Actor Peter O'Toole, who shot to instant stardom in Lawrence of Arabia and was nominated eight times for an Academy Award, died Saturday at the age of 81. O'Toole's agent said the actor died at a London hospital following a long illness.
Born in 1932 and raised in England, O'Toole, the son of an Irish bookmaker, first established himself as a stage actor in the late 1950s. It was not until 1962 that he got his big break in the movies, starring in director David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia.
O'Toole played British army officer T.E. Lawrence, who helped to lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire in World War II. The role earned O'Toole the first of eight Oscar nominations for Best Actor.
The film begins with a depiction of Lawrence of Arabia's death in 1935, followed by a memorial service in London where a fictional American journalist Jackson Bentley gives his opinion of the man.
“He was a poet, a scholar, and a mighty warrior. He was also the most shameless exhibitionist since Barnum and Bailey,” Bentley says.
From those recollections, the film becomes a giant flashback of Lawrence's life. Bentley follows Lawrence through the Arab world to record the officer's exploits.
O'Toole earned his second Oscar nomination for the 1964 film Becket, in which he plays King Henry II, the drunken and womanizing ruler of 12th century England.
Henry appoints his friend and adviser Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury in a bid to control the church, but the scheme backfires when Becket the priest opposes the king's interference.
Becket flees England and then returns, only to be killed by Henry's men when the king impulsively calls for the elimination of the meddlesome cleric. Stricken with guilt, Henry grants Becket a posthumous honor, naming him a saint and martyr and calling for him to be prayed to throughout the kingdom.
O'Toole received six more Oscar nominations in a movie career spanning more than 40 years, making him the most nominated male actor never to win. His last nomination came for playing an elderly actor in the 2006 film Venus.
However, the veteran star still managed to get his hands on a coveted Oscar statuette when the U.S. film industry gave him an honorary Academy Award in 2003.
In a 2001 interview, O'Toole spoke about how he interpreted a script writer's vision for his various roles, detailing the process through which characters come off the page and onto the screen.
“With all good scripts there's this extraordinary alchemy of - you look at the ink on the page, the ink goes into the eye, into the mind, and then comes out the mouth. I found [that] with all fine works, they live on the page, for an actor - for an actor's sensibilities," O’Toole said.
O'Toole also struggled with health problems for decades. He had a reputation as a chain smoker and heavy drinker, but gave up alcohol in 1975 after surviving stomach cancer.
Just before he turned 80 last year, O'Toole announced his retirement. He expressed gratitude for the companions with whom he shared what he called "the inevitable lot of all actors: flops and hits.''