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Peter O'Toole - Biography

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Peter O'Toole

Personal details

Name: Peter O'Toole
Born: 2 August 1932 (Age: 83)
Where: Ireland
Height: 6' 3"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, 3 Golden Globes and nominated for 8 Oscars

All about this star


A quick quiz question for you. What do the following performances have in common? Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, Rex Harrison as Professor 'Enry 'Iggins, Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn in True Grit, Robert De Niro as Jake LaMotta, and Cliff Robertson in Charly. Well, one answer is that all the gentlemen mentioned won an Best Actor Oscar for their efforts. Another is that they all did so by beating off a challenge from one of Britain's greatest thespians - Peter O'Toole.

Seven times nominated, seven times defeated. Most would have given up the ghost, spent their final years hamming it up in BBC period dramas. Not O'Toole. When offered a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 2003 he came close to turning it down. He felt he was still capable of winning one of the "lovely buggers" outright. He was, he said, still in the game. And, come 2007 when he was nominated for Venus, there could be no doubt that he was right. Eight times nominated, eight times defeated, but still in the game.

He was born Peter Seamus O'Toole in . . . actually, we can't be entirely sure. According to his own autobiography, he's registered as arriving in an English accident hospital in August, 1932. His family, though, always claimed he was born in Ireland two months before that. Given his father's Irishness and reputation for advanced dodginess, either could be true.

O'Toole's father, Patrick Joseph, had been an apprentice metal plater and shipwright in the north-east of England, where his own mother dealt in second-hand furniture. Throughout his twenties he captained a minor pro football team then, after WWI, turned increasingly to gambling. Self-titled Captain Pat O'Toole, he became a racetrack bookmaker, himself betting on boxing, roulette, dice, the dogs, anything. Once refusing to pay protection money, he'd be cracked about the head with a coke hammer. Whenever drawn into fights, tears would run down his face.

One time at the racetrack, Captain Pat would meet a pretty young nurse, Contance Jane Eliot Ferguson. Partly named after Jane Elliot, who around 1750 had written The Flowers Of The Forest, Constance had been orphaned early and raised in Scotland. She liked to drink whisky and recite the poems of Robert Burns. Captain Pat, with his charming blarney, his wads of cash and racetrack status, must have seemed a bright prospect. Her life with him would not be as comfortable as she might have hoped.

Up to the age of 5, O'Toole has said, he doesn't know where the family lived. Patrick, Constance, Peter and his sister Patricia would wind up, though, in Leeds - known to the racing fraternity as Golden City - in a small stone house beside a dairy in a hilly suburb near Roundhay Park. Attending St Anne's Infants' School and encouraged by his mother (a keen reader of Dickens and Buchan), Peter would quickly excel at reading and writing. He'd also learn other lessons. Smacking his left hand with a ruler, nuns at the school would teach him not to be ambidextrous while his father, encouraging the boy to leap from the mantlepiece into his arms and then letting him crash painfully to the stone floor, would teach him to "never trust any bastard". No one ever said growing up was easy.

With Patrick now gambling away most of the proceeds from his Turf Accountancy and a gambling den he co-owned, the O'Tooles were poor but reasonably happy. Happy, that is, until Peter suffered a burst appendix and peritonitis. With no antibiotics he came perilously close to death for the first time, being placed for an age in isolation, then shipped off to convalesce in the cold, clean air of the north-east coast. When he returned to Leeds in 1940 he found that the war years had wrecked his father's business. No more credit was allowed, the risk of violence too high. They now lived in Hunslet, a smaller, harder area near the city centre where thousands squeezed into back-to-back houses coated in industrial soot. Here, he'd recall, people had to fight to be clean. Everyone had a gas mask. Not to protect them from the soot, but from the murderous attentions of the Luftwaffe.

As many children were at the time, Peter would be evacuated to the country, in his case the rural midlands. Here he'd stay with a miller's family in a cute village, sleeping in a room vacated by the miller's young son, already killed in the war. He'd play the family piano, enjoy the rough country life, but all too soon he'd be back in Hunslet, under the flight paths of Hitler's bombers. He saw one man killed, several dead. Many were missing, more were maimed, fear and grief were constants. In the blackout he'd accompany his mother on her evening trips to call his father, now an engineer for the Royal Navy in the north east. In the deep darkness they'd avoid getting lost by keeping one foot on the pavement, one in the road.

With the family moving between Hunslet, his father's workplace and a pub owned by friends in rural Yorkshire, Peter would go two years without official schooling before being briefly sent to a Franciscan establishment then returning to St Anne's (6 miles a day by bus, tram and foot). He and his urchin mates were for ever in action, in trouble, getting around by hanging on to the back of trams or hiding in grit lorries and rag and bone carts. Things would get tougher still in 1944 when, attempting to re-start his business in Hunslet, Patrick was badly beaten by underground rivals who smashed every bone in his right hand. Secretly running a very limited bookmaking operation, he would not make much, leaving Constance to wash windows, scrub floors, dust, iron, sweep, anything to get the family by. After a while she'd score a job running a newsagent - Peter delivering papers - then become a general help in a big house back at Roundhay Park. Coincidentally, the house was owned by a woman who'd taught Emlyn Williams, the famous actor and playwright. Richard Burton, later Peter's legendary drinking buddy, would soon make his stage and film debuts in Williams' Druid's Rest and The Last Days Of Dolwyn.

Now secure, the O'Tooles would settle into a normal lifestyle, or as normal a lifestyle as you can have when your dad is Captain Pat. Peter would continue his Catholic education, excelling in English. He'd also be sporty. He'd be a fanatical regular down at Hunslet's rugby league ground, though rugby union would be the game he played. He also grew to love cricket (much later in life, he'd actually become an MCC coach).

At 16, keen to leave school and earn his own money, O'Toole managed to secure a position at the Yorkshire Evening News, beginning as a trainee photographer, studying optics and fieldwork at night school. His linguistic abilities, though, soon saw him become a jack-of-all-trades at the paper, working on the sports and news sections, on features, in the library and with the cartoonist, as well as in the sales and printing departments. Ever ambitious, he decided to become the editor of a magazine, something exotic, perhaps, like Paris Match.

Life was changing for the better. Now armed with wages, he'd saunter into pubs dressed in a mac and cloth cap, smoking and reading a newspaper, aging himself in order to get served. Still playing rugby, he'd make his stage debut in the team's amateur production of Aloma Of The High Seas, in a small role as rum-sodden sea skipper Red Molloy.

At 17, the Yorkshire Evening News, clearly seeing O'Toole as a future writer, sent the lad to college to study English Literature. His higher education, though, would be summarily halted at 18 by National Service. Called into the Navy, O'Toole would now attend signal school (he'd learn semaphore but never use it) then be placed on ships, carrying messages between tough sailors with recent war experience. With his new crew, the boy would be sent to patrol northern waters, from the North Sea through the Skagerrak to the Baltic and the Gulf of Bothnia. Always curious and ever the adventurer, he loved it at sea, even coming to dislike land leave.

After two years in the Navy, O'Toole would return to his career at the Yorkshire Evening News. But things had changed. Through his reading and now his life on the ocean wave, O'Toole's outloook had altered. No longer would he be content to write other people's stories, now he wanted other people to tell his. With a close friend now excelling as an abstract artist, he began to attend the Arts Centre in Leeds, where painters and potters mixed with poets and actors, celebrating creativity. O'Toole was massively enthused by this experience, taking to writing his own plays and poems. Somehow, he thought, he had to get deeper into this theatre thing, maybe as a producer, or administrator, anything would do.

His first lucky break came once he'd been roped into a Christmas panto. Not an auspicious start, you'd think, but his potential was spotted. When the leading man fell sick just before the opening of Turgenev's Fathers And Sons at the Civic Theatre, O'Toole was asked to take over. He explained that his thespian CV stretched no further than Cap'n Red Molloy, but the producers had confidence in the young turk and he eventually agreed. They were right, he was good. Theatre would be the making of him.

Theatre quickly became another passion, joining jazz, vaudeville, cinema, big bands, boxing, cricket and rugby in O'Toole's affections. He took up evening classes with a former actress (he claims she taught him a lot - but not about acting) and began to devour books on drama, reading plays and biographies of the greats. Tellingly, it was the theatrical bad boys - Edmund Kean, John Barrymore, Henry Irving - he looked up to the most. Leaving the Yorkshire Evening News, he financed his new love by working as a demolition man and steeplejack, at night practising movement and singing, perfecting audition pieces, studying stage management. He'd stage a one-act play in a tiny attic theatre, another success. O'Toole was quickly building himself a reputation.

Now nearly 21, in 1953 O'Toole would leave to see more of the world, this time London. Hitching south with a friend, he'd stop off in Stratford to watch Michael Redgrave play King Lear, then take off down to the capital where they'd hole up in a hostel on Tottenham Court Road. In his classic autobiography, Loitering With Intent, O'Toole has it that he actually stumbled upon RADA, noticed its doors in the course of exploring London, but it seems more likely that this hugely ambitious young man knew exactly where he was going. O'Toole's story goes that he walked into RADA as was lucky enough to meet its principal, Sir Kenneth Barnes. Auditions for that Autumn term were to be held that week and O'Toole was far too late to fill in the necessary application forms. Barnes, though, on hearing of O'Toole's circumstances and his stretch in the navy, granted him an interview that very day. Two days later came the first audition, for which O'Toole would recite speeches from Pygmalion and Hamlet. The former he knew well as his mother had taken him to see Anthony Asquith's 1938 version of Pygmalion many times, indeed the whole family often used the speech in jest. Hamlet was another personal favourite.

O'Toole was delighted when RADA's elite were impressed enough by his audition to offer him a second hearing. He was less delighted to receive a letter from the Navy ordering him to present himself at Portsmouth docks in two months time. As a reservist, he had no choice but to go. Beyond this, there was a very real fear that he might be sent to Korea. In the meantime, he revelled in London life. Finding accommodation wherever they could, spending one night in the bandstand in Green Park, he and his friend took what work they could find, O'Toole joining an Irish work gang humping bags of cement at an electric power station. In the evenings they'd tour the pubs and visit the theatre, O'Toole recalling in particular the performance of Sam Levene as Nathan Detroit in Guys And Dolls.

O'Toole's second RADA audition would see him take on GK Chesterton and Henry James. By now the brash confidence lent him by his status as a northern invader had worn thin. Now, so close to the big prize, he began to fret over the lisp he'd picked up when, playing rugby for the Navy against a Swedish police side, he'd had his nose and jaw broken and his tongue badly split. It might be, he thought, a therious thtumbling-block.

Before the RADA results came through, his second tour of duty must be completed. And so he found himself riding Icelandic waters, freezing and seasick. This time it wasn't an adventure. It might not be Korea, but it was a serious inconvenience. Fortunately, though, he was soon back on land and ecstatic to receive a telegram from his parents telling him he'd won a full scholarship to RADA. All his fees, his books and his kit would be paid for for two years.

O'Toole would begin his RADA apprenticeship in autumn, 1953, his Navy duty making him 10 days late. Over the two years his peers would include Albert Finney, Richard Briers, Alan Bates, Judy Parfitt, Bryan Pringle and Ronald Fraser (Glenda Jackson would arrive the year after he left). In O'Toole's year, 46 men and 31 women would enrol, their numbers being savagely whittled down as time passed - student placements were never secure. On his first day, O'Toole would walk straight into a rehearsal of As You Like It, the class having saved the part of Oliver for him. Finney would be George the Wrestler. Edmund Hillary had just conquered Everest, Len Hutton had won the Ashes and a working-class Leeds kid called Peter O'Toole found himself accepted by RADA. God, it was good to be English.

The pressure was now on. Aside from the As You Like It rehearsals, there were voice lessons with Clifford Turner, ballet lessons with Madame Fletcher, diction with actor Denys Blakelock, movement with Amy Boalth, stage management with Mr Hayes, stagecraft with Howard Williams, swordfighting with Professor Froeschlen, technique with John Gabriel. Importantly, he also worked with remedial speech teacher Miss Scott, freeing himself from that lisp. His tongue, said Miss Scott, was lazy. Every morning and every night he must exercise it by assiduously running through lines like "Amidst the mists and coldest frosts/ With barest wrists and stoutest boasts/ He thrusts his fists against the posts/ And still insists he sees the ghosts". After the first term, every month the students had to don makeup and costumes and perform in the Little Theatre before a distinguished panel of judges. O'Toole's first such performance was in front of famed veteran Sybil Thorndike. Soon the legendary Ernest Milton would join the teaching staff, in time to see O'Toole and Finney stage-manage a production of George Bernard Shaw's You Never Can Tell, where O'Toole would play Valentine, a passionate, impoverished dentist falling for young Gloria as a fraught family reunion plays out around them.

Outside of class, O'Toole began to immerse himself in London's theatreland, learning at the feet of the greats. At the Old Vic he saw a 28-year-old Richard Burton, on a high after cinema success in The Robe, playing Faulconbridge the Bastard in The Life And Death Of King John. At last he began to see the actors, the crew and the audience as one - a huge revelation. In the pub opposite he'd see Burton and the cast make merry and was deeply impressed by the Welshman's joy and vitality. Of course, he'd soak in the rest of the Burton season: Hamlet with Claire Bloom, plus Twelfth Night and The Tempest. Beyond this, he'd catch Dorothy Tutin and Eric Porter in Graham Greene's The Living Room, Trevor Howard in The Devil's General, The King And I with Herbert Lom and Valerie Hobson, Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Redgrave in Anthony And Cleopatra, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh in The Sleeping Prince, and A Day By The Sea with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson. How could you not be hooked for life?

Now sharing a room with a fellow student at Chalk Farm, just up the hill towards Belsize Park, O'Toole spent much time exploring Soho, gradually gaining admittance to the hidden drinking clubs there. After a Christmas that saw him back in Leeds, then selling balloons in York, he returned to London to live on a 40-foot houseboat known as Venus (not the last time he'd be kept afloat by a vehicle called Venus). Once the boat had sunk during a particularly raucous party, he'd move on to a flat in Archway, making extra cash soldering wires onto model cars, then there'd be another flat, this time in Muswell Hill.

Back at RADA and now taught by Edward Burnham, O'Toole would engage in two separate productions of Trelawny Of The 'Wells, in the first starring as Tom Wrench (based on Tom Robertson, who brought social realism to the theatre in the 1860s) and in the second appearing briefly as the comic stage manager O'Dwyer. After performing the pieces in the spring of 1954, O'Toole would receive some invaluable advice from Robert Atkins, the actor who'd earlier put the Old Vic on the map. "Take the crucifixion out of your voice," said Atkins "and put some cock into it".

With Ernest Milton, now O'Toole would work on parts of Twelfth Night, basing his Malvolio on Michael Hordern's efforts in the recent Richard Burton season. All the time he was soaking in the work of the greats. He saw Alec Guinness in The Prisoner, Sam Wanamaker and Diane Cilento in The Big Knife, Dorothy Tutin in I Am A Camera, he'd even manage to take his then-girlfriend backstage to meet Eli Wallach at Her Majesty's after a performance The Teahouse Of The August Moon. Coming from the background he did, and with imposing height and devastating charm on his side, O'Toole always was a masterful blagger.

After his first year at RADA, O'Toole would join Hugh Miller's production of The Trial Of Mary Dugan, touring through the parks of London as Dr Welcome (Miller would become O'Toole's mentor). When the run was over, he'd rejoin the masses of Irish navvies, known on the street as McAlpine's Fusiliers, then return to RADA for another tough year that included an Alice In Wonderland panto where O'Toole would play the March Hare, the Carpenter and the White Knight.

Come the summer of 1955, it was time to turn pro, and O'Toole would spend the next three years serving an apprenticeship with Bristol's Old Vic company. And a very real apprenticeship it was, with O'Toole playing over 70 roles over that time. It was tough, nerve-wracking work. On his debut as a cab driver in The Matchmaker and throughout his first year, he'd vomit into a bucket before the curtain was raised.

He began, naturally, in small parts. Hanging out with peer and friend Ted Hardwicke, son of film star Sir Cedric, the pair would pretend that the minor roles they played in that first year were in fact central to the action. Eventually, they'd be scolded for adding depth and emotional complexity to the opening of doors and hanging of coats. It sounds like tomfoolery, but this silliness did in fact inspire a milestone in British theatre as O'Toole and Hardwicke would often entertain a young journalist named Tom Stoppard, later to find success with Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, concerning two non-entities believing themselves to be prime movers in the story of Hamlet.

O'Toole's looks, talent and RADA-training saw him move quickly up through the ranks. Come 1956, he'd play Cornwall to Eric Porter's King Lear, he'd be Bullock in The Recruiting Officer, Lodovico in Othello, and make his professional London debut as Peter Shirley in Shaw's Major Barbara. Beyond these, he'd be Corvino in Volpone, Parsnip in a Sleeping Beauty panto, he'd play Jaggers alongside his former advisor Robert Atkins in Great Expectations (directed by Alec Guiness), an angel in Sodom And Gomorrah, Mrs Millie Baba in another panto, Ali Baba, and a Teddy Boy in The Pier.

By 1957, O'Toole was making waves. He'd play Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion, Lysander in A Midummer Night's Dream, The General in Romanoff And Juliet, Uncle Gustave in Oh, Mein Papa (at London's Garrick). There'd be Waiting For Godot, and a turn as Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger, a part played onscreen the next year by Richard Burton. Interestingly, though kitchen sink dramas were changing the face of theatre at the time, and O'Toole, being northern and working-class, had perfect contemporary credentials, he wasn't really an angry young man. He was far too theatrical for that, his ambitions stretched way beyond social realism and the kitchen sink. Where others had been changed forever by Brando's performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and On The Waterfront, immediately pursuing a similar mumbling Method, O'Toole was taken by Brando's Mark Antony in Julius Caesar. It wasn't Brando's attempt to BE Antony that impressed him, but the obvious work the actor had put in to understand and deliver his lines. That and Brando's immense charisma. From now on, no matter how drunk or wild he became while "resting", O'Toole would be ever-rigorous in his preparation.

As said, 1957 would see O'Toole rise through the ranks at the Bristol Old Vic. The year would also introduce him to his future wife, actress Sian Phillips. They'd be introduced while he was in London, staying at the Belgravia home of actor and famed documentary maker Ken Griffith. Griffith's wife Doriah would later recall O'Toole spending his days lounging around, smoking Gauloises and drinking alternate gulps of Scotch and chalky white ulcer medicine. Already the drink was taking its toll.

1958 would see O'Toole in Giraudoux's Amphitryon '38, and reaching new heights as Tanner in Shaw's Man and Superman and as Hamlet, a role that gained him great attention. He'd also tour with Sian Phillips in John Hall's The Holiday. At the time she was still officially married to a man she'd dumped when she ran off to London and RADA (she'd spent a year there between 1956 and '57). In those stricter times, her reputation was on the line. After the tour, they'd spend a period apart but, when O'Toole appeared outside her Ladbroke Square flat in the middle of the night, it was the true beginning of a 20-year relationship. Quickly she would learn about drinking and late, late nights.

1959 would bring a major breakthrough when, having left Bristol's Old Vic, he took the part of Bamforth in Willis Hall's stark war drama The Long, The Short And The Tall. The part had actually been written for O'Toole's RADA buddy Albert Finney and had been offered to O'Toole by director Lindsay Anderson only when Finney fell ill. It went well, very well. Playing alongside Robert Shaw and friends Ronald Fraser and Bryan Pringle, O'Toole enjoyed a huge success, being named Best Actor by London's critics. And he did it his way. Much to Anderson's annoyance, the cast spent much of their time in the pub next to the theatre, running back in only ten minutes or so before curtain-up. Phillips would recall that this was when she realised the real nature of O'Toole and his friends. Wanting to appear bohemian, they'd drink and revel wildly - and they'd never let anyone know the immense amount of preparation work they'd put in. They certainly needed to prepare. Waiting watchfully (and soberly) for O'Toole to blow it was his understudy, a young actor named Michael Caine. O'Toole, recognising the ability and ambition of this young pretender, would give him no chance to usurp his position, continuing even when he badly damaged his knee.

People now knew the name. O'Toole was even interviewed for the lead opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer, just in case Montgomery Clift finally fell apart. With Phillips starring in many of the live TV plays popular at the time and also presenting Land Of Song every Sunday, money was flowing. According to Phillips they'd be out most nights, always with the same gang of 50 or so thespian reprobates. They'd drink at Jerry's, the Kismet, Jack's, the Buxton, usually ending the night with early morning tea and sausage sarnies in Covent Garden - with O'Toole often engaging in some death-defying climb up scaffolding, monuments or people's houses. He wasn't fussy - just so long as it was high. Staying in a room in Ken Griffith's Belgravia flat, they had a wonderful time, great food, great sex, great relationship. They fascinated one another and much of London society, too, particularly when O'Toole, taking a dislike to Phillips' bourgois wardrobe, threw all her clothes out into the street, forcing her to wear his.

Scouting around for TV work, O'Toole would win only three roles, all of them in the TV series Rendezvous, one being an aeroplane drama where he'd play opposite Patricia Neal, soon to win an Oscar for Hud and immediately dump Hollywood stardom to raise kids as Mrs Roald Dahl. With Phillips now pregnant, constant work was becoming more important. Still, though, when offered a part as an Irish patriot-come-bandit in The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England, he turned it down, demanding instead to play the upper-class English officer in charge of the bank's security. Of course, he got it. Indeed, he so impressed producer Jules Buck - a former Hollywood mover with superb connections - that Buck and his wife Joyce would quickly set up Keep Films with O'Toole and Phillips, from now on guiding O'Toole's career.

Having moved into a flat on Bryanston Street, O'Toole would receive '175 for a single day's filming on a Disney adaptation of Kidnapped, playing a soldier who shelters Peter Finch and James MacArthur from the law and trounces Finch in a bagpipe-playing competition. The looks he gave Finch - sidelong glances of self-confident challenge - were hilarious to behold. Next, he'd score a far meatier part in a prestigious production, The Savage Innocents, directed by Nicholas Ray (hot after Rebel Without A Cause) and starring Anthony Quinn, a recent Oscar winner for Lust For Life. It should have a major advance in his film career as he played a trooper sent to track down Inuit Quinn who's accidentally killed a white missionary, O'Toole gradually coming to understand his quarry's way of life, but he spent the whole picture hidden under a balaclava, beard and frozen dirt, even suffering the indignity of having his voice dubbed. Quinn, meanwhile, explaining that he'd taken 20 years to get his name above the credits, made it very clear that he'd not be upstaged by O'Toole. Indeed, he gave his young rival a hard lesson in scene-stealing, so hard that O'Toole even attempted to have his name removed from the credits. He needn't have worried. He'd be stealing scenes from Quinn sooner than either would have imagined.

Though things were going well, O'Toole was living on the edge. For a start, he needed to clear up the problem with Phillips' marriage. They pushed through a divorce for her in Mexico but, at this was not recognised under English law there was a possibility that, when he now married Phillips in Dublin's only registry office, she actually became a bigamist. After a brief court appearance in Shrewsbury, though, she was officially declared divorced from her first husband. The couple had successfully avoided any bad publicity over this, the papers being far more interested in O'Toole finally having work done on his nose, a feature previously ill-treated by the Swedish police. This was not the act of a true actor, it was said. O'Toole was clearly after stardom, not artistic greatness. He was actually accused of selling out. To escape this foolishness, O'Toole would take off across Europe, Phillips later recalling the intense fear she felt due to her husband's driving, always erratic, even when he wasn't drunk. But she also recalled how everyone, even people who didn't know him, wanted to spend time with him. His drive towards adventure, towards life, was tremendously attractive. Life with him might well be unhealthy, but it was always exciting.

Not liking his movies, unable to score a decent play, O'Toole was now restless. After playing alongside Phillips in the Saunders Lewis play Siwan for Welsh TV, in January 1960, he accepted an offer from Peter Hall to join his new theatre company in Stratford. Formerly the Stratford Memorial Theatre Company, this was now to be named The Royal Shakespeare Company, with Paul Scofield due to headline its first season. Scofield, though, had pulled out at the last so Hall decided to take a risk - a major risk - on theatre's newest sensation, O'Toole. Moving to a big Edwardian house in Stratford - the same house where John Osborne and Mary Ure had endured a horrible time two years before - the pressure was on. O'Toole was earning '45 a week, his wife was very pregnant, he was living in a house still reeking of relationship breakdown, and he knew damn well that understudies were being lined up in case he folded.

The RSC's first season opened with Two Gentlemen Of Verona which earned only a lukewarm reception. Hall needed a hit with the second production, The Taming Of The Shrew, with O'Toole as Petruchio. It wasn't looking good. O'Toole was drinking heavily, he'd been critical of his new-born daughter, Kate and finally, just before the play's opening performance, he disappeared entirely. Everyone, understandably, freaked out. In fact, O'Toole was at home, asleep, a long, long sleep. He'd awake just in time, proceed to the theatre and deliver a rivetting performance that would send the RSC on its way.

