Peter O'Toole, hellraising star of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

Peter O'Toole, hellraising star of 'Lawrence of Arabia'

LONDON - Famed for his blazing blue eyes and drunken escapades, Peter O'Toole was a giant of the screen and stage whose performance in "Lawrence of Arabia" is often hailed as one of the greatest of all time.

In a career spanning half a century, the Irish-born actor, who died on Saturday aged 81, lent his rich voice to the roles of kings and military heroes, as well as colourful hard-drinkers whose lives were rather closer to his own.

He had characteristically announced his retirement with typical cheerfulness in July 2012, saying it was time to "chuck in the sponge" at the age of 79.

"The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back," he said. "I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell."

He had been forced to cut back dramatically on his drinking after a near-fatal illness in the 1970s resulted in the partial removal of his stomach and pancreas.

O'Toole was rising swiftly on the Shakespearean theatre scene when his big break arrived in David Lean's 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia".

The starring role, as gallant British army officer T.E. Lawrence, would win him the first of eight Oscar nominations.

"His voice had a crack like a whip," wrote his friend and later co-star Richard Burton. "Most important of all, you couldn't take your eyes off him."

Devastatingly handsome with his piercing eyes, fair hair and flowing Arab robes, O'Toole was apparently once told by the playwright Noel Coward: "If you had been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia."

The son of an Irish bookmaker, O'Toole was born in 1932 and raised in northern England.

After working briefly as a journalist and a radioman for the Royal Navy he went to study at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, in a class that included future stars Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Richard Harris.

Few young actors could have had such an opportunity to shine as O'Toole was given in "Lawrence of Arabia", with its dramatic desert setting.

The next two Oscar nominations came as he played the role of England's king Henry II twice - first in 1964's "Becket" opposite Burton, and then in "The Lion in Winter", co-starring Katherine Hepburn, in 1968.

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