Peter O'Toole: The Definitive Biography: The Definitive Biography

Peter O'Toole: The Definitive Biography: The Definitive Biography

by Robert Sellers


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Peter O’Toole was supremely talented, a unique leading man and one of the most charismatic actors of his generation. Described by his friend Richard Burton as “the most original actor to come out of Britain since the war,” O’Toole was also unpredictable, with a dangerous edge he brought to his roles and to his real life.

With the help of exclusive interviews with colleagues and close friends, Robert Sellers' Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography paints the first complete picture of this complex and much-loved man. The book reveals what drove him to extremes, why he drank to excess for many years and hated authority, but it also describes a man who was fiercely intelligent, with a great sense of humor and huge energy.

Giving full weight to his extraordinary career, this is an insightful, funny, and moving tribute to an iconic actor who made a monumental contribution to theater and cinema.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250095947
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 347,028
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

ROBERT SELLERS is the author of a dozen books, including What Fresh Lunacy is This? The Authorized Biography of Oliver Reed and Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and Oliver Reed. He has been a regular contributor to Empire, Total Film, The Independent, SFX, and Cinema Retro, and has contributed to a number of television documentaries. He lives in the United Kingdom.

Read an Excerpt

Peter O'Toole

The Definitive Biography

By Robert Sellers

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Robert Sellers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09595-4


This book starts with a mystery. Just who was Peter O'Toole? Maybe even he didn't know, or wasn't telling. Previous biographies and the bulk of written material on the actor name his birth date as 2 August 1932, the place, Connemara, County Galway, in the Republic of Ireland. And that's the conundrum. I gave up counting the number of people I interviewed for this book who rolled their eyes when I brought up his nationality – 'He's not Irish,' they muttered, 'I always thought he was born in Leeds.'

In O'Toole's own memoir of his early days, Loitering with Intent, published in 1992, the matter of his birth is a rather fuzzy affair, as it names two separate dates and places, one in Ireland in June 1932, and another that August 'at an accident hospital in England'. His baptism was in England in November of the same year, he writes. How can one person be born twice? you might think. Or did his parents simply forget when the event took place, or merely mislaid his birth certificate, leading to all this confusion? So what is the truth? All it took was one phone call to Leeds City Council births, deaths and marriages to uncover O'Toole's birth certificate. The man who went through life proudly purporting to be an Irishman was in fact a Yorkshireman, born at the famous St James's University Hospital, or Jimmy's, in Leeds, 2 August 1932.

Does it really matter, though? Certainly to O'Toole it did not, he loved the idea of being Irish (he owned an Irish passport), and once he'd made that identification he wanted it to be very much central to his life. A little phoney perhaps. 'He used his Irishness, like the good actor he was, to get attention,' claims his close friend Billy Foyle, but it was also deeply romantic. The truth is it doesn't really matter where you're born, O'Toole's father was Irish, which entitled him to full Irish citizenship. So fabricating some story that you're born in Ireland, that's a romance, just like wearing green socks, of varying shades, which he did every day of his life. So too a friend's memory that on occasions O'Toole would lay on the Irish accent with a trowel, he'd talk about 'filums'.

That O'Toole saw himself as more of an Irishman than an Englishman is irrefutable, it accounted for his passion, he liked to say, his intolerance of authority, his artistic inclinations, and of course his love of drinking. 'He insisted on being Irish,' says actor Michael Craig. 'I think it gave him licence to behave the way he did.' It was to an isolated cottage in Connemara that O'Toole would always retreat. It was his sanctuary. 'I go to Ireland for a refit, just like a car.'

Much of this love for Ireland is tied up with his father, unquestionably the single most influential person in O'Toole's life. Patrick was a real character and his son idolized him, swearing years later that he got his sense of style, showmanship, and sophistication from the man everyone called Captain. One can almost trace O'Toole's love of performing and theatricality from those days watching his bookmaker dad, dressed all dandy on a stool shouting the odds; the stool was his stage, the racetrack his theatre, the punters his audience. 'I thought as a boy, this is life lived in public! Life on display! It had an enormous effect on me.'

When he had money in his pocket Patrick drank and wasn't averse to picking a scrap with a policeman when sauced. He was also feckless, a real rascal. One day Patrick sat his son up on the mantelpiece. 'Jump, boy,' he urged. 'I'll catch you. Trust me.' When Peter jumped his father withdrew his arms leaving his son splattered on the hard stone floor. The lesson: 'Never trust any bastard.' One Christmas Eve, Patrick came home rather the worse for wear, with a tatty tree under his arm and assorted packages. An excited Peter, in his pyjamas, came running into the hallway asking if Father Christmas was on his way. Patrick chortled to himself, picked up a brown-paper bag and left the room. There was an almighty bang, a pause, then the reappearance of Patrick with the solemn message that Father Christmas had just shot himself.

