I thought I had killed off Peter O’Toole in 1978, so naturally it came as a surprise to read that he was retiring from acting a couple of weeks short of his eightieth birthday.
O’Toole was in Toronto making a thriller about a group of army officers plotting a coup d’etat in a fictional country. The movie, titled Power Play, was shooting in and around a local mansion. I arrived to spend some time with him on the set.
He was by this time legend, the star of Lawrence of Arabia, the carousing Irish lad who in company with his friend Richard Burton had heard the chimes at midnight so often that he had been forced for health reasons to stop drinking entirely.
In the days I hung around, I never saw him take a drink (even though co-star David Hemmings was often pouring). But his behavior was so bizarre that I was certain something was very wrong. With a wild gleam in his eye, O’Toole babbled away in a fashion that was nonsensical even for an actor. He was disconcertingly frail and thin, with hair dyed flame red (it looked much more natural on film), setting off skin so pale it was nearly translucent.
He would pop up for a moment, heave himself into a chair, throw bone-white hands around, smiling at some private joke, and then, just as quickly, disappear again.
I truly believed I was watching the disintegration of a once-great actor–although in fairness as soon as director Martyn Burke’s camera rolled, O’Toole transformed, focused, said his lines effectively and hit his marks.
The piece I wrote about my encounters with O’Toole ended up being blasted across the front page of the New York Post. After that, just about every major paper in the United States and Britain picked up some variation of the story. Peter O’Toole was washed up, dead, finished.
I never heard from O’Toole after the story came out, although I can’t imagine it made him very happy–or maybe he just didn’t care at that point since he seemed barely aware I was present, and if he ever directly answered one question I asked him, I can’t for the life of me remember what it was.
Some time later it was revealed that O’Toole had in fact nearly died that year from a blood disorder brought on by the removal of a large portion of his stomach and pancreas (why he had been forced to stop drinking). In retrospect, it was a wonder he was on his feet, let alone making a movie.
Well, he wasn’t nearly as close to death as I feared. He sailed on, oblivious to naive young reporters prematurely writing his obituary, making at least thirty more films (and lots of television). He was nominated for an Oscar three more times, appeared on stage, wrote two autobiographies (and is said to be working on a third), all the while looking and behaving, as the critic David Thomson observed, “like his own ghost.”
Despite his frailness, the sense of the doomed, elegant scarecrow he often brought to the screen, O’Toole has long outlived his hard-drinking contemporaries: Burton, his good friend, dead at fifty-eight; Oliver Reed dropping in a Malta pub at sixty-three; Richard Harris gone at seventy-one.
Still, a sense of disappointment clings to any discussion of O’Toole’s career in the wake of his retirement announcement, a feeling that greatness has been missed. He has not been any kind of leading man for many years, showing up for paid gigs to momentarily play ambassadors (The Last Emperor) or kings (Troy, Stardust), or men of the cloth (a pope in The Tudors; a cardinal in TV’s Joan of Arc; a priest in For Great Glory:The True Story of Cristiada), flailing about, effortlessly commanding the screen while tossing off reams of dialogue.
In December, it will have been fifty years since the release of Lawrence of Arabia, his greatest screen achievement and the film for which he will always be remembered–the David Lean masterpiece that started so many of us on what became a lifelong obsession with movies.
If you have starred in one of the great movies of all time, held the screen with such mesmerizing brio for nearly four hours, maybe that’s more than enough for any actor.The rest will barely be conversation.
I still feel guilty about this, but my premature Peter O’Toole death knell went a long way toward establishing me as a magazine writer in the United States. After that story was published, I was able to write for just about everyone, so I owe him a lot.
I’m sorry I killed him off so early. Big mistake, as it turned out. These days, I hear he even allows himself a glass of red wine (a Margaux is favored) or a sip of whisky.
I imagine him sitting around contemplating the Margaux, a twinkle in those riveting blue eyes, smirking with secret delight at how he has fooled everyone–particularly that dumb reporter who killed him off so many years ago.