Peter O’Toole, who died yesterday at the age of 81, was not an actor’s actor. He did not gain or lose weight for film roles or contract pneumonia wearing a shabby period overcoat on and off the set. He could not maintain his accent off-screen because he never adopted one on-screen. He did not crave acceptance from his fellows. Nor did he care about critics. He saw himself as a “professional,” a plier of a trade rather than an arbiter of high artistic standards: “I’ll accept anything—a poetry reading, television, cinema, anything that allows me to act.” Acting for him was “my business,” “what I do for a living.”
Like his fellow lapsed Catholic Anthony Burgess, who alternated verse novels and Malay translations of Sophocles with scripts for failed musicals and straight-to-television biblical epics, O’Toole was totally unscrupulous about doing rubbish. Only two years after his triumph as Henry II in Beckett he played all three of the angels who visit Abraham after his circumcision in John Huston’s Italian-financed shlockfest The Bible: In the Beginning. In the 1980s he lurched from Man and Superman to Supergirl, in which he played Zaltar, an alien whose loss of the mystical Omegahedron gets the plot rolling. He would take any part: monarch or merchant seaman, incestuous aristocrat or virtuous soldier, megalomaniacal film director or undercover CIA man, friendless castaway or decadent Roman emperor.