All was not perfect. Phillips would claim that O'Toole had terrible trouble accepting the sexual relationships she'd had with other men (Phillips having started the Sixties some time before anyone else). When drunk - which was often - his moods would be awfully black, his tongue vicious. He'd never hit her but he'd smash everything else, her ego going the same way as the crockery. It would take a reconciliation in the west of Ireland - O'Toole's spiritual home - to keep their marriage from destruction.

Work-wise, O'Toole was now hot. The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England was released, with O'Toole excellent as the intense, suspicious guard attempting to prevent a break-in through the sewers. Anthony Quinn came to visit in Stratford, as did Eddie Fisher, attempting to get O'Toole to play opposite his wife, Elizabeth Taylor, in a new adaptation of Anna Karenina (O'Toole turned him down). Onstage, O'Toole continued to be excellent as Petruchio to Peggy Ashcroft's Kate, though she was 52, he only 27. Also in the cast would be Ians Holm and Richardson, with a young Diana Rigg as A Wench and, amazingly, an even younger Dennis Waterman as a Boy Player. O'Toole's shenanigans would continue unabated. He'd fail to turn up to sonnet classes, instead getting wasted in the re-named Dirty Duck with his drinking buddies Dinsdale Landen and Jackie McGowran. The alcohol, it seemed, did not affect his performances.

The RSC season would continue with The Merchant Of Venice, where O'Toole would play Shylock, with Dorothy Tutin and Patrick Allen as Portia and Antonio respectively. Then Peter Hall himself would direct Troilus and Cressida, with Tutin and Denholm Elliott in the title roles and O'Toole as Thersites. Also in the RSC troupe, though not in the same productions as O'Toole, would be Eric Porter and Geraldine McEwan. The next year would see Vanessa Redgrave return to Stratford and Judi Dench make her debut. But by then O'Toole was gone.

He had been advised to take it easy. In fact, his stomach ulcers should have seen him hospitalized. Instead, O'Toole ordered gallons of white "stomach medicine" and loads of Complan, for now staving off the inevitable collapse. He still drank and smoked heavily, but his appetite for food was ever healthy, which certainly explains why he hadn't suffered drastic problems long before this.

Really, there was no time for rest. Peter Hall had planned for O'Toole to remain with the RSC as they began their first London season. He was to play Henry II in Anouilh's Becket, then Richard III and Iago to John Gielgud's Othello. But Oscar-winning director David Lean, after a long search for an actor to take the lead in his next epic (Albert Finney had already turned him down), had spotted O'Toole in The Day They Robbed The Bank Of England and believed he had found his man. This was his chance and, despite threats of a lawsuit, personal pleas from Peggy Ashcroft and industry-wide rumblings that he was, once again, selling out, O'Toole went for cinematic stardom, dumping the RSC and teaming up with Lean (Christopher Plummer and Ian Holm would take his abandoned theatrisparts). While his wife was preparing to join Peter Hall for the upcoming London run, O'Toole took off for Bristol, to say his farewells before filming began. And, of course, he'd do so in spectacular style, at one point drunkenly driving a car-load of actors into the back of a police van.

In early 1961, he'd be off to Aqaba where he'd immerse himself in Arab culture, covering the walls of his trailer with Arabic writings, learning to ride a camel, even living with a Bedouin camel-patrol as they moved through the desert. He'd meet King Hussein (who'd actually marry the production's chief telephone operator and make her the Queen of Jordan), learn to keep his pale blue eyes open in the blistering sun, and gradually earn the respect of the locals, at one point even being asked to settle a blood feud between warring families. He'd hang with co-stars Omar Sharif (known to O'Toole as Cairo Fred) and former nemesis Anthony Quinn. For the next two years, production would continue, money problems moving the crew to Spain, then Morocco, overseas filming eventually ending in the autumn of 1962. Editing would be rapid as the film was due to premiere before the Queen (of England, not Jordan) that December.

Lawrence Of Arabia would be a triumph with O'Toole stunning as the British renegade uniting the Arab tribes against the Turks during WWI. "If he were any more beautiful, they'd have to call it Florence of Arabia", quipped Noel Coward as O'Toole, backed by a multi-million-dollar publicity campaign by Columbia, became the hottest property on two continents. He'd be Oscar-nominated and, though defeated by Gregory Peck's powerful turn in To Kill A Mockingbird, would begin a rush of British success in Hollywood, Rex Harrsion and O'Toole's friends Richard Harris and Albert Finney being nominated in 1963, then Harrison, Richard Burton, Peter Sellers and O'Toole again in 1964.

Now the proud owner of a 5-floor Hampstead home he called Guyon House, built in 1740 with big cellars running under Heath Street where the police used to keep prisoners before they had official stations, O'Toole reacted typically to stardom. First, with Maggie Smith, he prepared a reading of Sean O'Casey's Pictures In The Hallway, then he performed Baal on the London stage, deliberately hiding his film star looks, purposefully keeping the acting at the top of everyone's agenda (not a popular move with the press). Fame and notoriety served their purpose, getting him seats in fine restaurants and privacy when he wanted it, but that's as far as O'Toole ever wanted to go - in this he was most unlike his good friend Burton, currently enjoying the worldwide furore over his affair with Elizabeth Taylor.

After Lawrence Of Arabia, O'Toole was supposedly contracted to Columbia, so an entry into the Hollywood mainstream was expected. Jules Buck, however, when overseeing the Lawrence contract, had made sure that the company had no further hold over O'Toole. Columbia hadn't realised this, of course. They'd never have spent so much money publicizing O'Toole if they thought they didn't own him. And so he had the best of both worlds - fame and freedom were his.

O'Toole would now join Burton in a film version of Becket, playing the disgruntled king to Burton's difficult priest. Both would be Oscar-nominated (O'Toole winning a Golden Globe), as would John Gielgud. On the home-front, a second daughter, Pat, had been born in Dublin in June 1963, while O'Toole and Burton were filming and trying desperately (and not always successfully) to stay on the wagon. This happy arrival would be one reason why O'Toole would disagree when Laurence Olivier suggested that Sian Phillips play Ophelia to O'Toole's Hamlet when Olivier opened the new National Theatre at the Old Vic. He needed his work and his home-life to be separate, and he may well have been correct in his judgement. Hamlet, where O'Toole would star alongside Rosemary Harris and Michael Redgrave, would cause quite a stir. Dressed by Olivier in ruffs and a pudding bowl haircut, O'Toole would be described by critics as a Beatnik Hamlet, virile and violent, more Jimmy Porter than Prince of Denmark. Those in the know commented that O'Toole's Hamlet back in Bristol had been better, that Olivier had undermined his star by trying to make the play too true to 1963.

O'Toole's life was now something of a whirl - just the way he liked it. He'd gone to Cambodia to film Conrad's Lord Jim, the production being shut down due to an armed insurrection in the country, O'Toole and Phillips having to hide out in a toilet then sprint to catch the last small plane to Hong Kong. He'd visited Japan where he met Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune as they filmed Red Beard. Becket and Lord Jim, where he played a disgraced sailor attempting to find redemption through saving a Malayan tribe from oppressor Eli Wallach and evil pirate James Mason, kept him highly visible. He and Phillips were seen as prime movers in Swinging London, even though he was hardly ever there. Indeed, he should have perhaps been there even less, tax exile being a sensible option at the time. But O'Toole still saw London as his home.

As said, it wasn't a home he saw very often. For the next couple of years he'd spend much of his time filming in Paris. First there'd be What's New, Pussycat?, written by the up-and-coming Woody Allen. Here O'Toole would play the editor of a fashion magazine, engaged to Romy Schneider but addicted to the pursuit of other women. Visting psychiatrist Peter Sellers (O'Toole actually gave up top billing to get Sellers on board), a man with serious issues of his own, he becomes drawn into a zany bedroom farce involving such lovelies as Ursula Andress and Capucine. Having added a brief voiceover to his buddy Burton's The Sandpiper, he move on to How To Steal A Million, also set in Paris, O'Toole playing a "society burglar" who aids Audrey Hepburn in stealing a fake sculpture her dad has donated to a museum before the authorities discover the truth. It was a lightweight crime caper, of course, but with those two leads it could not fail to be enchanting.

The same year, 1966, would see O'Toole's status confirmed when he appeared in John Huston's bloated all-star take on the Bible (this had actually been filmed in 1963). With his drinking buddy Richard Harris as Cain, O'Toole would lend serious gravitas by playing three angels, giving advice to George C Scott's Abraham and laying waste to Sodom. More interesting would be The Night Of The Generals, reuniting O'Toole with Omar Sharif. Here Sharif would investigate the murder of a Warsaw prostitute in 1943 then a similar case in Paris once the war is over. His three main suspects are all generals - Donald Pleasance, Charles Gray and a sadistic O'Toole, a control freak who thought nothing of razing half of Warsaw to the ground.

All the while O'Toole was conducting a parallel theatre career. Everyone thought he was saner when he was working, less prone to advanced drunkenness, appalling public behaviour and waspish treatment of his wife. From the end of 1965 into 1966 he'd appeared in Ride A Cock Horse, with Wendy Craig, Barbara Jefford and Yvonne Mitchell as his girlfriend, wife and unhappy mistress respectively. It was a tough play, long and depressing, and Mitchell dropped out, Sian Phillips closing a successful production of Night Of The Iguana to take her place. Phillips would claim that her husband and director Gordon Flemying never allowed her a rehearsal, making the tour a nightmare. It was a huge load on O'Toole, too. Despite good notices and better ticket sales, he was suffering, actually bleeding from the nose during each performance. Unsurprisingly, it would close two weeks early.

O'Toole would move on to play Jack Boyle in Juno And The Paycock, then reprise the role of Tanner in Shaw's Man And Superman at Dublin's Gaiety. Meanwhile, he'd constantly argue with Phillips over the roles she was offered, causing her to turn down Cleopatra and The Cherry Orchard. He did, though, approve of her taking another production of Man And Superman, with Alan Badel. He'd even attend the opening night, Phillips recalling how she and the rest of the cast had to step over an drunk and unconscious O'Toole in order to get on to the stage.

Back onscreen, 1967 would see O'Toole dealing in more madcap tomfoolery when reuniting with Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, Ursula Andress and John Huston for the Bond spoof Casino Royale, also featuring such heavyweights as Orson Welles, Deborah Kerr and David Niven and a young Jacqueline Bisset as Miss Goodthighs. As the film falls into chaos, O'Toole would pop up in Sellers' hallucinations, playing bagpipes and demanding to know if Sellers is Richard Burton. Almost as wacky would be Present Laughter, a Noel Coward play filmed as an ABC Wednesday Night Special, where O'Toole played a famous actor approaching his fortieth birthday and pursued by all manner of women.

Come 1968, it was time for another onscreen triumph. In The Lion In Winter, O'Toole would return to the role of Henry II, this time playing the monarch as an old man in 1183, choosing his successor from amongst his three sons, court intrigue and problems with France being the order of the day. It was a rough and gritty production, true to its period, and O'Toole was superb, ably abetted by Katherine Hepburn and a host of young Brits (O'Toole, in fact, personally recommended both Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton). Hepburn would win an Oscar for her efforts, with O'Toole nominated for the third time (alongside his old RADA mate Alan Bates for The Fixer). After Bing Crosby as Father O'Malley in Going My Way and The Bells Of St Mary's, this would make O'Toole only the second actor to be nominated twice for playing the same character - a short list later joined by Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felsen.

That same year would come Great Catherine, bringing O'Toole back to director Gordon Flemying, writer George Bernard Shaw (only the inspiration for the screenplay) and co-star Jack Hawkins, who'd been something of a mentor to O'Toole since Lord Jim. Here Jeanne Moreau would play the great Russian empress as a thoroughly modern miss, O'Toole playing a young Brit officer at her court, encouraged by ambassador Hawkins to become the ruler's lover and pass on her plans to his superiors. Unfortunately, O'Toole is too dopey, too weighed down by middle-class morality to play the sexy spy and, despite spending time tied up at Catherine's feet, being tickled, he throws the opportunity away.

1969 would be another good year. There'd be a return to the stage in Waiting For Godot at Dublin's Abbey Theatre, in preparation for which O'Toole and Donal McCann would share a twin room at the Shelbourne, working every waking hour for weeks. Then, onscreen, there'd be a musical remake of Goodbye Mr Chips. This would team O'Toole with Petula Clark (in America, the Madonna of her day) and former co-star and inspiration Michael Redgrave, with Sian Phillips as Ursula Mossbank. This was a troubled production, with Rax Harrison and Samantha Eggar first cast in the leads, then Richard Burton and Lee Remick, but O'Toole would make a good fist of it as the stuffy school-teacher brought out of his shell by life and love, even singing a couple of numbers. The Academy certainly approved, awarding O'Toole his fourth Oscar nomination.

O'Toole would begin the Seventies with the controversial Country Dance, directed by J Lee Thompson, who'd earlier hit big with Cape Fear and The Guns Of Navarone. Here O'Toole would play the last of a rich Scottish line, suffering as his estate dwindles away. Worse, he's in love with his sister, Susannah York and his efforts to prevent her returning to her husband cause serious problems. O'Toole would also build a real-life estate of his own, buying a house and land in Connemara, on the west coast of Ireland, looking down over the vanished village of Eyerphort. Over the next four years, he and Phillips would spend much of their free time here, as the house and garden were completed.

With her career now back on track, Phillips would now be offered a lead role in Murphy's War, set to co-star Warren Beatty, then still hot after Bonnie and Clyde, and to be directed by Peter Yates, who'd recently overseen Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Phillips would later recall how she tried to turn the part down, wanting to be at home as her daughters were approaching their entrance exams. O'Toole, though, had persuaded her to take it. One week before she was due to depart for Caracas she was told Beatty had demanded too much money and withdrawn. Then she was informed that a new star had stepped into the breach . . . O'Toole.

Murphy's War was an attempt at an intelligent action flick, written by Sterling Silliphant, who'd earlier helped to deny O'Toole an Oscar by penning such a great part for Cliff Robertson in Charly. Set in the final days of WW2, it would see O'Toole as the lone survivor of a U-Boat attack in Venezuela, desperately trying to patch up a broken aeroplane in order to gain his revenge. Forming a relationship with Quaker doctor Phillips, he becomes ever more fanatical, even deranged, as he carries out his suicidal mission. While filming he'd carry out a few other dangerous missions, including a trip up the Orinoco to meet the unpredictable and occasionally homicidal Yanomama tribe. On the way home after the shoot, there'd be a visit to Machu Picchu and some shady dealings that saw O'Toole smuggling artworks out of Lima.

1972 would be an interesting year for O'Toole releases. He begin by joining buddies Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in a version of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood. Here he'd play Captain Tom Cat, blind and living in a ship-shaped house, haunted by the voices of his drowned crew and visions of the women he's loved, including whore Taylor. Following this would come The Ruling Class, a bizarre piece beginning as a comic attack on British manners then moving into altogether darker territory. Here O'Toole would take over his family's estate when his pervie dad suffers an autoasphyxial end. Unfortunately, O'Toole is quite mad so his relatives attempt to push him into producing an heir so they can have him sectioned and take over. Under this pressure, O'Toole becomes ever more delusional, first believing himself to be a carefree, narcissistic Jesus, then Jack the Ripper. As said, it was strange stuff, but nevertheless won O'Toole yet another Oscar nomination.

The Ruling Class was a pet project of O'Toole's. He took no salary for his performance, indeed he pumped his own money into the production. Beyond this, in order to secure finance from United Artists, he agreed to star in their upcoming Man Of La Mancha, a musical version of Don Quixote. Richard Kiley had enjoyed stage success as the Spanish visionary, but the producers wanted a bigger name to carry the movie. O'Toole, having been Oscar nominated after singing in Goodbye, Mr Chips was their man. That said, O'Toole hadn't actually been very good at singing in Goodbye, Mr Chips and now found himself being dubbed by Simon Gilbert on the more demanding songs, like The Impossible Dream. Still, it worked, and O'Toole, excellent beside Sophia Loren and his old RSC cohort Ian Richardson, was nominated for a Golden Globe. But this would be O'Toole's last screen appearance for some time. Death was tapping him on the shoulder.

Between 1973 and 1974, O'Toole would take a break from his extended run of onscreen crazies to return to Bristol and the Old Vic, performing beside Penelope Wilton in Uncle Vanya and Plunder, then as King Magnus in The Apple Cart and delivering Barry Collins' dramatic monologue Judgement. But O'Toole's lifestyle, his heavy workload and immense alcohol intake, had taken its toll. In Ireland he suffered terrific stomach pains and remained in bed for weeks, paralysed in sweating agony. Suddenly, he recovered, before anyone could diagnose the problem. He'd moved on to film Rosebud, a shoot taking him to seven or eight different countries. In Paris, in the summer of 1974, he was sick again, forcing director Otto Preminger to halt production and rush his star to an American hospital. Still he would not rest. As soon as he was able, he completed Rosebud and took off for Mexico to film Man Friday with Richard Roundtree. When he returned to England, in early 1975, he was in trouble. Horribly ill, he was rushed into the Royal Free Hospital where he entered a coma. His friends and family tried to keep his problems secret but still Sian Phillips had a journalist phone her asking for help with the O'Toole obituary he was preparing. It looked grim.

