Peter O'Toole was not like any other actor. If he had never existed, only Shakespeare could have created him, and then only in one of the "problem plays" that was tragic and comic in equal measures that no one could quite analyze. O'Toole was regal, mythical and wonderfully, fallibly human, all at once. He had the kingly bearing of his co-star and drinking buddy Richard Burton, with a similarly magical but more flexible voice; he had the swashbuckling panache of Errol Flynn, whom he sent up unforgettably as Alan Swann in "My Favorite Year." But there was something about that long, aristocratic face and those haunted blue eyes that was unsettling and unique, that burrowed into our brains and never left. It was that quality that made his performance in "Lawrence of Arabia" the most spectacular star debut in cinematic history, and that kept us fascinated for the next fifty years.
One of the most fascinating things about those fifty years, alas, is that he lasted through them. O'Toole considerably outlived all his fellow rakes--Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed. I always found myself rooting for him each August 2--his birthday--to make it through one more year. His ravaged, ghostlike appearance in his final years testified to his struggles with his failing body and his passionate will to live. It was a hallmark of O'Toole's character that even when he could no longer physically take risks, his spirit leapt into the fray with the same reckless courage as always. That was the theme of "Venus," O'Toole's last Oscar-nominated role, in which he played a character notably like himself--an aging, physically frail actor who remains in spirit the same roguish, lovable roue he always was.
Because O'Toole took risks, his output as an actor was uneven. His "Macbeth" on the London stage was notorious for wretched excess. and he also was unfortunate enough to become mired in "Gore Vidal's Caligula," which also ensnared John Gielgud, Helen Mirren and Malcolm McDowell, among others. But because he took risks, he also gave us performances like Jack in "The Ruling Class," an aristocratic schizophrenic who goes from a blissed-out Jesus Christ to an icy Jack the Ripper in the course of a botched psychiatric treatment. It was a performance of extraordinary, unforgettable brilliance, and it is hard to think of any other actor who could have pulled it off. X.J. Kennedy wrote of Tennyson that if few poets take the risk to write a poem as bad as "Flower in the Crannied Wall," few also take the risk to write one as great as "Ulysses." Tennyson and Peter O'Toole: the comparison seems apt.
We never quite knew what to expect of Peter O'Toole, and that was part of both his greatness and his charm. He was like a beloved friend who would invite you out to dinner, drink three bottles of champagne by himself, stick you with the bill, and come back a month later to give you a treasure chest full of gold doubloons. The death of a beloved actor is always sad, but the loss of Peter O'Toole engenders singularly poignant emotions. We are palpably poorer for his loss.