Obituary: British actor Peter O'Toole, star of Lawrence of Arabia, dies at 81

Acclaimed actor who shot to fame in desert epic 'Lawrence of Arabia' is famous for eight failed Oscar nominations and hell-raising lifestyle

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 3:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 11:31am

He was tall, lean and handsome, with vivid blue eyes and a distinctive voice that one film critic likened to "a rapier that has been used to stir the cream".

Actor Peter O'Toole, who donned flowing white robes and rode a camel to film stardom in David Lean's epic 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, died on Saturday in a London hospital. He had been ill for some time, but the specific cause was not disclosed. He was 81.

He received the first of his eight Academy Award nominations for best actor for playing T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic British Army officer who fought with Arab tribes during the 1916-18 Arab revolt against Turkish imperial rule.

Watch: Peter O'Toole in the role he is best known for, Lawrence of Arabia

O'Toole always relished talking about Lawrence of Arabia. He said in 2001: "How could one not, since it was the touchstone of all things excellent and changed my life completely?"

His film career, which began with a small part in Walt Disney's 1960 adventure Kidnapped, lasted for more than 50 years.

He received his eighth unsuccessful Oscar nomination for best actor in 2007 for Venus, a bittersweet British drama about an elderly London actor.

Four years earlier, with his glory days as a leading man seemingly long over, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences said the 70-year-old actor would be given an honorary Oscar for his "remarkable talents which have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters".

O'Toole asked the academy to defer the honour, saying he was "still in the game and might win the lovely b****r outright".

But on stage at the Academy Awards ceremony, he expressed his delight and wryly observed: "Always a bridesmaid never a bride - my foot! I have my very own Oscar now to be with me 'til death us do part."

Over the years, O'Toole's many film roles included a shy schoolmaster in Goodbye, Mr Chips, a flamboyantly autocratic movie director in The Stunt Man, a faded alcoholic movie swashbuckler in My Favorite Year and England's King Henry II - twice - in Becket and The Lion in Winter.

But Lawrence of Arabia, which won seven Academy Awards including best picture, made O'Toole's film career.

While making the film, hard-drinking O'Toole recalled, he and co-star Omar Sharif would "film non-stop for 10 days and then have three or four days off".

He said: "We had the use of a private plane to fly to Beirut - this was in its better days - and misbehaved ourselves appallingly."

O'Toole had already earned a reputation as one of Britain's most acclaimed young stage actors. Despite a notoriously disastrous performance as Macbeth in 1980, O'Toole returned to the stage throughout his career.

He once said: "I do films for money and theatre for pleasure."

He earned a reputation as a fun-loving hell-raiser - he claimed he once went for a drink in Paris and woke up in Corsica - a bar-room brawler and a Shakespeare-quoting raconteur.

O'Toole, who described himself as "essentially an indoor fellow" who liked to "go from one smoke-filled, ill-lit room to another", curtailed his drinking after pancreatitis led to the removal of part of his intestine in 1975. But he said in a 1989 interview: "I wouldn't have missed one drop of alcohol that I drank."

O'Toole's survivors include his two daughters, Kate and Pat; his son, Lorcan; and a sister, Patricia Coombes.