Skip to main content

Five of Peter O'Toole's best

By Gene Seymour
December 16, 2013 -- Updated 0200 GMT (1000 HKT)
Peter O'Toole, best known for playing the title role in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia," died on Saturday, December 14. He was 81. Peter O'Toole, best known for playing the title role in the 1962 film "Lawrence of Arabia," died on Saturday, December 14. He was 81.
HIDE CAPTION
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter O'Toole was an outstanding actor and a movie star, writes Gene Seymour
  • He showed his versatility in everything from "Lawrence of Arabia" to "My Favorite Year"
  • Seymour: O'Toole deserved, but didn't get, an Oscar for performance as T. E. Lawrence
  • He says O'Toole enchants and frightens the viewer of "The Ruling Class"

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- One of the many characters Peter O'Toole played on-screen insisted that he wasn't an actor but a movie star. We knew better.

The real O'Toole, who died Saturday in London at 81, was triumphantly a great actor and a great screen idol. He played a variety of roles, from meek (1969's "Goodbye Mr. Chips") to bombastic (1968's "The Lion in Winter").

In the process, he yielded a body of work that, taken together, was likely more varied than any actor of the prodigious, mostly hell-raising generation of male actors that emerged as screen icons mid-20th century. (In terms of variety, only Michael Caine challenges O'Toole, but not Richard Burton, Richard Harris or Sean Connery.)

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Here are five of his best movies, in my view, and the ones most representative of his life's work. What's your own list? It's through this ongoing evaluation that artists such as O'Toole live on:

1. "The Stunt Man" (1980)

As the imperious moviemaker Eli Cross, O'Toole is a loose cannon: manipulative, abusive, self-centered -- but nowhere near as wicked as he should be. The reason this leads my list of O'Toole's best performances is that it encompasses just about everything about him that was inimitable: Feline physical grace, a musician's timing, a writer's instinct for nuance, bravura rhetorical flourishes and a boundless capacity to keep his audiences off-balance even when he's not speaking or moving.

2. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)

It wasn't his first movie role. (That came in 1960's "Kidnapped.") It just seems that way. Fifty-one years have passed since David Lean's desert epic was released and O'Toole's dominant, star-making performance as the flamboyant T. E. Lawrence remains among the most galvanic big-screen breakthroughs in movie history. It also set in motion the dispiriting pattern of O'Toole being nominated for the best actor Oscar and losing.

Gregory Peck was a nice man and his Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird" was an even nicer man. But in retrospect, they shouldn't have won the Oscar that, in retrospect, had O'Toole's name all over it. They needed to get it right the first time.

Instead, they denied him six more times, even for his performance as a dying actor in 2006's "Venus," which came three years after he received a lifetime achievement Oscar.

Peter O'Toole dies

3. "My Favorite Year" (1982)

O'Toole's portrayal of Alan Swann, aging movie swashbuckler who's not so devil-may-care when it comes to the demands of 1950s live TV, may well have been his most widely beloved role.

His boisterous physical comedy fits the raucous surrounds like an old shoe (with a hole in the sole.) His Swann also has melancholy moments, but he always keeps the characterand the movie from going to the maudlin zone.

4. "The Ruling Class" (1972)

By this time in his career, O'Toole had assembled a curriculum vitae that included at least two overwrought English kings (1964's "Becket" and 1968's "The Lion in Winter"), two self-tortured adventurers (1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" and 1965's "Lord Jim"), a manic Lothario (1965's "What's New Pussycat") and Don Quixote (1972's "Man of La Mancha").

This dark comedy's lead character, Lord Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, seems a barking-mad composite of these personalities. At the beginning, Jack's a shaggy, blithe species of maniac who's been called to his family estate to do whatever's expected of a well-heeled nobleman. Problem is, he's convinced that he is God. Why? "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself."

This brand of crazy is far more blissful than the malevolent kind that takes over the 14th Earl of Gurney when his hair is cut and his demeanor made more "respectable" to his peers. The movie is a tad overlong and may leave you with an acrid aftertaste. But O'Toole bowls you over with the effortless way he enchants you at one end of the movie and frightens you at the other.

5. "Lassie" (2005)

In the late autumn of his career, O'Toole eased into being more character actor than movie star and infused even the most offhand role (e.g. the voice of snooty restaurant critic Anton Ego in Pixar's 2007's "Ratatouille") with immaculate polish and unassuming mastery.

My own favorite from this period comes in this latest adaptation of the Eric Knight children's classic, "Lassie Come Home," in which O'Toole plays the gruff Duke of Radling, who's forbidding on the outside but keeps the fuzzy kindness deep within the tempered steel. Often, it's in the miniature parts rather than the major ones that you see where real poetry can come from.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT