He became known to a wide audience through his role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Peter O’Toole was one of the most famous actors of his generation. The Irish actor was trained traditionally: At the age of twenty, O’Toole began studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and his first acting engagement was at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol.
At the Royal Academy, Peter O’Toole was trained as a classical Shakespearean actor: He was brilliant in the role of Hamlet and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, among others. Peter O’Toole first became known to English theater audiences as a Shakespearean actor. In the fifties, the name Peter O’Toole was still unknown to cinema audiences.
Lawrence of Arabia
Actually, it was not in Peter O’Toole’s interest to become a movie star one day: Rather, he set out to hone his theatrical acting skills. During his time at the Royal Academy, O’Toole appeared in several television shows and worked as a stuntman.
British officer T.E. Lawrence wanted nothing to do with the film industry all his life: Back in the thirties, the British producer Alexander Korda prepared a film about T.E. Lawrence, but it was not realized. After his death in 1935 if not before, Lawrence became the historical figure “Lawrence of Arabia” and a national figure of the United Kingdom. The fate of the man who had played a decisive role in the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire in World War I fascinated many people. His memoirs The Seven Pillars of Wisdom are today a classic of world literature.
Marlon Brando as Lawrence?
It was no coincidence that Peter O’Toole got the lead role in Lawrence of Arabia: Director David Lean had scored a major success in 1957 with The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Together with his producer Sam Spiegel, David Lean was considered a guarantor of success in the early sixties: in February 1960, the two bought the rights to the film version of T.E. Lawrence’s memoir The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.
Sam Spiegel had originally chosen Marlon Brando for the role of Lawrence of Arabia – but fearing that Brando’s screen presence would distract attention from the historical figure Lawrence, the producers rejected this idea.
Between theater stage and cinema screen
The producers decided that the role of Lawrence of Arabia should go to Briton Albert Finney: A star in the role of Lawrence seemed inappropriate to the producers, as the historical figure was very enigmatic. The punch of an internationally recognized screen star would have left too little room to sketch the character of Lawrence, who is said to have been an enigma even to himself. When Albert Finney learned that his contract required him to commit to producer Sam Spiegel for several films, he canceled.
Thus, the producers were left without a leading man. When Peter O’Toole was offered the role of Lawrence of Arabia by the producers, he was still working at the theater. When he finally accepted the role of Lawrence, he was contractually bound to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), which would stage its first season in 1960.
O’Toole’s decision to play Lawrence of Arabia was anything but well received by the initiators of the Royal Shakespeare Company: They were dependent on O’Toole and insisted that he be there for the first season. But the RSC drew the short straw: The RSC had to accept that O’Toole would take on the role of Lawrence and withdraw his commitment to the RSC. To this day, one hears the view that the RSC’s development would have taken a different course if O’Toole had been there as a drawing card for the first season as planned.
The shooting of Lawrence of Arabia turned out to be a great adventure for everyone involved: Directed by David Lean, filming began in May 1961 in a Jordanian desert. Filming lasted until September 1962 and included a total of 313 shooting days – a record-breaking number at the time. Physically and psychologically, the shooting was a great challenge for Peter O’Toole. The film Lawrence of Arabia was the catalyst for Peter O’Toole to be recognized as a character actor throughout his life.
As a result of his success as Lawrence, O’Toole also came to the attention of Hollywood: In the comedy How to Steal a Million? (1966) he played alongside Audrey Hepburn.
Roles after Lawrence of Arabia
Peter O’Toole also immortalized himself in the James Bond franchise: in the all-star cast of the James Bond parody Casino Royale (1967), O’Toole made a cameo appearance as a bagpiper.
Peter O’Toole remained loyal to British film even after his detours to America: in the historical film The Lion in Winter (1968), O’Toole played the role of King Henry II alongside Katharine Hepburn and Timothy Dalton.
Over the course of the seventies and eighties, Peter O’Toole made nearly twenty films. In 2004, at the age of 72, O’Toole was given a special honor: in Troy, one of the most lavish films of all time, he played the role of Priam, father of Paris.
Peter O’Toole’s screen career would have been unthinkable without his portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia: Throughout his career, O’Toole was always associated with the historical figure, and the film formed the basis for his later success. After Lawrence of Arabia, O’Toole frequently starred in light-hearted films that amused audiences rather than made them think.
The skills he acquired as a Shakespearean actor at a young age enabled him to become a theater actor as well as a cinema actor. To this day, Peter O’Toole remains an important character actor of the 20th century, who made himself immortal through the incarnation of Lawrence of Arabia.
Main source: Sellers, Robert: “Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography”, 2016 Pan Books
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig