Movie Article

Peter O'Toole: Profile of a master

Nearly 40 years after "Lawrence of Arabia" made him a star, the actor looks back on his high-wire life.

This is London, a suite at the Dorchester Hotel, a cool evening in March. It's the end of a two-day press junket, and there's one last thing to do. The marketing man with the graying mustache has asked if Peter could please autograph some items, so Peter O'Toole is at a table in a corner of a low-lit room, doing drudge work for the digital age. O'Toole — bon vivant, unruly genius, confirmed nonconformist — is signing away at a thick roll of promotional packaging for the new Lawrence of Arabia DVD. A self 40 years younger stares up from each sticker, head wrapped in the hood of a bedouin cloak, bright blue eyes heroically smoldering. O'Toole is now 68. His hair, silver. He looks as lean as Keith Richards. He is not quite 6'3''. He needs a drink.

''What was all that nonsense about another brandy?'' he asks. ''Was that just propaganda to get me to the table?'' His teasing rhetoric amounts to polite insistence, and the marketing man scuttles back to the mini-bar.

O'Toole has dressed for the press as a dapper eccentric. A paisley pocket square pops from the breast of a red-striped olive blazer. Under the blazer is a burgundy vest; under the vest is a pale yellow shirt. Under the shirt is a scar that runs from waist to chest, a souvenir of an operation he doesn't like to talk about; some of his ''plumbing'' came out in the mid-'70s, around which time he quit drinking — or at least, to use the popular phrase, quit ''raising hell.'' His operating mode now appears to be moderation. (Hence, the brandy.) The green lapel pin is French, an insignia of the Order of Arts and Letters. The gold ring is Irish, a family thing. Once upon a time, he would wear only bold green socks, an idiosyncratic tribute to his nation. Today they're a muted greenish gray.

He's diligently signing Peter O'Toole, Peter O'Toole...But no pen at hand is fit for this plasticky paper, and he declares his tedium with a zesty shout: ''I've become an automaton!''

Hmmm. Well, then. On to the one-sheets. The marketing man starts to untube posters. The actor, weary but cheerful after two days of droning on, sips at the liquor, his pale cheeks turned pink by Grand Marnier. He's got a sharp jaw and a wicked chin, and his handsome face is heavily lined. The steep, sleek nose — smashed in youthful shenanigans and reflattened in a bungled stage fight — is the result of rhinoplasty.

He looks at the posters and says, ''He's a cowboy!'' Before him are a couple dozen reproductions of a painted pulp fantasy: T.E. Lawrence is charging on camelback, reins tight in his left hand, saber aloft in his right, blond mane flowing and desert robes floating as he leads a throng of bedouins over a dune and onward to glory. The young actor in this image was heading for seven Oscar nominations, world-infamous carousing, and an irregular resume of triumphs, oddities, and flops. ''Lawrence, the cowboy!'' he says. The actor's snickering softly and dutifully squiggling: Peter O'Toole, Peter O'Toole...Nearly done. He smiles and signs Richard Harris on one poster, smile widening to a pagan grin. He writes Michael Caine on the next and chuckles. Then, reminding himself of Caine's knighthood, he scribbles a Sir and chuckles again.

1 2 3 4 5