurse. He left school at 15, worked briefly as a postboy on the Yorkshire Evening News, did national service in the Navy, and then, having played two parts at Leeds art centre, wandered into Rada and asked to audition. He joined the 1953 intake along with Albert Finney, Alan Bates, Peter Bowles, Richard Briers and Roy Kinnear, but even in that company he stood out - one fellow student remembers him as 'absolutely irresistible, overwhelming'.

From Rada he was invited to join Bristol Old Vic, where he played leading roles and developed his reputation for hell-raising. Then he went to London to play the lead in Willis Hall's The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959). Kenneth Tynan hailed his performance as the birth of a new style of acting, but he also warned that O'Toole would need to acquire 'discipline and purpose' to become a truly great actor, which some might say he never did.

One of his first film roles was in Kidnapped (1960) with Peter Finch and they became boozing buddies. Once, in Dublin, when the publican refused to serve them any more, they both whipped out their chequebooks and bought the pub. O'Toole only had a tiny part but he was already behaving like a star - his flatmate, Kenneth Griffith, recalls that when the company failed to send a car, he told them, 'No car, no me', and went back to sleep. From then on there was a Rolls waiting for him every day. He also acquired a manager, Jules Buck, who looked after him well for the next 20 years and advised him to get a nose job - his original hooter was too big for films.

He still had little film experience when, in 1960, David Lean asked him to play Lawrence of Arabia. He spent three months in Jordan preparing, sobering up and learning to ride a camel. Filming started in May 1961, sometimes in 120F, and didn't finish until 313 days later. O'Toole stayed sober throughout. But he was drinking again by the time he went to the Hollywood premier and the film's producer, Sam Spiegel, was furious. Perhaps that is why O'Toole failed to win an Oscar - the first of his eight Oscar disappointments.

After Lawrence, he was in huge demand and, finally, rich. He married the actress Sian Phillips, bought Guyon house, Hampstead, and filled it with paintings by Yeats, Bonnard and Picasso. But he was so busy he was seldom there, and his two daughters, living upstairs with their nanny, rarely saw him — his younger one once failed to recognise him. While he picked up further Oscar nominations for Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968), Phillips was getting rave reviews on the London stage. But O'Toole told a reporter she didn’t have a career, 'only jobs'.

By the 1970s, his drinking was no longer funny - he was increasingly suffering stomach pains and swigging ulcer medicine along with his whisky. Richard Burton saw him at Longchamp racecourse and found him 'emaciated and ill and stubble-faced...quite incoherent'. In 1976 he collapsed, was comatose for weeks, and had his pancreas and most of his stomach removed. He was told another drop of alcohol would kill him. He split up with Phillips when he found she was having an affair (he was, too) and fell out with his manager. Having been a top box-office star, his film career was on the skids - never skiddier than when he made Caligula for Bob Guccione in 1979.

In 1980 he made his long-awaited return to the London stage in Macbeth, a performance fondly remembered by all who saw it. Critics called it 'heroically ludicrous' and 'deranged', while audience reaction built from nervous giggles to guffaws. Many people assumed he was drunk, but the actress Susan Engel said: 'He was stoned out of his mind, seriously stoned.' But the disaster made headlines around the world and meant that he was hot in Hollywood again, and he went on to pick up two more Oscar nominations for The Stunt Man (1980) and My Favourite Year (1982). In 1989 he returned to the stage in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, his perfect role.

In 1983, he was delighted when his girlfriend Karen Brown Somerville gave birth to a son, Lorcan. He wanted to bring the boy up at his home in Connemara, but Somerville had other ideas and took the baby back to America. O'Toole tried to kidnap him and was stopped by the police. Then he fought a long, expensive custody battle, in the course of which he had to sell his beloved Hampstead house and settle in unfashionable Brondesbury. But he was happy in the end to get custody of Lorcan during term time, and to fit his work commitments around school holidays. He qualified as a cricket coach so that he could teach Lorcan, went to the Garrick Club regularly and to Oldie lunches. He announced his retirement at the age of 80 and died in December 2013, aged 81 - at his funeral, his daughters waltzed down the aisle.

Even Phillips, who lived with him for almost 20 years, said she never really understood O’Toole. The drinking, the flamboyance, masked a private side that remained well hidden. He could be kind to inexperienced actors or directors; he could also be outrageously rude. As Spiegel said, after Lawrence of Arabia: 'You make a star, you make a monster.' This book calls itself The Definitive Biography, which seems presumptuous. It is a merry romp, packed with thespian anecdotes, but utterly lacking in psychological insight.

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