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.
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.
Peter O'Toole - Biography
Somehow, he thought, he had to get deeper into this theatre thing, maybe as a producer, or administrator, anything would do.
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.
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.
Name: Peter O'Toole
2 August 1932 (Age: 81)
Height: 6' 3"
Awards: Won 1 BAFTA, 3 Golden Globes and nominated for 8 Oscars
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.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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.
. 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).