Peter O'Toole was nominated for eight Oscars. He won none of them. To put this in perspective: his lead debut, Lawrence of Arabia, has him giving what is arguably the finest performance in the history of motion pictures to this day, and he lost the Oscar. To Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird, in all fairness. But still - Lawrence is the most towering, incredible character ever brought to life on movie screens.
That's where O'Toole started on screen (he had extensive stage work behind him, and he would always be a stage actor at heart), so it's no surprise he never topped it. How can you? Such perfection lays a long shadow across a career, and across a life.
Peter O'Toole isn't just phenomenal in Lawrence of Arabia, he's almost impossibly beautiful. His eyes are powerful and blue and absolutely mesmerizing, eyes that have the comfort of a desert oasis and the cruelty of a desert mirage. As Lawrence he's majestic and confused, imperious and playful, intense and loving.
O'Toole had many more great performances in him. He played Henry II twice, once in Becket and once in The Lion in Winter. He played a crazy nobleman in the caustically satirical The Ruling Class. In the late 70s he almost died thanks to his drinking, but he bounced back in the 80s, his gorgeous face showing every mile. In The Stunt Man he's great as the director who takes the making of a movie way too far, and in My Favorite Year he's likely playing a character very close to Peter O'Toole, a swashbuckling actor who it turns out is an impossible, outrageous drunk.
I met O'Toole in 2004 while he was doing press for Troy. It was a minor role - he had plenty of those in his filmography, movies like Supergirl and King Ralph and Phantoms - but his presence was enormous. He lit a cigarette in a non-smoking New York City hotel room and spun yarns for thirty minutes. To have those eyes, even a little rheumy with age, lock in to yours was incredible, and you could still feel his power.
In 2006 he had one last run at prestige with Venus. He lost that Oscar bid as well. Now the Academy will never have a chance to properly award the man, although they did give him one of those bullshit lifetime achievement awards back in 2003. He didn't want to accept, and he wrote the Academy explaining he was still acting and wanted a chance to "win the lovely bugger outright." He eventually acquiesced and accepted.
I know there are many of you reading this who have Lawrence of Arabia as a hole in your cinematic education. You've been waiting for it to play near you on the big screen. If you're in LA, you're in luck - it's playing at the Aero on December 21st and the Egyptian December 29th - go see it. But if you're not in a town where it is playing in the immediate future, simply see it. Get the Blu and watch it. Yes, Lawrence is meant to be seen on the big screen, but it's a film you need to see, period. Don't hold off. It's one of the greatest films ever made, and you will never understand Peter O'Toole or - if I may be so bold - acting until you've watched it for yourself.
Whether on the big screen or on your TV screen, those blue eyes will hook you. The performance will move you. The movie will change you.
Peter O'Toole was the fine old age of 81 when he passed.