Peter O’Toole, a dashing actor who brimmed with brashness that leaped off the big screen, rightfully will be remembered most for his defining role as a British military misfit turned Bedouin leader in the 1962 epic adventure “Lawrence of Arabia."
But the part that reached deepest into the heart of what made Peter O'Toole one of the most captivating actors of his or any generation was his turn as a washed-up 1940s movie swashbuckler in the 1982 comedy "My Favorite Year" – a showcase for his potent fusion of swagger, charm, humor and a hint of sadness.
The films, with 20 between years them and eons apart in subject matter, don’t provide bookends to a majestic movie career as much as display the versatility of an actor with the rare ability to connect with audiences whether playing an outsider, a rogue, a hero – or some combination of all.
Maybe it was those blue, Irish eyes that could pierce as easily as smile. Perhaps it was an indefinable charisma that, as with Cary Grant and very few others, made women want him and men want to be him. Whatever the case, O’Toole, who died Saturday at age 81, left a legacy of screen magic that stretches far beyond the Arabian Desert.
“Lawrence of Arabia,” his first major role, made O’Toole a star, forever an icon clad in a sheikh’s flowing white robes. But a wide range of subsequent parts – from a low-key schoolmaster (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”) to a would-be reformed womanizer (“What’s New Pussycat?”) to two cracks as King Henry II (“Beckett” and “Lion in Winter”) to a messianic madman with a peerage (“The Ruling Class”) – transformed him into an even stronger actor.
O’Toole rose during the 1960s among a ruling class of UK-tied actors that included Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They were rivals and drinking buddies who became as well known for their booze-fueled hell raising as much for their performing prowess.
That reputation, perhaps, helped O’Toole score the co-starring role in “My Favorite Year,” playing Alan Swann, an Errol Flynn-like 1930s movie hero set to make an appearance on a 1950s “Your Show of Shows”-like live comedy program – but only if Benjy, a young Mel Brooks-like writer charged with the impossible task of keeping him sober, can get him to the studio intact.
Whether or not O’Toole was playing a variation on himself, we experienced the full range of his talents in a movie about as half as long as “Lawrence of Arabia.”
We got drunken comic antics, as Swann wandered into the ladies room and delivered one of the most hilarious (and unrepeatable) lines in movie comedy history. We got moments of “Lawrence”-like sweeping splendor as Swann took Benjy on a ride through Central Park atop a purloined police horse.
We saw the great man charm his way through an apartment building of aging working-class Brooklyn ladies – including Benjy’s old Aunt Sadie, who arrived at dinner in her wedding gown (“You like it? I only wore it once”). We saw Swann shudder in fear, unable to get out of his limo to see his estranged daughter. We saw him face the challenge when it came time to either flee – or step up and be in real life the hero he pretended to be on screen years earlier.
In a movie filled with great lines, O’Toole’s Swann spouts, with equal parts exasperation, self-loathing and panic, perhaps the best one of all: “I’m not an actor – I’m a movie star!”
Peter O’Toole, during an extraordinary half-century of roles as varied as the movies he chose to grace, invariably proved he was both.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.