The incomparable Peter O’Toole, who recently journeyed on from us, began his film career with two movies that went unproclaimed. But then, he hit the ground running as T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s magnificent LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and thereafter commanded international movie screens for over 60 years.
O’Toole’s roguish charm, rolling Irish brogue, the surprising blue of his eyes, the sunlight-colored locks (Lean had him dye his hair for LAWRENCE so that it was ablaze like the African skies he rode under), the slender sexiness of his tall body and willowy limbs—all these elements gathered together as one to make O’Toole adored by audiences all over the world.
Besides LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, he lit up the screen in other such winners as BECKET, THE RULING CLASS, MURPHY’S WAR, CASINO ROYALE, THE LION IN WINTER, and my own personal favorite, LORD JIM.
There was an aristocratic air, a noble radiance to the man, a quality that suited him when he played kings and other assorted royals. Also, an academician aestheticism (serving him well in roles like that of the beloved schoolteacher, Mr. Chips in GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS) a haunted elegance planted on his tragic forehead (LORD JIM, in which he portrays a sailor destroyed by one single, solitary act of cowardice). And of course, the mischievous playboy, a good ole boy of the sod, a quality that made him everyone’s favorite companion on the weekly pub-crawl.
O’Toole, clever and quick, RADA-educated, and a theater legend as well as a movie star, lived as wild and colorful a life off-stage and off-camera as he did on. One of the great carousers O’Toole, along with actor pals Richard Harris, Richard Burton, and Oliver Reed—known in the press as “the U.K. rakes”—would regularly gather to see who could out-drink and out-womanize the others. O’Toole usually won. (A fun book to read about their adventures is Hellraisers by Robert Sellers). He could drink even the best of boozers under the table, and his sexual prowess was legendary. I recall a comment critic Kenneth Tynan once made: “Peter put out more pollen than a magnolia tree.” And though it was not widely publicized (verboten in those days!), it was well-known in certain circles that the actor did not host only females in his bedroom; he lived secretly for years with Russian ballet supernova, Rudolf Nureyev, at Hampstead, and well…let’s just say they weren’t dancing!
O’Toole belonged to that club of men whose generation believed the mettle of a man lay in the number of beers he could down within an hour and the number of people he could screw. It added to a star’s mystery and charisma if he/she led as colorful a personal life as a professional one, and O’Toole happily obliged the Dream Machine with his extracurricular antics. My friend, Joe, and I went to his book signing at the old Waterstone’s on Exeter Street here. This must have been in the early 90s. O’Toole was drunk as a monkey and was tearing the frontispieces from his book, writing his hotel room and phone number and handing them out to the nubile, young girls in the line. Incorrigible! (Oh! Before I forget—this very fine actor was also a very fine writer; his two memoirs, Loitering with Intent: The Child and Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice are just super!)
O’Toole is the #1 reason to see MY FAVORITE YEAR, Richard Benjamin’s loving valentine to the pioneering days of “live” television when T.V. was in its infancy. The medium was just breaking out of the gate and making entertainment history at the same time.
O’Toole plays dashing Alan Swann, a boozing movie star who has made his name in swashbuckling derring-dos (think Errol Flynn). The program’s producers feel lucky to have scored the casting coup of getting A MOVIE STAR to guest on their variety show, but, aware of Swann’s salty reputation for carousing, they assign one of their neophyte comedy writers, Benjy Stone (by the way, a perfectly cast Mark Linn-Baker who went on to later fame along with stand-up comic, Bronson Pinchot, in the very popular, “Perfect Strangers”), to keep a watchful eye on the slippery Swann lest he elude his contract responsibilities and go off on a toot. Be assured Benjy has his hands full as he tries to corral his idol, fascinated by Swann yet barely able to keep up with him as he flutters around Manhattan on his zany escapades.
Sub-themes involve Swann’s shame and frustration in not being able to connect meaningfully with the daughter he left behind, and Benjy’s embarrassing feelings about his overbearing, Jewish mother (the always hilarious Lainie Kazan, who began her career in the 60s as a cabaret chanteuse around the same time Barbra Streisand did, and who then found a second career as a t.v. and movie comedienne). Here, lost in not knowing how to relate to the other people in their lives is where Swann and Benjy find common ground. In touching, tender scenes they struggle with life’s complexities and failures while, at the same time, embracing its successes, its richness.
First-time director, Richard Benjamin, left a successful acting career behind (he scored big in the 1960s in such hits as GOODBYE, COLUMBUS, CATCH-22, DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE, THE LAST SHELIA, PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT, and many more) to pursue his interest in making motion pictures. His freshman effort, MY FAVORITE YEAR is a winner, a frothy concoction that goes down like holiday champagne.
The script, which rides along at a well-paced clip, was inspired by a story Mel Brooks tells of what happened when movie legend, Errol Flynn agreed to make a T.V. appearance on Sid Caesar and Imogen Coca’s classic comedy-variety sketch program, “Your Show of Shows.” Many of the film’s characters are based on the pioneers of live T.V. who took such great risks to bring live entertainment to millions of home viewers at a time when no one really knew about this brand new invention’s capabilities.
The O’Toole-Linn-Baker pairing and the marvelous ensemble cast (pretty Jessica Harper, Joe Bologna, Lou Jacobi, Bill Macy, Kazan, the abrasively, anecdotally funny Selma Diamond, later of “Night Court,” and silent film star, Gloria Stuart) provide the needed excitement to recreate the world of early television, the thrill of what it must have been like to be in on the ground floor of a vital and exciting field of innovation and endeavor, the joy of watching Benjy Stone’s youthful exuberance as he experiences his “favorite year.”
But, this is O’Toole’s movie. He shines. Through the magic and miracle of movies, his star always will. My sister’s mother- in-law (an immigrant from the old country) and I were watching some of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA the other day. She looked puzzled and said, “This man? Didn’t he pass away recent?” I said, “Yes, he did.” She looked up at Peter O’Toole on the screen, the roguish charm, the rolling Irish brogue, the surprising blue of his eyes, the sunshine-colored locks ablaze like the African skies he rode under. She smiled, approvingly, a satisfied smile and said, “Dead, but still working…”