THE great actor Peter O’Toole, who died on Saturday in hospital in London aged 81 after a long illness, was known for his love of Shakespeare – and once confessed that he carried around a book of the Bard’s sonnets wherever he went.
In fact, before Lawrence of Arabia made him famous, O’Toole was a veteran of what became the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, playing several significant roles including in 1960 Shylock in Michael Langham’s The Merchant of Venice, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, directed by Peter Hall and John Barton; and most notably Petruchio opposite Peggy Ashcroft as Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by John Barton in the Memorial Theatre.
When he walked out at the end of the Stratford season, he was accused by Hall of nearly wrecking ‘the start of the RSC’.
The actor was one of a generation of hard-drinking stars (including friends Richard Burton and Albert Finney) who were renowned for their wild exploits at various hostelries and lost weekends as a result of drinking binges.
At the age of 26, when O’Toole was in Stratford, he was ordered to stop drinking because of serious risks to his health.
On Peter Hall’s instructions the Dublin-born and Liverpool-bred actor gave up beer for milk during rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, but he still remained the holder of the Dirty Duck pub’s yard-of-ale drinking contest.
Stratford writer and actor/director Steve Newman recorded in his own journals how O’Toole switched from Shakespearean actor to film star.
“Peter Hall’s soon to be established Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford-upon-Avon, was, in 1960, effectively already in existence and smashing all the theatrical norms to pieces.
"His hammer was the 26-year-old Peter O’Toole, who was not only playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, but also Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and the wild Irish ‘boyo’ in the Dirty Duck pub a few yards down the road from the stage door.
"His wife, the actress Sian Phillips, had also recently given birth to their first daughter, Kate.”
At around the same time, a relatively unknown playwright Robert Bolt, who wrote the final script for Lawrence of Arabia, was in Stratford and spending a lot of time with Peter Hall who was trying to persuade him to write two plays.
Mr Newman recalls: “Unknown to Hall, Spiegel [Sam, producer of Lawrence of Arabia] had already hired Bolt (for £15,000) to re-write Wilson’s script [Michael Wilson, who wrote the original script]… it was Bolt who told Lean [film director David Lean] to go take a look at O’Toole in Stratford. And when Lean did, a few days later, he knew he had his Lawrence.
“But there was a problem. O’Toole was still under contract to Hall. Spiegel simply told O’Toole to walk out and let Hall sue him. O’Toole did, and as Hall recalls: ‘…we didn’t have the resources to sue him, but he nearly wrecked the start of the RSC’.”
Mr Newman added: “Both O’Toole and Bolt were the epitome of the angry young man, both came from similar backgrounds, both were well educated and articulate, both had strong political views, and they both loved to drink heavily.”
Despite his successful career in movies, after his debut in Hollywood, O’Toole never left his stage career behind him, and continued to perform on stage well into his later years, as well as performing in screen adaptations of famous plays.
O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor eight times but never won (his last being at the age of 74 playing the ageing actor Maurice in Roger Michell’s Venus) – but he did receive a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2003.
He announced last year that he was stopping acting and he bid the profession “a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.”
Paying tribute, the president of Ireland, Michael Higgins, said: “Ireland, and the world, has lost one of the giants of film and theatre.”
He said: “Peter brought an extraordinary standard to bear as an actor. He had a deep interest in literature and a love of Shakespearean sonnets in particular.”
His daughter Kate O’Toole said the family were “very appreciative and completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of real love and affection being expressed.”
His death marks the end of an era.
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