Yet nothing, it seemed, could keep O'Toole down for long. Coming out of his coma, he pulled out all the tubes attached to him and demanded to be fed. His doctors declared him to be in "unacceptable pain" yet quickly he went home to Hampstead where he filled his time by writing sonnets. Though he was on the wagon, he still ensured his wine cellar was well-stocked, just in case. Again against the advice of his doctors, he'd take off to Italy to recuperate, staying in a discreet hotel cut into a cliff outside Positano. Gradually he came to walk without pain, move without discomfort.

While O'Toole was indisposed the two films he'd made before his illness were released. In Rosebud, taking the place of Robert Mitchum, who'd argued with Preminger and left as filming began, he played a CIA man called in to save five young women kidnapped on a yacht by terrorists led by Richard Attenborough. It was weak stuff, though it did give an early part to Isabelle Huppert and a debut to a 19-year-old Kim Cattrall. Then there'd be Man Friday, directed by Jack Gold, retelling the Robinson Crusoe story from the black man's perspective. Staying true to the ideals of the Seventies, it pictured O'Toole's Crusoe as a neurotic religious freak while Roundtree's Friday was noble, generous and smart.

Due to his illness, O'Toole had missed out on The Man Who Fell To Earth, his part going to David Bowie. Instead, very soon after his recovery, he took off for Baja California, north Mexico, to film Foxtrot, a disturbing psycho drama where rich guy O'Toole tries to escape WW2 by hiding out on a tropical island with his wife Charlotte Rampling, friend Max Von Sydow and a group of servants. Soon they're trapped, the servants revolt, relationships collapse in tatters and everyone learns that conflict cannot be avoided.

Back home, O'Toole's marriage was collapsing, too. Sian Phillips had been gradually worn down by her husband's maverick ways. Now she suspected that O'Toole had been unfaithful to her while on location in Mexico and she began an affair of her own, seeing one of the actors in The Gay Lord Quex, in which she was starring with John Gielgud and Judi Dench. This was Robin Sachs, son of the actress Eleanor Summerfield and Leonard Sachs the irrepressible, the irrestrainable, the irrefragable presenter of TV vaudeville show The Good Old Days. Oddly, at the same time O'Toole wrote her a letter, the only letter he wrote from Baja. In it, he told Phillips that she'd appeared to him in the night, and he pledged his love to her all over again. From the date on the letter, Phillips saw that O'Toole had written it on the night she first slept with Robin Sachs. Undeterred, she continued an on-off affair with Sachs.

Returning from Mexico, O'Toole would return to the stage in Dead Eyed Dicks, where he'd play Philip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes and Lord Peter Wimsey, performing in England, then touring in Ireland and Australia from 1975 into '76. For a laugh, he'd pop up as an extra (as a collier) in a TV version of How Green Was My Valley, starring his wife and Stanley Baker. Still off the booze, he was full of energy, taking massive doses of vitamins and a new drug considered beneficial and wholly harmless . . . valium.

1976 would see both O'Toole and his wife transported back to Ancient Rome, in spectacularly different fashions. Phillips would be invited to join the cast of the classic TV series I, Claudius, playing the aggressively manipulative Livia. In turn, O'Toole was asked to play the Emperor Tiberius in a cinematic epic co-starring such thespian greats as Helen Mirren and John Gielgud. It was the infamous Caligula. More of this later.

O'Toole had not enjoyed a screen success in several years. To find one he returned to TV for the first time in ages. But this was no ordinary project. From his nights sheltering from Hitler's bombs in Leeds, O'Toole had always been fascinated by the German dictator (when he came to write the first volume of his autobiography he'd actually tell his story alongside that of Hitler). He'd been to Linz and Bavaria to feel and see Hitler's roots. Now came a chance to do something about it, to take a revenge of sorts, when he was offered the lead in Rogue Male. Rogue Male was a novel published by Geoffrey Household in 1939. In it a British hunter attempts to assassinate an unnamed European dictator in order to avert a catastrophic war, then, having failed in his effort, is tortured and hunted by the military police. Clearly, the book was amazingly prescient, and was filmed as an anti-Nazi statement in 1941, by Fritz Lang. Called Man Hunt the movie featured Walter Pidgeon as the hero and George Sanders as the famous big game hunter employed to track him down. By 1948 the book had become a major cult hit and everyone wanted to be in the TV adaptation. Harold Pinter would sign on, with Alastair Sim leaving his death bed to join in.

Rogue Male was a real test for O'Toole, a tough, physical shoot that, for 80% of its length concentrated solely on him as he fled the murderous Gestapo and the cold hunter John Standing. It was a big and deserved hit. But O'Toole's life was by no means back on track. His wife would now admit to her ongoing affair and Robin Sachs would meet with O'Toole at the Belgravia offices of Keep Films. All very British, was it not? O'Toole would consequently demand that Phillips finish with her lover, and she did, only to start it up again. She'd end it again at Christmas, 1976. And start it again. To get over the shock and recuperate from the blows of the last few years, O'Toole would take off for Mexico for six weeks, returning in February, 1977. Now he told Phillips to leave Guyon House, assembling his family and announcing the split. It would all be kept quiet to avoid scandal. Phillips' mother, who'd lived with them since 1962, would continue to look after the house. The kids would stay there, too, and continue their schooling in Edgware. Phillips was out, there'd be no arguments. That was that.

The divorce would take two years to come through. In the meantime, Phillips would win a BAFTA for I, Claudius, score a big hit on TV as Boudicca, and marry Robin Sachs. In turn, O'Toole would bring a young woman over from Mexico and set her up in Guyon House.

He'd also keep working. In Power Play, a group of generals would join a political intelligentsia in plotting a coup in an unnamed country ruled by a corrupt and repressive government. David Hemmings would play a charismatic idealist drawn into the plot, Donald Pleasance (O'Toole's co-star in Night Of The Generals) would play the chief of the secret police, while O'Toole would be the cunning commander of the nation's tank divisions. Intrigue and betrayal would be the name of the game. There'd also be stage appearances when he took Uncle Vanya and Present Laughter to Chicago, Washington and Toronto.

1979 would bring two very different failures. First would come the epic Zulu Dawn, covering the massacre of the British army at Isandlwana at 1879, hours before the heroic defence of Rorke's Drift. Here, alongside Simon Ward, Burt Lancaster, a young Phil Daniels and former RSC colleague Denholm Elliott, O'Toole would play Lord Chelmsford, organising and leading the misguided foray into Zululand and arrogantly splitting his forces. The black look of anger and shame that hangs on his face as he surveys the final carnage was in perfect keeping with the film's message.

Following Zulu Dawn would come the long-delayed release of Caligula. What a mess. Gore Vidal's original screenplay had been butchered and director Tinto Brass dismissed by producer Bob Guccione, the Penthouse porn baron stepping in to add pointless sex scenes. It was powerful in places, O'Toole being particularly vile as a decaying Tiberius, a once-good emperor now a paranoid murderer with a weak, white-knuckled grip on life and power. But it was a mess and both the censors and the critics savaged it, Guccione trying to recoup his losses by hiring cinemas and jacking up the ticket price, in the hope of attracting the curious, the depraved, and even the curiously depraved.

O'Toole's final release of the 1970s would see him return to TV, when he joined RTE's production of James Plunkett's Strumpet City. Based on the tumultuous events in Dublin between 1907 and 1914, this would have him as Jim Larkin, the charismatic union leader who formed the Irish Labour party and kept the workers together during the infamous 9-month Dublin Lockout of 1913. Like most thespians of his generation, O'Toole had an innate disrespect for television. Yet, as with Rogue Male, Strumpet City offered him a meaty enough role to relent, Larkin being a charismatic orator, delivering inflammatory speeches on poverty, injustice and self-determination.

