To write an obituary for Peter O’Toole, who died this past Sunday, I would pick no other writer than New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane. Luckily, the New Yorker had the same inclination. In his “postscript” piece on O’Toole, Lane references one of my favorite pieces of television talk, viewable above. “To watch O’Toole and Orson Welles on the BBC’s Monitor program, in 1963, as they ruminate at length on Hamlet and his father’s ghost,” he writes, “is to realize what a real talk show is, or what it could be, when the airwaves were still haunted by the grand talkers. What takes you slightly aback, however, is not that O’Toole seems willing and able to discuss seventeenth-century Catholic doctrines of the afterlife but that, with his dicky bow, dark shirt, and thick-rimmed black spectacles, he looks like a man in disguise.” Lane points out what even some of us O’Toole fans never quite realized: “scan his filmography and you see how seldom he made an impact in modern garb, and what elegant shelter he sought in period dress.”
Even filmgoers who’ve seen only O’Toole’s most famous performances in lavish, wider-than-widescreen historical films — Lane highlights his title role, a master work of tensely focused flamboyance, in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and his turn as gentle Reginald Johnson, tutor of the title character in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor — recognize the strength he drew from stepping into the past and its haze of myth. O’Toole enjoyed some of his finest performative hours, his most dedicated followers say, when he stepped all the way back into the sixteenth century, to the time of Shakespeare. Remarking on his tendency to play other nationalities — the English Lawrence, the Scottish Johnson — Lane observes that “he was Irish, as tall and slim and unsnappable as a Malacca cane, and one regret, for his moviegoing fans, was that they saw and heard far less of O’Toole the Celt than their theatre-loving counterparts were privileged to enjoy.” Just above, you can at least hear one more instance of the theatrical, and Shakespearean, O’Toole in action — not, alas, as an Irishman, but as an Italian: Petruchio, the strong-willed (and feminist-loathed) suitor at the heart of The Taming of the Shrew. Note that this performance, a production of Living Shakespeare in 1986, uses an abridged version of the play, but O’Toole himself certainly sounds in full form.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.