Peter O’Toole Will Always Be ‘Lawrence of Arabia’


David Lean’s Oscar-winning 1962 epic, “Lawrence of Arabia,” arrived on DVD this week (Columbia TriStar, $40). And fans of the literate bio-pic about T.E. Lawrence, the enigmatic British officer who ended up uniting the Arab nations against the Turks during World War I, won’t be disappointed with the handsome double-disc set.

With restored picture and audio, the DVD features the film in wide-screen, along with footage of the New York premiere; talent files; advertising campaigns; a comprehensive new documentary, “The Making of Lawrence of Arabia”; a conversation with Steven Spielberg, who talks about the movie’s influence, and four original featurettes.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 11, 2001 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 11, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 2 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Screenwriter credit--Robert Bolt was not the sole screenwriter of “Lawrence of Arabia” as reported in an April 7 Calendar story. Blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, though uncredited for several decades, also wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay.

Written by Robert Bolt and featuring an evocative score by Maurice Jarre, “Lawrence of Arabia” stars Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle, Donald Wolfit, Claude Rains, Arthur Kennedy and Omar Sharif.

But the film belongs to Peter O’Toole, the lanky Irish actor who inhabits the demanding role of T.E. Lawrence. It’s hard to believe that Albert Finney was actually the first choice to play the role, but bowed out because he didn’t want to spend two years in the desert.

O’Toole had made a few films before “Lawrence,” including a bit as Rob Roy in Disney’s 1960 version of “Kidnapped,” but “Lawrence” made the blond, blue-eyed actor a superstar. He received his first of seven Oscar nominations as Lawrence, but lost the Academy Award to Gregory Peck for “To Kill a Mockingbird.”


The actor, 68, recently talked by phone from London about the DVD of “Lawrence” and his experience making the film four decades ago.

Question: How long did it take you to learn to ride the camel?

Answer: I rode the wretched thing for practically two years. I even entered and, indeed, came in third once in a camel race. It is this huge, giant dragon with humps and things sticking out on top. You just hope you don’t fall off.

Q: Is it true you have always called Omar Sharif “Fred” because you never believed anyone would have a name like Omar Sharif?

A: Of course. Good old Fred. How could he be called Omar Sharif? I came to see his airplane [land on location] and here is this beautiful young man with black hair and the whiskers staring out of the window and they said he was Omar Sharif. I said, “That’s impossible.”

Q: You must be thrilled the restored “Lawrence of Arabia” is being released on DVD. It looks amazing.

A: Well, it delights me. It’s quite beautiful, this massive film. A whole generation now can get [to see films] in a tiny little packet and not lose quality. The best way to see a film like “Lawrence of Arabia” is in the cinema, but that is not available to everybody.

Q: When the restored version of “Lawrence of Arabia” was released theatrically in 1989, it included 20 minutes of footage that had been cut in the ‘60s. Though the missing footage was found, the audio never was, so you and Sharif, Guinness and Lean had to go back and rerecord your lines. What was it like to revisit those parts after nearly three decades?

A: It was enchanting. It could have been macabre because Jack Hawkins was dead and Claude Rains was dead. But it was fun because Omar and I and David remained friends all of these years. We were all in the studio not far from where I am speaking now. The sound was missing [from the footage], so lip-readers were brought in and they made a script from the lip readings. We were peering at our scripts--David, Omar, Alec Guinness and I--and we only had one pair of spectacles. They were David’s. We dubbed the whole thing in about three hours flat, with a bottle of champagne in the middle of it.

Q: In the documentary on the DVD, Sharif says that Lean became a father figure to him, but also admits that the director was not easy to get to know. Did you find the same thing was true with you and Lean?

A: David was, in all senses of the word, inscrutable. We were friendly. Our last talk was about our first loves. I talked of my first love, who I still [had a photograph of] and he talked of his, but he didn’t have a photograph. But I never got near him. We were on good, friendly conversational terms, but I never got near the man. Nobody did. Omar and I used to watch him. He would be up very early and the first thing both of us would see every morning would be David sitting--usually on the ground or on his little stool--with a cigarette in a holder, looking out at the horizon, dreaming up his first shot.

Q: Was it difficult to get a grip on T.E. Lawrence because he was so enigmatic?

A: It is no secret it was and is the most difficult part I have ever played. I am nothing like T.E. Lawrence--in no way. I was astonished that David wanted me to play this introverted, rather sexless, strange, enigmatic man. David suggested to me that rather than try to make all of these points, if I just made myself speak rather quietly and rather quickly. I remember doing it. We have been watching bits [of the film] today and I still don’t know how I did it. I doubt to this day I could have sustained that [performance] over three or four hours on the stage.

Q: It must have been amazing in your first major starring role to act opposite such veterans as Claude Rains, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and Anthony Quinn.

A: I was a very young and ambitious actor playing the lead in a massive film with a beautiful script. It was like being a young bullfighter. Every day I would wander [onto the set], hang up my cape and through this tunnel would come Alec Guinness and then Jose Ferrer and then Anthony Quayle, Tony Quinn, Arthur Kennedy. It was wonderful. You never get over it. These were masters and Omar and I had the great good fortune to work with them. We had such fun.