1980 would be a mixed year, O'Toole having yet again to face Kipling's dual imposters. On the plus side there'd be The Stunt Man. Here Steve Railsback would play a Vietnam vet on the run from the police. Stumbling onto the set of a movie concerning WWI, he accidentally kills a stunt driver and thus is at the mercy of intense, possibly insane director O'Toole. O'Toole will keep silent about the death if Railsback does the driving himself. Soon, though, the vet comes to believe O'Toole is trying to kill him in the hope of capturing the death on camera. It really was very strange, arty and disconcerting with a true European flavour. Fox were certainly thrown by it, sitting on it for two years after the 1978 shoot and then giving it only a very limited release. O'Toole, though, usually at his best when flamboyant and slightly deranged, had put in another classic performance, and this was recognised by the Academy, who awarded him yet another Oscar nomination.

Being flamboyant and slightly deranged didn't always work, though. As was proven by O'Toole's stagework in 1980. Joining the Prospect Theatre Company at the Old Vic, he'd take on Macbeth with startling results. The critics were unanimous in their condemnation, one saying "Eradicating the unnecessarily tragic aspects that have always weighed the play down, the cast sent the first night audience home rocking with happy laughter". Not really what you want from the Scottish play. O'Toole, though, did make a good friend from the production. His Lady Macbeth was Frances Tomelty, then wife of Sting, leader of the then-huge band The Police. Sting would get on well with O'Toole, and would later write the hit Demolition Man while staying at O'Toole's house in Connemara. Interestingly, playing the First Witch in Macbeth was Trudie Styler, later the second Mrs Sting.

Onscreen, O'Toole was meeting with nothing but success. 1981 would see him star in the hugely respected miniseries Masada, playing the commander of Rome's 10th Legion in 73AD. A group of Jewish zealots hole out in the impregnable hill fortress of the title and O'Toole is charged with crushing them. In several meetings with Peter Strauss, the Jews leader, he tries to reach a solution but, though understanding their position, he must continue with the siege, his face betraying his anguish as they commit their notorious mass suicide. His nominations for an Emmy and Golden Globe were well-deserved.

1982 would bring more joy, both personal and professional. As well as returning to Shaw's Man And Superman at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, O'Toole would also find another signature role in My Favourite Year. Set in the 1950s' world of live TV, here he'd play an alcoholic former movie star asked to appear on a popular variety show. Trouble is, he's madly eccentric and proves a real handful for the young executive charged with keeping him in order. In many ways this was O'Toole as himself - swashbuckling, larger than life, death defying, wise, entertaining and, of course, very, very drunk. It was classic comedy and would bring him his seventh Oscar nomination.

Asked about his performance in My Favourite Year, O'Toole explained he was simply following Edmund Kean's dictum that the secret of playing drunkenness lies in the attempt to stay upright when it's impossible to do so. As said, from an early age O'Toole had devoured the words and stories of the old thespian masters. His autobiography hands over much space to them, O'Toole being clearly influenced by their work ethic and renegade lifestyles. His respect for Kean in particular would be shown in 1982 when his friend Ken Griffith, in the course of making a documentary, found Kean's remains in a lead coffin in the back of a Richmond church. He and O'Toole would have a tombstone made for the great man, and bury him with proper ceremony.

1982 also held a secret. O'Toole had begun seeing the American model Karen Brown. He'd live with her between 1982 and 1988, the couple managing to marry without any press attention whatsoever. A son, Lorcan (Lawrence in Gaelic) would be born in 1983. Sadly, the relationship would not last. Come the split in 1988 there would be a painful custody battle over the boy, O'Toole winning the right to raise him.

After returning to Pygmalion, where Margot Kidder (still hot with Superman III on release) would play Eliza to his imperious, impossible 'Iggins, he'd move on to Svengali, based on George Du Maurier's 1894 novel Trilby and directed by his former Lion In Winter helmsman Anthony Harvey. Here he'd play a faded Broadway star who takes young pop singer Jodie Foster under his wing, coaching her, driving her relentlessly on, using her love for him (the film would also feature the second appearance of a young Holly Hunter). Next he'd take on Kipling with Kim, where a Lahore street kid is taught espionage by Bryan Brown and spiritual enlightenment by O'Toole's longhaired visionary, the boy veering between the two paths as adventures come his way. The same year, 1984, having so recently appeared beside Lois Lane, O'Toole would experience some Superness of his own in Supergirl. Here he'd attempt to add Brando-like gravitas as Zaltar who, along with fellow survivors of the destruction of Krypton, has created the utopic Argo City. One of their number, though, Helen Slater, is accidentally transported to Earth, along with a super-power-supply that attracts the attention of goodies and baddies alike, in particular that of evil witch Faye Dunaway.

1985 would see O'Toole return to actorly extravagance in Creator, also known as The Big Picture. Here, assisted by Virginia Madsen and Mariel Hemingway, he'd play a Nobel Prize-winning scientist obsessed by his attempts to genetically recreate his dead wife, attempts complicated by his relationship with Hemingway. Then, having reprised The Apple Cart on the Haymarket, he'd pop up in an episode of The Ray Bradbury Theatre. Here writer Charles Martin Smith delivers a screenplay to the Irish manor of director O'Toole, and thinks he hears a terrible wailing from the grounds. Is it a banshee and, given the taunts and insults O'Toole tosses at Smith, is someone going to die?

After this would come Club Paradise, a dodgy comedy featuring a slew of comedians from Saturday Night Live and Second City. Here Robin Williams would play an injured firefighter now running a shabby club in the Caribbean. O'Toole would play the dissipated governor-general of the island, not keen on the club or the independence movement gradually gaining force.

At last, 1987 would see O'Toole return to the cinematic epic. Bertolucci's The Last Emperor would follow the story of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China, from his coronation at age 3, through his forced abdication at 7 and on into his sad, strange later life. Amidst the awesome locations, O'Toole would be employed to teach the boy European manners and thus is drawn into the tragedy of a normal kid who will never be permitted to live normally. Hailed immediately as a masterpiece, the movie would be nominated for 9 Oscars, winning all of them. O'Toole, unhappily, was not among the nominees.

O'Toole would now move on to horror, both gothic and comic. The Dark Angel, based on Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's Uncle Silas and co-starring Jane Lapotaire and Barbara Shelley, would see a young heiress sent to live with her rogueish uncle O'Toole. Seemingly unspeakably decadent, he dominates and menaces her. Is he after her fortune or, worse still, her? It was excellently moody stuff. Very different would be Neil Jordan's High Spirits where O'Toole would run a castle-come-hotel, attempting to attract American guests by faking ghostly apparitions. Appalled by his hammy efforts, the castle's real ghosts step in and we're treated to some credulity-testing ghost-to-human sex scenes featuring Steve Guttenberg, Daryl Hannah, Beverly D'Angelo and Liam Neeson.

1989 would be another good year. At London's Apollo, O'Toole would take on the lead in Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, playing the naughty old soak with such verve that he'd be called back for more in 1991 and 1999. Onscreen there'd be the educational Italian melodrama In Una Notte Di Chiaro Di Luna in which he'd join Rutger Hauer, Nastassja Kinski and former super-co-star Faye Dunaway. Here Hauer would play a journalist in Paris pretending to have AIDS so he can monitor people's reactions. Then tragedy strikes as the film, directed by Lina Wertmuller (in 1976 the first woman ever to be Oscar-nominated as Best Director), dug deep into many of the areas later to be covered by Philadelphia.

The 1990s would begin with a coupleof real oddities. In The Rainbow Thief, directed by maverick Alejandro Jodorowsky, O'Toole would play a loon living in a sewer and waiting for his uncle Christopher Lee, a rich dude constantly surrounded by babes, to die so he can inherit the family fortune. It was a truly weird comedy, Jodorowsky's follow-up to Santa Sangre, and reunited O'Toole with Omar Sharif, but it proved disappointing, Jodorowsky warring with the producers and also saying of O'Toole "I hated him. He was the worst person I ever met in my life".

O'Toole would move on the similarly strange comedy Wings Of Fame, where he played a famous actor murdered by frustrated writer Colin Firth, who then commits suicide. Both end up in an afterlife hotel peopled by celebrities, their accommodation getting worse and worse as their fame on Earth fades. This would be followed by Crossing To Freedom, based on a novel by Nevil Shute, where O'Toole and French resistance fighter Mare Winningham would rescue children from the Nazis during WW2.

