The voice remains unforgettable, as does the larger-than-life demeanour of one Peter O’Toole. Nominated for seven Oscars, beginning with his indefinable Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole is a true survivor. He has outlived those that he has shared more than a drink with in his time, from Burton to Harris.
The actor, who is also an author, is philosophical about outliving his friends and peers. “It’s very inconvenient because every time I finish, let’s say, a chapter of a book or something happened to me, I think I’m going to ring Richard and then realize: ‘Oh, Christ, I’ve buried him. I buried him last year. It’s inconvenient.'” O’Toole is a man who refuses to take himself too seriously.
Attending his first press junket since 1968, he reminds me when greeting the press in a New York hotel, O’Toole says he loathes the whole interview process and the aftermath of making movies. “I’m simply not very good at it, nor very keen on it, and I don’t like premieres and things like that. I’d just rather do my acting and then piss off,” the actor says amidst peals of laughter. But in agreeing to talk up his pivotal role as the enigmatic Trojan ruler King Priam in the epic Troy, O’Toole adds that “I have nothing but good wishes for the production and of the director, I have tremendous affection for Brad Pitt and for Eric Bana, as well as the boys and girls in the picture. And if I can help it out, I’m prepared to.”
After a half century on screen, O’Toole, who made his film debut in 1959’s The Savage Innocents, denies that he can pick and choose a film project. “Don’t believe it. I’m a working stiff, baby, just like everybody else.” But he agreed to take on Troy because “the script was so gorgeous.” O’Toole first became familiar with what inspired Troy, namely Homer’s The Illiad. “I’ve not read it since1953, which was the Chapman version all those years ago, but, it stayed with me a lot. As you probably know, not only did Alexander The Great carry a copy under his pillow, but so did Lawrence of Arabia, who carried a copy of both the Illiad and The Odyssey. When he was about to become a writer, he sharpened his pen by doing the translation. If you haven’t read Lawrence of Arabia’s translation of The Odyssey, it’s very good, in the vernacular and simple.”
While referring to the character he immortalised in the David Lean classic, O’Toole is naturally asked to draw parallels between Lawrence and Troy. “Well, they’re incomparable, aren’t they? I mean you have that scale, that big, heroic, epic, yeah. Epic really is the story of man on man, history or myth and their circumstances. So yes, this is historical, mythical and historical.” The actor also says he loved working with “young Pitt” as he self-effacingly describes his 40-year old co-star. “I love working with young people, which is to me a big kick. “I find him not only to be a modest man, but a non-pretentious man completely prepared for what was a hell of a part, But he reminds me of any Greek, who looks as if he’d just popped off a Greek ship.” Perhaps he reminds the older actor of a young O’Toole. “Definitely not”, comes the emphatic reply. “In fact, he’s a scoundrel. young Brad Pitt, who led me, his elderly colleague, astray more than once,” he adds with a twinkle in his eye. Then is reminded that it wasn’t so long ago that it was young O’Toole who did his share of straying and carousing, with the likes of messrs Burton and Harris. “Not I,” he responds with such delicious self-mockery.
When talking to Peter O’Toole, it’s tough to sum up the man’s career, as there have been so many high points, over 70 films later. But not all memorable. There’s Man of La Mancha, about to make its DVD debut, much to O’Toole’s chagrin. “I have no memories I’m prepared to share with you as it wasn’t the happiest time of my life.” But he has many happier memories of a life in film, however. “Where do I begin? I loved working with Kate Hepburn, which was one of the highlights of my life; Working with Richard Burton in Beckett was another great joy. I loved doing My Favorite Year, here in this city which was great fun and The Ruling Class which I made with all my chums.”
Half a century on, O’Toole still loves to act. “Well, it’s my job, it’s what I do, it’s what I’m on earth to do and it’s who I am.” Beside his love of acting remains his love of writing and his currently working on the third volume of his memoirs. “Writing is a kind of performing art and I can’t sit down to write unless I’m dressed. I don’t mean dressed in a suit, but dressed well and comfortably and I have to be shaved and bathed and then the curtain goes up. If I’m not at my study by 10:00, 10:30, forget it, I can’t write a word.”
But it’s Peter O’Toole, legendary star of stage and screen, with whom audiences have fallen in love with, and this year, despite his astounding seven Oscar nominations, the Academy finally bestowed on him a Lifetime Achievement Award, which he says was an important milestone in his career. “It is the highest honour that the motion picture industry can pay to anybody. I joined people like Chaplin, so of course I’m deeply honoured.” But finally, as I hold up my Lion in Winter DVD, it’s suggested that he really should have won for his ageing Henry II, to which the actor modestly responds. “My dear boy, I should have won for them all!” Perhaps so!.