A Mighty Oak Falls: A Tribute to Peter O'Toole and His Best Films

Today every classic movie fan mourns the death of Peter O'Toole at 81.

The spirit of mischievous exuberance he brought to his life -- and all his roles -- somehow made me believe he could never die, even when you could see the smoking and drinking had taken its toll on his once startling good looks.

He was in his late twenties when David Lean handed him the part of T.E. Lawrence in 1962's Lawrence of Arabia. After the premiere, Noel Coward famously quipped, "If the star had been any prettier, they should have called it 'Florence of Arabia'!"

I have to believe O'Toole heard that remark, and that on hearing it, he roared with laughter. He was that kind of man. Famously, he loved a good time, and in his prime, you would have wanted to go on a pub-crawl with him. Or at least I would have.

He was born in Ireland, but grew up in Leeds, the son of a bookie. At first he had journalistic aspirations, but soon discovered the stage. He ended up enrolling at the Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts (aka, RADA), where his classmates included Albert Finney (first in line for the Lawrence role), Alan Bates, and Richard Harris.

(O'Toole and Harris, along with Richard Burton and Oliver Reed, would be depicted as prodigious partiers in Robert Sellers's trashy but undeniably entertaining tell-all, Hellraisers.)

In fact, O'Toole almost killed himself from over-indulgence but after a serious health scare in the '70s, cleaned himself up and, happily for us, was able to resume his career.

And what a career it was. Though Oscar-nominated an astonishing eight times, he never won. When he was awarded an Honorary Oscar, O'Toole at first said he'd turn it down. He wanted to try to earn a real one in the time he had left.

That never happened, but it hardly matters. His film legacy will ensure his talent endures.

I never met this actor, but feel as if I had. And I am crushed he's gone. What better tribute for a true star? And I'm sure countless others feel the same way.

Such was the special charm and magic of Peter O'Toole.

Here are my nine favorite O'Toole outings; simply click on the titles for fuller descriptions and links to rent or stream.

Rest In Peace, noble prince.

Lawrence of Arabia
(1962)- A young O'Toole bursts through the screen in this colossal, still awe-inspiring epic tracing the life and times of adventurer T.E Lawrence

Becket (1964)- In his first of two outings as King Henry II, O'Toole matches wits with fellow hellion Richard Burton, who plays the title role.

How to Steal a Million
(1966)- Delightful star chemistry between Peter and Audrey Hepburn elevate this chic but fluffy heist comedy directed by William Wyler.

The Lion in Winter
(1968)- Here, O'Toole reprises Henry II opposite Katherine Hepburn's Eleanor of Aquitaine. The burning issue is which of his sons will succeed him.

The Stunt Man
(1980)- O'Toole is superb as a manipulative film director who protects a fugitive on-set and eventually hires him as a stunt man. Just what are his motives?

My Favorite Year
(1982)- In my favorite later O'Toole performance, the actor is hilarious as Alan Swann, a tippling, has-been movie star making his first appearance on live TV.

The Last Emperor
(1987)- In Bernardo Bertolucci's stunning epic, O'Toole turns in an impeccable performance as the English tutor of the last Emperor of China (John Lone) in the early 20th century. Must-viewing.

Venus (2006)- Peter garnered his last Oscar nod playing an elderly actor and Lothario who has his friend's attractive great-niece (Jodie Whittaker) come stay with him. Does he still have what it takes? And what can these two learn from each other?

Ratatouille (2007)- In this infectious Pixar hit about a Parisian rat with big culinary aspirations, O'Toole voices the character of Anton Ego, the city's most demanding food critic... he is sublime.

Looking for good movies to watch? Top movie recommendations? For over 2,500 of the best movies on DVD, visit Best Movies by Farr.

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