“All he knew was that within him, simmering in the smithy of his soul, were confusion and conflict, and they were probably all linked somehow with Ireland and the Church, with his smashing up so many cars that his license had to be taken away, and with marching in Ban-the-Bomb parades, with becoming obsessed with Lawrence of Arabia, with detesting cops, barbed wire, and girls who shave under their arms; with being an aesthete, a horse player, a former altar boy, a drinker who now wanders streets at night buying the same book (‘My life is littered with copies of MOBY DICK’) and reading the same sermon on that book (‘...and if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves...’); with being gentle, generous, sensitive, yet suspicious (‘You're talking to an Irish bookie's son, you can't con me!’); with devotion to his wife, loyalty to old friends, great concern over the uncertain eyesight of his three-year-old daughter, now wearing very thick glasses (‘Daddy, Daddy! I broke my eyes!" "Don't cry, Kate, don't cry--we'll get you a new pair’); with theatrical genius that is equally moving whether performing pantomime or Hamlet; with anger that can be sudden (‘Why should I tell YOU the truth? Who are you, Bertrand Russell?’) and with anger that quickly subsides (‘Look, I'd tell you if I knew why, but I don't know, just don't know...’); and with the as yet unrealized contradictions in the Peter O'Toole who, at this very moment, was about to land in Ireland...where he was born thirty-one years ago...where he would have his next drink.”-- Gay Talese, Fame and Obscurity: A Book About New York, a Bridge, and Celebrities on the Edge (1970)
Given the way he loved to be center stage, it was probably just as well that Peter O’Toole died when he did in 2013. Had he passed away too early, he might have gone overlooked by any number of lesser film immortals who died afterward; had he died in the last couple of days of the year rather than two weeks ago, he would have been left off the retrospective lists altogether. His timing was exquisite.
Not that he would have seen it as such. He had made his own way, part of his plan as an 18-year-old acting student in his adopted country, when he wrote in a notebook: “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony. I do not crave security. I wish to hazard my soul to opportunity.” In other words, timing—and luck—be damned.
So let’s stipulate: the actor’s style and talent were larger than life. So were his resentments, particularly towards Mother Church in Ireland, as evidenced by the “Quote of the Day.”
In a way, I groaned a bit to myself when I heard about O’Toole’s passing—not only because we would never again see on the big screen one of the performances that made him a force to be reckoned with in the Sixties, but also because I knew there would be an inevitable media allusion to a private life that was, for all too many years, rambunctious.
And sure enough, the reference came from an expected source: The New York Times. The deceased, (British) critic Benedict Nightingale announced in the first sentence of his Page 1 obituary, was “an Irish bookmaker’s son with a hell-raising streak.”
Surely, Faithful Reader, you caught the close conjunction of “Irish” and “hell-raising,” a nice synonym for “alcoholic,” right? The Gray Lady positively falls over itself to avoid stereotypes with most minorities, but the relevant paragraph about Celtics seems somehow to have been lost in the Editor’s Memo about such writing-usage issues.
(There is, also, the matter of exactly where he was born and how this connects to ethnicity. While his father was Irish and he identified himself with Connemara, O'Toole said that he possessed birth certificates for both Ireland and England, as he was raised in the city of Leeds.)
The actor’s friend Richard Harris would have chuckled over the problem. He was fond of saying that stories about him were of two types: “British Actor Wins Award” and “Irish Actor Arrested in Pub Brawl.” (Old media habits die hard: in a 2007 New York Times article about O’Toole and the making of The Tudors, the Newspaper of Record mistakenly identified the cable series star, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, as British rather than Irish. That, of course, was before his rehab stint. We'll see how those references work out from now on.)
Not that Harris didn’t contribute to such perceptions. The same goes for O’Toole. Reading the above quote from Talese’s classic mid-Sixties profile in Esquire, you would be bound to conclude, following one memorable fulmination after another about the nuns of his childhood, that, to paraphrase Auden on Yeats, Mad Ireland hurt him into acting.
After years of reading about abuses by priests, not to mention the Magdalene Laundries, it is useless to defend the Irish Church against the various offenses perpetrated in its name over time. At the same time, one wishes the actor might have acknowledged, to some extent, the role of his immediate family (i.e., his bookmaker dad) in the “confusion and conflict” in his own nature—and especially, if you want to know the truth, the concept of “free will” undoubtedly drilled into his head by those nuns. Actually, the last idea should have been the one he embraced the most from his youth, as it was the one that guided him throughout his career, if not his personal life.
At some point, I hope to read the first two published volumes of O’Toole’s projected three-volume autobiography, Loitering With Intent, especially to see how he viewed his religious upbringing from the passage of decades, not to mention the events that changed his life very close to its midpoint: the end of his alcohol-driven sprees (he continued to consume the occasional red wine into his 70s) amid assorted health crises (including removal of his pancreas) in the mid-1970s.
While rejecting the authority of any institutional church, O’Toole appears to have been left with with an irreducible belief in God. There are signs that he felt deeply about faith. The aforementioned Times article about The Tudors includes this poignant O’Toole assertion: “No one can take Jesus away from me. There’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.”
I had wondered why plum movie parts for the actor became fewer in the Eighties and Nineties, and especially whether his health issues played a part. But various obits I came across note that he put great effort into his new role as a single father, becoming a licensed soccer coach at age 60 to spend more time with his son.
As he aged, O’Toole was largely content (save for one last role, in his Oscar-nominated Venus) to take secondary, albeit striking, roles in larger productions, and to view his younger days with amused detachment. You get a sense of the latter in a marvelous photograph, by the Earl of Snowden, in the November 1995 issue of Vanity Fair photographs. Filled with as much delicious irony as cinema history, it showed O’Toole and Harris enjoying laughs and cups of tea (from the photographer's own set of china). (You can see that image, as well as several other striking ones, in this 2010 Daily Mail article about the former in-law of Queen Elizabeth II.)
In the many retrospectives that have appeared these last two weeks, critics and fans have inevitably recalled O’Toole’s career-making turn in Lawrence of Arabia. But, given the change in the calendar and the toasts made invariably this time of year, I think of another role of his in concluding this post: Alan Swann, the Errol Flynn-inspired, fading swashbuckling hero of My Favorite Year. The comedy—mostly raucous, with a touch of melancholy—ends with a solitary gravesite toast--by the Mel Brooks-type young sitcom writer who had been given the impossible task of getting Swann to the set in decent shape--to the character that O’Toole, one suspects, understood very, very well: a magnificent disturber of the peace.
O’Toole’s remains are being taken to Connemara. “We’re bringing him home,” daughter Kate has announced. That should settle questions on how the actor viewed his identity. As for his place in film: despite the lack of a competitive Oscar (he was awarded an honorary one after eight losses), that niche—as the man who embodied countless restless souls—was attained a long time ago. Requiescat in pace.
(The image accompanying this post comes--of course--from the trailer for Lawrence of Arabia.)