Hailing from Irish stock, Patrick had served an apprenticeship as a metal plater and became a shipyard worker in Sunderland, where his mother ran a pair of second-hand furniture stores. On Saturday afternoons he was often to be found in the stands at Roker Park cheering on Sunderland AFC, a team he came to love and follow all his life. According to former broadcaster and friend Martin Bell, O'Toole once revealed that his father's ashes were buried under the goal posts at Roker Park, 'which is probably now a housing estate,' says Bell, 'because the team moved to the Stadium of Light.' Was O'Toole having Bell on, or is there some truth to this claim? Never much of a football fan, his sports were cricket and rugby. When pressed, O'Toole did reveal his love for Sunderland, but gave up supporting the team after the move to the new stadium in the late nineties. 'Everything they meant to me was when they were at Roker Park.'

Although the Captain was the apple of his mother's eye, his refusal to go into the family business caused ripples of bitterness but his independent and adventurous nature could not countenance so mundane a livelihood. It's why he jacked in his shipbuilding job too, going off instead to play football for a minor professional team. After that he became an itinerant bookie around the racecourses of Ireland and the north of England, an occupation that was illegal at the time. There are stories of him living for a while in Sunderland, on the fringes of the law, and being asked to leave the city by the police. 'I'm not from the working class,' O'Toole liked to say. 'I'm from the criminal class.'

It was on a racecourse that Patrick met Constance Ferguson, a young nurse. She was enjoying a picnic with friends when Patrick just happened to walk by, got chatting and offered to put a bet on for them. The horse in question came in third and he returned holding their winnings. Constance was seen by many as quite a catch, with wavy black hair that framed attractive and delicate features. Putting on the charm, Patrick left a collection of phone numbers scrawled on bits of paper where she might at certain times reach him and over the next few months they met up, fell in love and married. O'Toole always considered his parents mismatched, but as different as they were they got along and remained steadfastly attached to each other for almost fifty years. Even when their circumstances drastically reduced and money was tight, they never lost their pride and decency or good humour.

Born in Scotland, Constance was raised by a succession of relatives after the deaths of her parents. Despite this tragedy, O'Toole always remembered his mother as a truly 'joyful' person who did more than anyone else to foster a love for literature by reading poetry and stories out loud to him, Dickens, Buchan, Galsworthy and Burns, awakening the imagination that is so vital in any child. 'My mother was my literary conscience. Her knowledge of literature and language was tremendous. At five I was reciting Border ballads at the drop of a hat. She was my ear. Daddy was the persona.'

With work prospects bleak in his native Ireland, and now with a young child to support, a daughter called Patricia, Patrick moved permanently to England where, until his death in 1975, he lived a strange kind of self-imposed exile, never setting foot on Irish soil again. And yet he would never hear a bad word said against the place. The family settled into a small rented terraced house in the working-class area of Hunslet, Leeds, a slum of narrow back to back properties, 'rabbit hutches', O'Toole called them, with outside loos, cold-water taps and alleyways, all smelly and filthy black from factories, mills and chemical works spewing out their waste. It was said of the place that the crows flew backwards to keep the shit out of their eyes.

Hunslet had a large population of Irish expatriates, who jostled for space with other immigrants, resulting in the usual human intolerance. 'The sheenies [a disparaging term for Jews] hated the micks, the micks hated the wops, the wops hated the sheenies,' O'Toole related. 'When you're pressure-cooked into a Catholic slum upbringing, you don't forget it very easily.' And while it didn't mentally scar him, it did turn him into a socialist (though he ended up sending his son to Harrow). The slum clearances of the late 1940s began too late for O'Toole. When he paid the place a visit in the early seventies it had all gone, been completely erased; not a brick from his childhood lay standing.

Despite the harshness of the area, there was a keen sense of humour amongst the inhabitants and great communal pride. Life was simple. The milkman delivered from a large churn on a cart. If you weren't in, no problem, you just left a jug on the windowsill and it was full when you returned home. No one would think of stealing it. O'Toole found comfort in the closeness and kinship of his family. It was Constance who kept the household together. 'My little mum fair tore into troublesome tasks and made them seem glad duties.' For extra money she did cleaning jobs around the district.

There were warm memory-making weekend outings, like catching the tram to Roundhay Park, where the youngster spent hours in its enchanted woods or down by the lake, and excursions to the nearby market town of Otley to bathe in its outdoor swimming pool. He played football on Hunslet Moor and rugby in the streets with a loaf of bread instead of a ball. There were special trips with his dad to the Moo Cow Milk Bar, or 'Peter's pub', Patrick christened it, to drink thick flavoured milkshakes through a straw. Then it was off to the pictures to watch a programme of news reels, cartoons and one-reelers. Young Peter loved Donald Duck and Popeye, and the madcap antics of the Three Stooges. Watching King Kong for the first time had a profound effect as he found himself rooting for the huge hairy beasty against the nasty humans. For Peter the picture palace was a place of wonder and enchantment, and he never forgot the afternoon his dad took him to see a matinee performance of the Marx Brothers' A Day at the Races with what seemed like the entire horseracing fraternity of Leeds.

