Peter O’Toole: The Irish and British Acting Legend

The late great Lawrence of Arabia star Peter O’Toole spent his whole life claiming to be born in Connemara in Ireland, but in the book Peter O’Toole: The Definite Biography, author Robert Sellers informs us that he was able to quickly establish that O’Toole was born in Leeds in England in 1932.

Sellers also argues that the country of birth does not matter because Peter O’Toole considered himself Irish. His father was Irish, had spent a lot of his life in Ireland, had an Irish passport and was an Irish citizen.
There then seems to be a peculiar reluctance by some people to recognize this very point, that O’Toole can be at least categorized as British-Irish.

Career Origins

O’Toole’s British reputation lies in his training, his choice of roles and films made throughout his career. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art from 1952 to 1954 after being rejected by the Abbey Theatre’s school in Dublin because he could not speak the Irish language. He then gained recognition as a Shakespearean actor of note at the Bristol Old Vic theatre.
Peter O’Toole’s first credited role was in 1960 in Disney’s version of Kidnapped, and his profile was established further in The Day They Robbed The Bank of England in 1961.

Lawrence of Arabia

O’Toole’s performance as the tortured British military officer T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s sweeping 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia continues to be lauded to this very day. The film won seven Oscars, one for Best Picture and Best Director, but O’Toole lost out, earning the first of his eight Oscar nominations.

After Lawrence, O’Toole went on to play other British eccentrics and authority figures, including lauded Shakespeare performances on stage and screen.


Peter O’Toole had formed a production company, known as Keep Films, with American producer Jules Buck in 1961 and tried unsuccessfully to film a version of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Keep Films and Paramount Pictures then produced a film adaptation of the French play Becket or the Honor of God by Jean Anouilh in 1964. Entitled Becket, the film was directed by Peter Glenville and stars Richard Burton in the title role opposite Peter O’Toole as Henry II. Becket was a box office success and won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Edward Anhalt).

Lord Jim

Peter O’Toole and Jules Buck produced the remake of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, about a 19th century seaman Lord Jim (Peter O’Toole) who is discredited for cowardice, but spends his life trying to redeem himself. Celebrated director Victor Fleming filmed a silent version in 1925, but this 1965 Richard Brooks film received particularly bad reviews and poor box office returns. O’Toole once said that Lord Jim was his favorite role and performance.

How to Steal a Million

After playing opposite Peter Sellers in the poorly received but commercially successful What’s New Pussycat? (1965), O’Toole starred opposite the delightful Audrey Hepburn in the well-received but the commercially unsuccessful heist comedy How to Steal a Million (1966). Audrey’s character Nicole must steal a statue to conceal her own father’s forgeries. How to Steal a Million boasts an early score by the great John Williams.

The Lion in Winter

Adapted from his own play by James Goldman and directed by Anthony Harvey, the 1968 historical drama The Lion in Winter was a critical and commercial success. The film tells the story of the plot against Henry II (Peter O’Toole) by his sons and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, brilliantly played by screen legend Katherine Hepburn. Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole were nominated for Academy awards, but O’Toole lost out again.

Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Peter O’Toole’s “British” actor credentials were further enhanced by his performances as noblemen, English upper-class eccentrics or authoritarians. Peter O’Toole received another worthy nomination for the title role in the musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) opposite Petula Clark and Michael Redgrave, but the film received poor reviews and pales in comparison with the 1939 original.
Starring roles in films such as The Night of the Generals (1967), Country Dance (1970), Under Milk Wood (1972), The Ruling Class (1972), Man of La Mancha (1972) and Man Friday (1975) further established O’Toole’s British leading man status, although his star shone less brightly during the 1970s.

My Favorite Year

Like in The Stunt Man in 1980, O’Toole’s performance in his next film My Favorite Year (1982), as washed-up idol and swashbuckling actor Alan Swann, is a departure from his other very British performances. Set in the 1950s about a junior comedy writer who is assigned to look after his hero Alan Swann.
It has been noted that O’Toole’s Swann is based on Errol Flynn, but audiences could see similarities between Swann and O’Toole’s own drunken shenanigans, especially with other renowned drunken hellraisers, such as best friend Richard Harris.


O’Toole appeared in many movies from the truly awful, Caligula (1979), to the acclaimed, The Last Emperor (1987) and blockbuster epics such as Troy (2004). O’Toole also starred again with his old friend Egyptian film legend Omar Sharif in the 1990 fantasy film The Rainbow Thief, having previously performed together in Lawrence of Arabia and The Night of the Generals.
Peter O’Toole received the last of his eight Academy award nominations for his role as the elderly actor Maurice in Venus in 2006, starring opposite newcomer Leeds actress Jodie Whitaker. O’Toole failed to win again, a record for the Academy, but he did receive a special Academy Honorary Award in 2003.


Peter O’Toole died on 14 December 2013 in London at the age of 81. He was married once (to actress Sian Phillips), had a long-term relationship (with Karen Brown) and fathered three children.

His ashes were supposedly kept for a period at the Áras an Uachtaráin, the residence of the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins (a close friend of O’Toole) and then taken to Connemara.

The Irish and British actor

As common within many Irish immigrant families, O’Toole showed conflicting loyalties at times. He admired the likes of Winston Churchill, yet worked with celebrated Irish republican songwriter Dominic Behan on the words of the famous Irish ballad Carrickfergus.
He was also once offered the knighthood in 1987 but turned it down for “political and personal reasons.”

Peter O’Toole once told American television presenter Charlie Rose in 1994 that being Irish “is almost the center of my being. I can understand and reflect; indeed everything I think about is colored by its history, by its literature, by its people, by its geography”.

Peter O’Toole had always felt proud to be Irish, but he also held a unique affection for the city of Leeds. So, this great acting legend should be regarded as an Irish actor and a British actor – at the very least!

Paul J. Bradley

The original theatrical poster for Lawrence of Arabia

Please listen to the enjoyable and informative Classic Movie Recall podcast on Lawrence of Arabia and read my article Peter O’Toole: The Irish and British Acting Legend. 

Listen to all the informative Classic Movie Recall podcasts from accomplished broadcaster Lara Scott, and Oscar winning documentary filmmaker James Moll, along with widely respected producer/writer Melanie Hooks.

Paul J Bradley


Classic Movie Recall is a series of bite-sized podcasts hosted by on-air radio host Lara Scott and Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker James Moll, chatting about films from the golden age of cinema.

Be sure to visit our blog for even more thoughts about these great vintage movies and their writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, actors and everyone who brought these classics to the screen.

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