Over the last few weeks some of the biggest stars of the Golden Era in Hollywood have passed away. Recently we’ve lost Eleanor Parker, Peter O’Toole, Joan Fontaine and Audrey Totter. That’s quite a haul in a short period by the Almighty.
Of these, O’Toole commanded the biggest headlines, front page in The New York Times (which proceeded to bungle, and then correct, a few points made in the actor’s obit). We suspect the front-and-center treatment was based largely on O’Toole’s standing as one of Britain’s most highly regarded stage actors. (He was born in 1932 in West Ireland.)
As a film actor, O’Toole took getting used to. His career was dotted with interesting curiosities (1972’s Man of La Mancha; 1966’s The Bible: In the Beginning; 1967’s Night of the Generals; and 1965’s What’s New Pussycat with a young Woody Allen, no less). His career also included at least one prestigious flop, 1965’s Lord Jim based on the Joseph Conrad novel. The picture was terrible then and remains so now.
Writes the perceptive British critic David Thomson: The 1960’s was a period of foundering for commercial cinema, and rather than true stars it produced quasars — quasi-stellar personalities. One of those…is Peter O’Toole, a striking but unnerving figure.
Before we get to the elephant in the room — 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia — an anecdote about Sam Spiegel, the picture’s producer who also produced 1959’s Suddenly Last Summer costarring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. Spiegel wanted to replace Clift, and secretly screen-tested an unknown Peter O’Toole.
The producer’s biographer Andrew Sinclair wrote: Asked to pretend to be a doctor performing an operation, O’Toole turned his face to the camera and Spiegel, before ad libbing, “It’s all right, Mrs. Spiegel, your son will never play the violin again.” Spiegel’s rage was incandescent. He swore that O’Toole would never, but never, work for him. He was a bad prophet….
By the time the script for Lawrence of Arabia — the epic saga of writer-adventurer T.E. Lawrence leading an Arab rebellion against the Turks circa World War I — was ready for production, Spiegel had considered Marlon Brando for the title role. After his turn down, the producer was influenced by director David Lean and Katherine Hepburn, who described O’Toole as the finest young actor in London.
Spiegel finally relented, but insisted that O’Toole submit to a tough screen test, this time in full Arab costume. The actor behaved himself and was offered the role. Writes Sinclair: Only then did O’Toole ask, “Is it a speaking part?”
The intensity of O’Toole’s performance shocked audiences then, and does so now. While Lean was content for a placid historical epic, with a curt nod towards the Lawrence enigma, O’Toole seemed to be acting in a smaller, more neurotically based film, writes Thomson.
Lawrence of Arabia is one of the screen’s best epics — ever. It qualifies as a classic in that essential sense of playing as well (or better) before contemporary audiences than before those who saw it when it first came out. Sure, O’Toole played fast and loose with his talents following his and the film’s international acclaim. He drank way too much (for which he paid heavily at the end of his 81 years). He married unwisely. He worked indiscriminately.
Nonetheless, the guy was nominated for an Oscar eight times. Joe likes him in 1968’s The Lion in Winter and in 1964’s Becket with Richard Burton. Frank and Joe vastly enjoyed his outsize role in Richard Benjamin’s superb 1982 comedy, My Favorite Year. Frank particularly admires the actor’s performance as the understanding tutor in 1987’s The Last Emperor.
The whole world admires O’Toole for his unforgettable work in Lawrence of Arabia.