Born in Connemara, Galway, on August 2, 1932, Peter departed Irish shores when his family relocated to Leeds. As a teenager he set his heart on becoming a journalist, and dropped out of school at the age of 14 to join the Yorkshire Evening Post as a copy boy. It wasn’t long before the desire to perform struck, however.
Following a stint as a radio man in the Royal Navy, the youngster won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his peers included Albert Finney, Richard Harris and Alan Bates. After Peter joined the Bristol Old Vic in 1955 at the age of 23 his reputation grew, with critic Kenneth Tynan commenting on his role in The Long, The Short And The Tall: «In the case of Mr O’Toole I sense a technical authority that may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness.» It wasn’t long before the prediction came to fruition when, in 1962, Peter landed a part that would change his life forever. His performance in David Lean’s desert tribesmen epic Laurence Of Arabia earned him a best actor Bafta and an Oscar nomination while making him a global star. The Academy Award that year went to Sydney Poitier, though, and despite Peter’s numerous nominations the coveted gong was a long time in coming. It was to be 2003 before he took an Honorary statuette home with him, and then he initially turned down the offer, saying: «I’m still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright. Would is be possible to defer the honour until I’m 80?». Eventually persuaded to change his mind, he declared, «Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot!», as he accepted the honour, adding: «I have my very own Oscar now, to be with me ‘til death do us part.»
Going hand in hand with his career was his reputation as a hell raiser. «I can’t stand light. I hate weather. My idea of heaven is moving from one smoke-filled room to another,» he once joked. The boozing which accompanied such a lifestyle was to nearly cost the actor his life, however, and in 1975 after undergoing extensive surgery for pancreatitis he stopped drinking. His personal life also suffered, and his marriage to Welsh actress Sian Phillips, with whom he has two children Pat and Kate, ended in the Seventies.
«I was a willing accomplice,» says Sian of the years she spent putting up with her husband’s misadventures. «I did a lot of things I would never have done on my own. I owe him a lot.» For his part, the actor was equally understanding: «Thank God for the tolerance shown to me by ladies with whom I’ve had long stretches, because I’m quite hopeless with women.»
In 1982 came his seventh Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a star who disappears into the bottle in My Favourite Year. At the end of that decade, and again in 1999, he won further plaudits for his theatre performances playing the notoriously pickled title character in Jeffrey Barnard Is Unwell. But in spite of triumphs such as these and his turn as an English tutor in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor, Peter’s career came to be characterised by minor roles in prestigious productions and larger parts in smaller flicks. While years of hard living have taken their toll on his health and former good looks «If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia,» legendary playwright Noel Coward once told him the actor seems to have survived almost in spite of himself. Now he teams up with a new generation of cine hunks, sharing the screen for 2004’s Troy with Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. Accepting his honorary gong at the 2003 Oscars he told the audience how his craft continues to inspire him: «The magic of the movies enraptured me when I was a child. As I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still.» Indeed he is as committed to movie-making as ever. While making the 2006 British black comedy Venus the 74-year-old actor fell and broke his hip. After a hip replacement he was back on set within a month, determined to get the job done.
It was worth the effort – the role won him his eighth Oscar nomination. His daughter Kate, who describes him as «the same as ever, still naughty» is convinced it won’t be the last time he’s nominated either. «Actors don’t retire, they die with their boots on, and Peter has got a lot of projects in the pipeline,» she promises.