Now would come a run of comparative failures. King Ralph would see the entire British royal family electrocuted and Vegas club singer John Goodman ascend to the throne, O'Toole playing the long-suffering and understandably sarcastic valet who must instruct Goodman in the ways of the aristocracy. Then there'd be Lynda La Plante's series Civvies, where a group of former paratroopers form a security firm, O'Toole not really convincing as a cockney gangster. Rebecca's Daughters, based on a story by Dylan Thomas, would see him hamming it up as a drunken lord in 1843, taxing his Welsh underlings into penury, then being assailed by a cross-dressing revenge squad. Directed by Australian maverick Ian Pringle and taking O'Toole back to the desert, Isabelle Eberhardt would see Mathilda May as a young French journalist caught up in colonial struggles in North Africa. The Seventh Coin would see O'Toole as a crazed and homicidal coin collector, chasing two teenagers through the streets of Jerusalem as he tries to complete a set minted by Herod The Great. And there'd be Heaven And Hell, a poor, soap opera-like continuation of the North And South miniseries that had made the name of Patrick Swayze back in the mid-Eighties. Despite a return to the stage in Our Song at the Apollo, the early Nineties were not treating O'Toole well.

There was some joy to be found in his next project, an adaptation of PG Wodehouse's Heavy Weather. This would be a reunion with director Jack Gold, with whom he'd made Man Friday 20 years before. More importantly, it also placed him in a cast including many of his RADA chums - Richard Briers, Judy Parfitt, Bryan Pringle and Ronald Fraser. Naturally, it was something of a return to form for O'Toole, playing the dreamy, forgetful Earl of Emsworth, living for his prize pig, jolted out of his placid life by his nephew's inappropriate wedding plans and lecherous, drunken brother Briers' efforts to publish some potentially ruinous diaries.

Next, O'Toole would take his place in the starry cast of Gulliver's Travels, a superior effort by Hallmark and the Jim Henson Studios that took in all four of Gulliver's voyages. Alongside former co-stars Omar Sharif and John Gielgud, as well as such luminaries as Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen and Kristen Scott Thomas, O'Toole would play the Emperor of Lilliput, waging an insane war against his neighbours the Blefuscans.

1997 would bring a further classy production in Fairytale: A True Story, Gulliver's Travels director Charles Sturridge's excellent take on the 1917 Cottingley incident where two girls faked a photo of some fairies. O'Toole would play novelist Arthur Conan Doyle, desperate to believe in this stupendous find and battling with Harvey Keitel's arch cynic Harry Houdini. Far less serious would be Phantoms, from the pen of Dean Koontz, where mystery surrounds a small mountain town in the States where everyone has died. Joining a young cast including Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan and Liev Schreiber, O'Toole would play the editor of a magazine concerned with the supernatural who delves into the matter and discovers some large, deadly and very clever worms.

As all great British thespians inevitably do, O'Toole would now serve time in period dramas. First there'd be Rosamunde Pilcher's Coming Home, dealing with the intertwined lives of the poor Dunbars and rich Carey-Lewises before, during and after WW2. O'Toole would play the eccentric patriarch of the Carey-Lewis clan, overseeing the loves and problems of Paul Bettany, Keira Knightley and Emily Mortimer. Next would come The Manor, a comedy-farce of a whodunnit where a stable boy is murdered at a country manor and Scotland Yard cops listen to multiple versions of events. O'Toole would play the recently deceased husband of lady of the manor Greta Scacchi - though death wouldn't stop him making the occasional bizarre appearance.

The Manor would be O'Toole's first release of 1999, a year that would mark a significant upturn in his fortunes. Next would come Molokai: The Story Of Father Damien, where 19th Century priest David Wenham volunteers to act as spiritual guide to a leper colony on an Hawaiian island. On the island he meets O'Toole, a doctor who's contracted leprosy while treating the islanders and now lives isolated from the others, angry and cynical, his conversations with Wenham lending weight to the tale. After this would come Christian Duguay's epic Joan Of Arc, where he'd join Shirley Maclaine, Maximilian Schell and former Miss Goodthighs Jacqueline Bisset, O'Toole playing Bishop Cauchon, religious advisor to King Charles VII, trying to bring Joan under the power of the church in order to save his own career. It was an impressive effort, winning O'Toole an Emmy and seeing him nominated for a Golden Globe.

Entering the new millennium, O'Toole would make a poor start with Global Heresy where he and Joan Plowright (wife of his former mentor Laurence Olivier) would play down-at-heel aristos forced to rent out their English manor and pose as butler and cook respectively. Imagine the comic culture clash when the rock band of the title, featuring Alicia Silverstone on bass, use the pile as a residential rehearsal studio. O'Toole splutters his outrage and introduces the band to cricket while they in turn teach him to rock out. It would come as a shock to no one to learn the movie went straight to video, losing much of its $12 million outlay. And not a lot better was The Final Curtain, a weak black comedy where O'Toole played a charming but aging gameshow host in an egotistical war with a new young rival.

2003 would see O'Toole rise back up the ladder. As said, he'd be offered an Honorary Oscar and considered turning it down in the belief that he might still win one outright. This brought him back into the public eye and reaffirmed his position in world cinema, for sure, but Joan Of Arc had proved he wasn't yet finished, and he was about to go several steps further. In Bright Young Things, based on Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies, he'd play the batty, senile but cunning father of dotty socialite Emily Mortimer (earlier his co-star in Coming Home) as she flits through the decadent 1930s in a silly affair with poor novelist Stephen Campbell Moore. Joining him in a starry cast would be David Tennant, James McAvoy, Michael Sheen and Stockard Channing, the last of whom would also appear in his next project, Hitler: The Rise Of Evil. Directed by his Joan Of Arc helmsman Christian Duguay, this would see O'Toole dealing with the German dictator for the first time since Rogue Male, this time playing Paul von Hindenburg, president of Germany, who keeps Hitler from power and whose death hastened the beginning of WW2. Robert Carlyle would do a fine job as Hitler, and O'Toole's brief but impassioned turn would earn him another Emmy nomination. The year would end with Imperium: Augustus, O'Toole returning to ancient Rome for the first time since Masada (and reuniting with Foxtrot co-star Charlotte Rampling). Here he play a dying Caesar Augustus, looking back over a hectic life and his relationships with Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

O'Toole's next outing would be set in an even more distant past. This was Wolfgang Petersen's epic Troy, where O'Toole would play Priam, King of Troy, stubbornly defying the Greeks, but gradually broken, first having to beg Brad Pitt for the body of his son Hector, then gazing horrified as his city burns. Far less traumatic but a lot more fun would be the 3-part series Casanova, where O'Toole would again be looking back over his life, being played in his youth by his Bright Young Things co-star David Tennant. It was a testing task, successfully carried out by O'Toole, to make Casanova seem more than a simple lecher. He'd follow this up with a remake of Lassie, joining Samantha Morton and reuniting with Charles Sturridge, director of both Gulliver's Travels and Fairytale: A True Story. Here he'd play a curmudgeonly old duke who buys Lassie from a poor family and won't give her back - but is he really such a bad old stick?

And then came 2006 and a serious return to the glory days with Venus. Here O'Toole would play Maurice, an aging thespian swapping stories and insults with fellow actor Leslie Phillips (earlier a co-star in King Ralph). Complications ensue, though, when O'Toole forms a relationship with Phillips' teenage niece, a relationship he pursues with hilarious vigour. It would be a stunning performance, ably backed by Phillips and Vanessa Redgrave, playing Maurice's ex-wife, and it would prove that O'Toole had been correct when telling the Academy he might still win an Oscar outright. He was nominated but, with typical ill fortune, came up against Forest Whitaker's brilliant show as Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland.

Yet on he went. 2006 would also see him pop up briefly as a firebrand prophet in biblical epic One Night With The King, the tale of the Jewish orphan Esther who came to marry the Persian emperor Xerxes (yet another co-credit with Omar Sharif). And then would come Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman's novel and involving a land of fairies existing beside the human domain. Joining a strong cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Claire Danes and Robert De Niro, O'Toole would play the dying king of Stormhold, a fairy citadel, who must decide which of his sons will rule after him and inadvertently sets the magical tale in motion.

Much is still made of Peter O'Toole's past drinking exploits with Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter Finch, Robert Shaw, and the rest. Everyone loves the stories, like the one where he went out for a drink in Paris and woke up in Corsica. Everyone loves his self-effacing sense of humour. Remember when he came on TFI Friday and recited the lyrics to the first Spice Girls hit in Shakespearean fashion (he really wanted to zig-a-zig-aaah)? But let's not forget the power of the man's performances, onstage and onscreen. There were 45 years between his Oscar nominations for Lawrence Of Arabia and Venus, 45 years containing plenty of ham but also some of the greatest acting ever delivered by a British thespian. Peter O'Toole is undeniably one of the best there ever was.

Dominic Wills

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