One of his earliest memories was whizzing down hills on his bicycle one day with such wild abandon that after a while he'd no clue whatsoever where he was. In front of him was a half-painted lamp post – the worker had gone off for lunch, leaving his brushes and pots behind. Young Peter decided to finish the job himself and was found by a policeman, covered in green paint, and marched off to the nearest police station. 'I remember looking up at the desk, all white tile, white as a nun's hand, and then I remember seeing a big fucking nasty looking down at me.' Once back home he was dunked into the bath and smothered with turpentine and scrubbed as if he was a dirty pan. As punishment his bike was confiscated and he was told never again to wander off. Fat chance, the young O'Toole was always AWOL. 'Always where he shouldn't be, rarely where he should,' as his mother used to say.

Dressed in a dark suit, spats and his trademark billycock bowler hat, Patrick was a familiar face around the racecourses of Yorkshire. The Captain was unmistakable, with his hat tilted to one side, a cigarette perpetually stuck on his lips and his fingers wrapped round a pint of Guinness. On special occasions Peter was allowed to accompany him. He loved the excitement of the race track, the jockeys in their multi-coloured silks, the hubbub of the crowd, the parade of horses in the paddock and the bookies all shouting the odds, white-gloved tic-tac men with their weird hand gestures. Sometimes Patrick miscalculated the odds and would need to scarper in a hurry. Grabbing little Peter's hand he'd urge, 'C'mon, son, let's be off!' and the two of them would slip through the shrubbery, not returning to the track for a few weeks.

It was a bizarre and haphazard lifestyle, with the whole family's income resting on success or failure at the racetrack. 'When he'd come home after a good day, the whole room would light up. It was fairyland,' O'Toole recalled. 'When he lost, it was black. In our house, it was either a wake or a wedding.'

For some inexplicable reason O'Toole was nicknamed 'Bubbles' as a child: 'That cost me a lot of lumps.' He was very sweet and adorable looking, and rather tubby, 'with a mop of golden hair that I've tried to keep straight ever since'. But he was plagued by ill health. 'You mention it, I had it.' His eyes were a particular cause for concern and he underwent a series of traumatic operations, eight on his left eye alone. The trouble persisted into adulthood; he was especially susceptible to bright light and had to wear special dark glasses. There is also evidence that his eyesight was further damaged during the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia. Actress Jane Merrow, while working with O'Toole on The Lion in Winter, remembers him telling her that David Lean insisted on some occasions that he stare directly into the sun. 'It is abusive behaviour in a way,' says Jane. 'It's misusing your actors to get the effect that you want.'

At the age of six O'Toole was raced by taxi to hospital with his mother. He'd complained all day of stomach ache but when suddenly the pain turned acute Constance thought something was very wrong. His appendix had burst leaving him with an infected abdomen and in the days before antibiotics the chances of survival for children weren't too hopeful. O'Toole underwent an emergency operation to remove the infection and was then swiftly moved to another hospital and placed in an isolation ward. When his parents and sister visited they weren't even allowed in the same room and had to make do with viewing him through a glass partition. Over the course of several months Peter recovered and was allowed back home, but he was weak, non-communicative and couldn't walk long distances. With encouragement he soon returned to his impish self. But it had been a traumatic experience for sure.

These medical misfortunes undeniably affected his schooling, and while he could read and write to a good standard by the age of four he was by inclination a poor pupil. School was ghastly and an institution to make one's escape from as soon as possible. About the only subject he enjoyed and was any good at was English composition. Being good Roman Catholics the O'Tooles entrusted their son to the care of Jesuit priests and 'flapping nuns with white, withered hands', in O'Toole's words. 'They'd never held a man, those hands.' He used to be scared stiff of them; 'their whole denial of womanhood, the black dresses, the shaving of the hair, it was all so horrible, so terrifying'. A penchant for rapping his knuckles with a ruler every time he attempted to write with his left hand instead of his right hardly helped the situation. Perhaps subconsciously, O'Toole always employed his right hand in times of violence, smashing it through glass, into concrete and people's faces. And it had the scars to prove it. As for his left hand, it was smoother than a baby's backside.

In art one day when he drew a picture of a horse and was asked by one of the nuns whether there was something else that might enhance the scene, the young O'Toole drew a huge dangling dick gushing piss into a foamy ferment. The nuns immediately tore the offending picture up and started to wildly hit him round the head.

The unfairness of being punished for merely expressing himself did not sit well with the young O'Toole. Nor did the religious discipline and doctrine, coming as he did from a household of gambling and drinking. He did, however, enjoy the theatricality of religion, the pomp and ceremony of its rituals, and successfully applied to be an altar boy. 'I loved every second of it. The mass was my first performance, it's as simple as that.' At this age he still believed in the concept of there being a god, of some benign divinity. When sweets were rationed during the war he sacrificed his toffees to a church charity.

By 1939 the omnipresence of God jostled for space inside the O'Toole psyche with an altogether less benevolent obsession. At the cinema one afternoon the cartoons had finished when on came the newsreels. There was a fat Italian, all done up with medals, who looked like one of the Three Stooges but he was getting pelters and ripe raspberries from the audience. 'Then along came Hitler and there were no raspberries and I was physically ill at the age of six, seeing this man.'


Excerpted from Peter O'Toole by Robert Sellers. Copyright © 2015 Robert Sellers. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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