See Peter O’Toole Talk Hamlet with Orson Welles (1963) and Play Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew (1986)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lawrence of Ara­bia Remem­bered with Rare Footage

Acclaimed BBC Pro­duc­tion of Ham­let, Star­ring David Ten­nant (Doc­tor Who) and Patrick Stew­art (Star Trek)

A Sur­vey of Shakespeare’s Plays (Free Course)

Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour Sings Shakespeare’s Son­net 18

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.

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