The legendary Irish-born thespian Peter O'Toole proves that when an actor is faced with a bitter personal crisis and struggles with addiction, spirit and determination can often lead to a forceful "third act" in that performer's career that rivals anything to have preceded it. Blessed with an immensity of dramatic power, the fair-haired, blue-eyed, flamboyant, and virile O'Toole chalked up one of the most formidable acting resumes of the 20th century during the 1950s and '60s, before experiencing an ugly bout of self-destruction in the mid-'70s that led to serious health problems, several disappointing and embarrassing roles, and the destruction of his marriage, and threatened (in the process) to bury his career. By 1980, however, O'Toole overcame his problems and resurfaced, triumphantly, as a box-office star.
O'Toole began life in Connemara, Ireland, in either 1932 or 1933 (most sources list his birthdate as August 2, 1932, though the year is occasionally disputed). His family moved to Leeds, England in the early '30s, where O'Toole's father earned his keep as a racetrack bookie. Around 1946, 14-year-old O'Toole dropped out of secondary school and signed on with The Yorkshire Evening Post as copy boy, messenger, and eventually, a cub reporter. Within three years, he dropped the newspaper gig and joined the Leeds Civic Theatre as a novice player; this paved the way for ongoing parts at the much-revered Old Vic (after O'Toole's military service in the Royal Navy as a signalman and decoder), beginning around 1955. A half-decade of stage roles quickly yielded to screen parts in the early '60s. O'Toole actually debuted (with a bit role) in 1959, in The Savage Innocents, but international fame did not arrive for a few years, with several enviable back-to-back characterizations in the 1960s: that of the gallant, inscrutable T.E. Lawrence in Sir David Lean's 1962 feature Lawrence of Arabia (for which he received his first Best Actor Oscar nomination); Henry II in Peter Glenville's 1964 Becket (starring longtime friend Richard Burton), for which he received his second Best Actor Oscar nomination; the title character in Lord Jim (1965), and philandering fashion editor Michael James in the popular Clive Donner-Woody Allen sex farce What's New Pussycat? (1965). O'Toole's success continued, unabated, with yet another appearance as Henry II alongside Katharine Hepburn in Anthony Harvey's The Lion in Winter (1968), which netted him a third Best Actor Oscar nod. Unfortunately, O'Toole lost yet again, this time (in a completely unexpected turn of events) to Cliff Robertson in Charly, though a fourth nomination was only a year away, for the actor's work in 1969's Goodbye, Mr. Chips.
The early 1970s were equally electric for O'Toole, with the highlight undoubtedly being his characterization of a delusional mental patient who thinks he's alternately Jesus Christ and Jack the Ripper in The Ruling Class (1972), Peter Medak's outrageous farce on the "deific" pretensions of British royalty. That gleaned O'Toole a fifth Oscar nomination; Jay Cocks, of Time Magazine called his performance one "of such intensity that it will haunt memory. He is funny, disturbing, and finally, devastating." Unfortunately, this represented the last high point of his career for many years, and the remainder of the '70s were marred by a series of disappointing and best-forgotten turns -- such as Don Quixote in Arthur Hiller's laughable musical Man of La Mancha (1972), covert CIA agent Larry Martin in Otto Preminger's spy thriller Rosebud (1975), and a Romanian émigré and refugee in Arturo Ripstein's soaper Foxtrot (1976). Meanwhile, O'Toole's off-camera life hit the nadir to end all nadirs. Though long known as a carouser (with friends and fellow Brits Burton, Richard Harris, Peter Finch, and others), O'Toole now plunged into no-holds-barred alcoholism, pushing himself to the very edge of sanity and death. The drinking necessitated major stomach surgery, and permanently ended his 20-year-marriage to Welsh actress Sian Phillips (best known as Livia in I, Claudius). Career-wise, O'Toole scraped the bottom of the gutter (and then some) when he made the foolish decision (around 1976 or 1977) to appear alongside Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren in the Bob Guccione/Tinto Brass Penthouse mega-production Caligula (released 1980) -- a period film wall-to-wall with hardcore sex and visceral, graphic violence that led celebrity critic Roger Ebert to echo another viewer's lament: "This movie is the worst piece of s*** I have ever seen." It did not help matters when O'Toole returned to The Old Vic not long after, and was roundly booed off the stage for his uncharacteristically wretched portrayal of Macbeth.
The Macbeth calamity, however, masked a slow return to triumph, for O'Toole had since resolved to clean himself up; he moved in with Kate and Pat O'Toole, his two actress daughters from his marriage to Phillips, both of whom were teenagers in the late 1970s, and both of whom cared for him. And in 1979, he signed on to play one of the most esteemed roles of his career -- that of the sadistic, tyrannical director Eli Cross in Richard Rush's wicked black comedy The Stunt Man (1980) -- a role for which O'Toole received a sixth Oscar nomination. O'Toole again lost the bid, this time to Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. Not one to be daunted, however, the actor continued down the path to full professional and personal recovery by beginning an ongoing relationship with California model Karen Brown, and fathering a child by her in 1983. O'Toole then signed on for many fine roles throughout the 1980s and '90s: that of Alan Swann, a hard-drinking, hard-loving, has-been movie star, in Richard Benjamin's delightfully wacky 1982 film My Favorite Year (which drew the thesp yet another nomination for Best Actor -- his seventh); and as Professor Harry Wolper, a scientist obsessively trying to re-clone his deceased wife, in Ivan Passer's quirky, underrated romantic fantasy Creator (1985). Despite occasional lapses in taste and quality, such as 1984's Supergirl and 1986's Club Paradise, O'Toole was clearly back on top of his game, and he proved it with an admirable turn as Reginald Johnston in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Best Picture winner, The Last Emperor. That same year, O'Toole signed on to co-star in High Spirits (1988), fellow Irishman Neil Jordan's whimsical, spiritual ghost story with Shakespearean overtones. At the time, this looked like a solid decision, but neither Jordan nor O'Toole nor their co-stars, Steve Guttenberg, Liam Neeson, and Daryl Hannah, could have anticipated the massive studio interference that (in the words of Pauline Kael) "whacked away at the film, removing between 15 and 25 percent of the footage" and turned it into one of that year's biggest flops. Ditto with Alejandro Jodorowsky's 1990 comedy fantasy The Rainbow Thief, where studio interference again all but destroyed the work.
O'Toole remained active throughout the 1990s, largely with fine supporting roles, such as Willingham in King Ralph (1991), Welsh nobleman Lord Sam in Rebecca's Daughters (1992), Bishop Cauchon in the made-for-television Joan of Arc (1999), and Von Hindenburg in the telemovie Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003). In late 2006, O'Toole hit another career peak with a fine turn as a wily old thesp who enjoys a last-act fling with a twentysomething admirer, in the Roger Michell-directed, Hanif Kureishi-scripted character-driven comedy Venus. The effort reeled in an eighth Best Actor Oscar nomination for the actor. In 2007 he voiced the part of the critic in Pixar's Ratatouille, and in 2008 he joined the cast of The Tudors playing Pope Paul III. He played a priest in 2012's For Greater Glory and filmed a role for Katherine of Alexandria (2014) before he died at age 81 in 2013. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi