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Peter O'Toole dies at 81; nominated eight times for best-actor Oscar

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

Peter O'Toole, who donned flowing white robes and rode a camel to movie stardom in David Lean's epic 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia," 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.

O'Toole always relished talking about "Lawrence of Arabia," whose shooting locations included Jordan, Spain and Morocco.

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"How could one not, since it was the touchstone of all things excellent and changed my life completely?" he said in a 2001 interview with the Mail on Sunday, a British newspaper.

O'Toole, 81, died Saturday in a London hospital, his daughter Kate O'Toole said in a statement. He had been ill for some time, but the specific cause was not disclosed.

In a film career that lasted more than 50 years and began with a small part in Walt Disney's 1960 family adventure "Kidnapped," O'Toole earned best-actor Oscar nominations for "Becket" (1964), "The Lion in Winter" (1968), "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969), "The Ruling Class" (1972), "The Stunt Man" (1980) and "My Favorite Year" (1982).

He received his eighth Oscar nomination for best actor in 2007 for "Venus," a bittersweet British drama about an elderly London actor facing his own mortality who becomes smitten with an actor friend's free-spirited young grandniece.

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

O'Toole asked the academy to defer the honor, saying he was "still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright."

On stage at the Academy Awards ceremony, however, he expressed his delight in being honored and wryly observed: "Always a bridesmaid never a bride — my foot! I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part."

Over the years, O'Toole's many film roles included a 19th-century seaman (in "Lord Jim"), 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.

His Oscar nomination came as a result of his adept handling of what a critic for Variety called "Lawrence's many moods" — from his "veiled insolence and contempt of high authority" to his "courage, pain, vanity and fanaticism."

And, the critic noted, O'Toole was sure to attract female fans.

Indeed, with blond hair and a tanned face setting off his piercing blue eyes, O'Toole cut a strikingly handsome figure as Lawrence. Or as Noel Coward famously quipped to O'Toole at a premiere party: "If you'd been prettier, it would have been 'Florence of Arabia.' "

Film historian and biographer Joseph McBride said O'Toole made "a number of important films," but "Lawrence of Arabia" was his "crowning achievement."

"There are a lot of handsome actors who speak lines well, but there are not as many actors who are as thoughtful and portray human beings in such a complex light as Peter O'Toole," McBride told The Times in 2007.

O'Toole recalled in the Mail on Sunday interview that on the first day of filming "Lawrence of Arabia" in the desert, Lean stood next to him and said, "Well, Pete, off we go on a great adventure."

"And it was!" O 'Toole exclaimed. "I was a young man, keen to get on in the business, working with great people, living in a part of the world that fascinated me, and forming an enduring friendship with Omar Sharif," who played Sherif Ali.

While making the film, O'Toole recalled, he and Sharif would "film nonstop for 10 days and then have three or four days off.

"We had the use of a private plane to fly to Beirut — this was in its better days — and misbehaved ourselves appallingly! Terribly! Omar loved gambling, too, so we'd lose all our money at the casino — we once did about nine months' wages in one night — and then get up to the usual things young men get up to."

But the long months playing the role of Lawrence took a toll on the actor.

"Lawrence!" O'Toole cried, tossing back a slug of Scotch during a 1963 interview in a Dublin hotel bar with writer Gay Talese for Esquire magazine. "I became obsessed by that man, and it was bad.

"A true artist should be able to jump into a bucket of [excrement] and come out smelling of violets, but I spent two years and three months making that picture, and it was two years, three months of thinking about nothing but Lawrence, and you were him, and that's how it was day after day, and it became bad for me personally, and it killed my acting later."

He was, he said, "emotionally bankrupt after that picture."

And seeing himself on screen in "Lawrence of Arabia" was not a pleasant experience.

"Oh, it's painful seeing it all there on the screen, solidified, embalmed," O'Toole told Talese. "Once a thing is solidified it stops being a living thing. That's why I love the theater. It's the Art of the Moment. I'm in love with ephemera and I hate permanence."

