Peter O’Toole: 6 notable stage performances

Peter O'Toole as Petruchio with Peggy Ashcroft as Katherine, in a stage production of Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" at the Memorial Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in 1960.
(Associated Press)

Peter O’Toole, like a number of British movie stars of his generation, never left his stage career behind him. The theater was stubbornly ingrained in his actorly craft and he continued to perform on stage well into the later half of his life.

O’Toole, who died Saturday at 81 in London, was such a lover of Shakespeare that he once confessed to carrying around a book of the Bard’s sonnets wherever he went. In his two-volume autobiography “Loitering With Intent,” the actor provides an in-depth account of his stage training at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and his fascination with the 19th century British stage actor Edmund Kean.

His theater home for many years was the Old Vic in Bristol, England, where O’Toole played more than 70 roles over the course of his lengthy career. He appeared in the classics as well as in contemporary dramas, winning awards and piquing the interest of producer Sam Spiegel, who would eventually cast him in “Lawrence of Arabia.”

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With his lilting vocal delivery and somewhat dandyish body language, O’Toole was never someone who could vanish into a role, which is also what made him such a distinctive film star. When time and hard drinking had robbed him of his health and good looks, he still possessed the stage actor’s stamina — that ability to soldier through the most physically demanding roles.

O’Toole — like his friends Richard Burton and Albert Finney — was a bona fide movie actor for whom the theater was equally if not more important. In interviews, he proved himself fluent in the language of the stage, possessing a drama professor’s capability of summoning up important theater performances that time had forgotten. (He also appeared in notable screen adaptations of famous plays, including “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter,” in both cases playing Henry II.)

Here are several of O’Toole’s most notable stage roles, spanning four decades and three countries.

The Taming of the Shrew”: Before “Lawrence of Arabia” made him famous, O’Toole was a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Co., where he played several Shakespearean parts during the ‘50s and ‘60s, including the role of Petruchio in a 1960 production alongside Peggy Aschcroft as Kate.

Hamlet”: O’Toole’s performance in this 1963 production from the National Theatre directed by Laurence Olivier is regarded as one of the actor’s most significant stage appearances, partly because Olivier presented the four-hour play uncut. Video clips show O’Toole discussing the role with none other than Orson Welles.

Waiting for Godot”: The Irish-born actor played the role of Vladimir in Beckett’s masterpiece in a production at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1969.

Uncle Vanya”: O’Toole played the title character of Chekhov’s classic at the Bristol Old Vic in the early ‘70s and again several years later in a touring production that traveled to Chicago and Washington.

Pygmalion”: The actor’s only Broadway appearance came in a 1987 production of Shaw’s play, co-starring Amanda Plummer.


Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell”: Playing the real-life, washed-up alcoholic British journalist, O’Toole brought his own experience with the bottle to this acclaimed drama, which he played a few times during the latter part of his career. His appearance in a 1999 revival of the play at London’s Old Vic was filmed for television.


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