LONDON— Stage and screen star Peter O'Toole, the lanky actor of regal bearing and piercing blue eyes who shot to fame in the title role of the epic film “Lawrence of Arabia,” has died at age 81 after a long illness, his agent said on Sunday.
The eight-time Oscar nominee, who survived a bout with stomach cancer in the 1970s but whose health had been damaged by years of heavy drinking and chain-smoking, died in a London hospital on Saturday, Steve Kenis, his agent, told Reuters.
“Peter O'Toole's family announced today that very sadly Peter died yesterday, peacefully in hospital. He had been ill for some time,” Kenis said in a statement.
Appearing in dozens of films during a career spanning six decades, O'Toole is best remembered for his breakout role in David Lean's 1962 blockbuster “Lawrence of Arabia” starring as T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British army officer who fought with Arab irregular troops against Ottoman Turkish rule in World War One.
The film earned O'Toole the first of eight Academy Award nominations as best actor in a leading role.
Nearly a half-century later, O'Toole gained a new following among cable television viewers for his portrait of Pope Paul III, the Roman Catholic pontiff at odds with Britain's King Henry VIII in the historical drama series “The Tudors.”
In between, O'Toole delivered seven more Oscar-nominated performances, along the way becoming one of just a handful of actors to earn Academy Award bids by playing the same character in two different films - portraying King Henry II in “Becket” (1964), co-starring Richard Burton, and in “The Lion in Winter” (1968), opposite Katharine Hepburn.
He also garnered Oscar nods for his work in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1969), “The Ruling Class” (1972), “The Stunt Man” (1980), “My Favorite Year” (1982) and once more in “Venus” (2006).
The most-nominated actor never to win the award, he eventually and reluctantly accepted an honorary Oscar in 2003.
Before doing so, he composed a hand-written open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Later describing his ambivalence at accepting the honorary statuette, he wrote: “I was enchanted but said that as I was still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?”
Believed to have been born in Ireland, O'Toole grew up in England and trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) where he was in the same class as Albert Finney.
His striking blue eyes, tousled brown hair and 6-foot-3-inch (1.9 meter) frame made him an instant hit with women when he began his stage career in 1954.
He initially made waves on stage in several key Shakespearean roles, including an acclaimed turn as “Hamlet,” and launched his film career in 1960 with small parts in a handful of pictures, including “Kidnapped” and “The Day They Robbed the Bank of England.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a tweet that “Lawrence of Arabia” was his favorite film, hailing O'Toole's performance in it as “stunning.”
Daughter Kate O'Toole thanked the public for what she described as an outpouring of love for the late actor.
She asked for her family to be allowed to grieve in private, saying in the same statement it would organize a memorial service “filled with song and good cheer” in due course.
O'Toole leaves behind children Kate and Patricia from his failed marriage with Welsh actress Sian Phillips, and Lorcan, his son from a relationship with Karen Brown, a former girlfriend.