When he was cast in "Lawrence of Arabia" O'Toole already had earned a reputation as one of Britain's most acclaimed young stage actors.

He gained fame on the London stage in 1959 — and earned the London Critics' Award for best actor of the year — playing the insubordinate Cockney private in Willis Hall's World War II-set, anti-war play "The Long and the Short and the Tall."

In his review, theater critic Kenneth Tynan wrote: "In the case of Mr. O'Toole, I sense a technical authority that may, given the discipline and purpose, presage greatness."

O'Toole further burnished his theatrical reputation in England in 1960 playing Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and Petruchio in "The Taming of the Shrew" with the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. And in 1963, he played Hamlet, under Laurence Olivier's direction, in the National Theatre production.

Despite a notoriously disastrous performance as Macbeth in 1980, O'Toole returned to the stage throughout his career.

"I do films for money," he once said, "and theater for pleasure."

He also did television, winning an Emmy Award for outstanding supporting actor for his role as Bishop Cauchon in the 1999 TV mini-series "Joan of Arc."

Richard Burton, who costarred with O'Toole in "Becket" and was one of his drinking cronies, once said that acting "is usually regarded as a craft and I claim it to be nothing more except in the hands of the few men who, once or twice in a lifetime, elevate it into something odd and mystical and deeply disturbing. I believe Peter O'Toole to have this strange quality."

O'Toole was as memorable off-stage as on.

Early in his career, he earned a reputation as a fun-loving, heavy drinker — he claimed he once went for a drink in Paris and woke up in Corsica — a barroom brawler and a loquacious, Shakespeare-quoting raconteur.

"When you meet Peter O'Toole," Barbara Hershey, his costar in "The Stunt Man" once said, "he does not disappoint."

He was born Peter Seamus O'Toole on Aug. 2, 1932, in Connemara, Ireland. At least that's what most biographical references say. Exactly when and where O'Toole was born remains something of a mystery.

In the first volume of his 1993 autobiography, "Loitering with Intent: The Child," O'Toole wrote: "The family version of my date and place of birth is June, 1932, in Ireland; the same event is recorded as August of the same year at an accidental hospital in England; my baptism was in November, 1932, also in England."

O'Toole maintained, however, that "my nationality is Irish," and for many years was known for wearing green socks, even, as Talese noted, with tuxedos.

The son of a popular Irish racetrack bookie and gambler, O'Toole grew up in Leeds, England, and attended Catholic schools.

After leaving school at 14, he landed a job as a copy boy at the Yorkshire Evening News. He remained at the paper, where he became a photographer's assistant and did some writing, until he was 18. He later described the experience as his "real education."

Required to perform two years of National Service at 18, he joined the Royal Navy, where he was trained as a signalman.

In 1953, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, where he was one of the standouts among a class that included Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Richard Harris.

O'Toole then apprenticed at the Bristol Old Vic, where he played more than 70 roles in three years.

They included a notable performance as Hamlet, which spurred British theater director Peter Hall to later remark: "I could see then the sparks of genius — and that isn't using too fine a word."

In 1959, O'Toole married Welsh actress Sian Phillips after he reportedly proposed to her by saying, "Will you have my babies?" They had two daughters, Kate and Pat, and were divorced in 1979. O'Toole also had a son, Lorcan, with American model Karen Brown in 1983. O'Toole's survivors include his children and a sister, Patricia Coombes.

O'Toole, who once described himself as "essentially an indoor fellow" who liked to "go from one smoke-filled, ill-lit room to another," was forced to curtail his drinking after pancreatitis led to the removal of part of his intestine in 1975.

But, he said in a 1989 interview with Us magazine, "I wouldn't have missed one drop of alcohol that I drank."

On July 10, 2012, the 79-year-old O'Toole announced in a statement that it was "time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: It won't come back."

His acting life, he said, "has brought me public support, emotional fulfillment and material comfort" — as well as bringing him together "with fine people, good companions with whom I've shared the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits."

But, he said, "it's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay. So I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell."

news.obits@latimes.com

McLellan is a former Times staffer.

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