On August 2, the legendary Peter O’Toole would have turned 86. One of the most esteemed actors of his generation, he also holds the dubious record of earning the most Best Actor Oscar nominations (eight) without a win. O’Toole’s trophy case isn’t exactly bare — he won three Golden Globe Awards (for “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” and as Henry II in both “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter”) from eight nominations and received an honorary Academy Award for his lengthy career.
And as younger generations begin to discover his work, his reputation has only grown over the years, particularly for his big splash on the world’s film stage for his performance in “Lawrence of Arabia,” work that is astonishing in its complexity.
In honor of this great actor’s birthday, let’s take a photo gallery tour of his career and rank his 12 greatest film performances from worst to best.
12. HOW TO STEAL A MILLION (1966)
As dashing a figure as he cut, O’Toole was not primarily known as a romantic actor, so his pairing with Audrey Hepburn in the romantic caper comedy directed by William Wyler was a delightful treat. O’Toole played thief Simon Dermott, who is caught in the act by Nicole Bonnet (Hepburn), the daughter of an art forger (Hugh Griffith), and, as they conspire to pull off a robbery together, they begin to fall in love.
11. MAN OF LA MANCHA (1972)
Throughout his distinguished acting career, O’Toole has displayed a wide array of talents, but one of them is not, through his own admission, singing. He was cast when the film was set to be made as a non-musical drama, but when Arthur Hiller came on board as director, the show’s famed score was restored, forcing O’Toole to find a voice double for the songs. Nonetheless, his performance as Cervantes/Don Quixote was strong enough to earn O’Toole his fifth Golden Globe nomination.
10. WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT? (1965)
One doesn’t usually think of O’Toole and Woody Allen together, but Allen, in his first produced screenplay, has written for O’Toole a plum role in this farce as Michael, a notorious womanizer, who is seeing psychoanalyst Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers) for his condition. The only problem is that all of the doctor’s female patients find themselves falling in love with Michael, and when, unbeknownst to one another, all of the characters check into a French countryside hotel, romantic havoc reigns.
9. VENUS (2006)
O’Toole received his eighth and final Oscar nomination as Maurice Russell, an aging actor dying of prostate cancer, who becomes infatuated with Jessie, the grand-niece (Jodie Whittaker) of his good friend Ian (Leslie Phillips). Jessie, who wants to become a model, indulges the older man’s fantasies from a distance, which helps to give Maurice the illusion of a final shot at love. For his performance as Maurice, O’Toole received his first Screen Actors Guild nomination, as well as his eighth Golden Globe film nod.
8. GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (1969)
Playwright Terence Rattigan adapted the famous James Hilton novel into this 1969 musical focusing on introverted professor Arthur Chipping (O’Toole) who unexpectedly weds music-hall performer Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark) whose show business background costs him the headmaster job that he has always wanted. For his performance as Mr. Chips, O’Toole won his third Golden Globe Award and earned his fourth Academy Award nomination.
7. THE RULING CLASS (1972)
Peter Medak‘s black comedy, written by and based on the play by Peter Barnes, brought O’Toole his fifth Oscar nomination. O’Toole plays a British nobleman who inherits a peerage and also happens to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Oh yes, he also believes that he is Jesus Christ, who loves to sing and dance, as well as sleeping upright on a cross. What a character like that, O’Toole’s performance could have easily gone off the rails, but he keeps the outrageousness in check just enough to be effective.
6. BECKET (1964)
“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” In a career filled with memorable dialogue, this line delivered by O’Toole in “Becket” has resonated over the last half-century. In his first go-round as King Henry II (he will later reprise this role in “The Lion in Winter”), O’Toole triumphs as a monarch who names colleague Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) to become Archbishop of Canterbury in hopes that he will do the king’s bidding, but once there, Becket does anything but. For his performance as King Henry, O’Toole won his first Golden Globe Award and earned his second Oscar nomination.
5. THE STUNT MAN (1980)
When O’Toole decides to give a big performance, he goes BIG, and in Richard Rush‘s “The Stunt Man,” he plays Eli Cross, a controlling film director who may have been responsible for the death of one of the film’s stunt men. To cover up the possible crime, he hires a fugitive (Steve Railsback), but things don’t go as well for Eli as he may have hoped. For his performance as Eli, O’Toole was nominated his sixth Academy Award and earned his sixth Golden Globe nomination.
4. RATATOUILLE (2007)
Although O’Toole had done voice-over work before, his distinctive vocal tones made a huge impact in Brad Bird‘s Academy Award-winning “Ratatouille” as the ever-so-snobby restaurant critic Anton Ego. O’Toole voiced a marvelous mix of condescension and curiosity as the critic who is unaware that the meal being prepared by rat and aspiring chef Remy (Patton Oswalt), and, even when he learns the truth, he still gives Remy’s cooking a rave review.
3. MY FAVORITE YEAR (1982)
O’Toole is at his flamboyant best in Richard Benjamin‘s film, set in the 1950s, when swashbuckling movie star and notorious drunk Alan Swann (O’Toole) shows up at 30 Rock to appear on the popular live TV show “Comedy Cavalcade” hosted by Sid Caesar-like King Kaiser (Joseph Bologna). Poor junior comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker) is then given the unenviable task of minding the unpredictable Swann. What could possibly go wrong? For his performance, O’Toole earned his seventh Oscar nomination, as well as his seventh Golden Globe film nod.
2. THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
As good as his King Henry II was in “Becket,” O’Toole soars with the same character in James Goldman‘s “The Lion in Winter,” likely because of two reasons: a crackling script by Goldman and the chance to play opposite a brilliant performance by Katharine Hepburn, who only helped to up his game. For his Henry here, O’Toole won his second Golden Globe Award (he won his first for playing Henry in “Becket”), as well as his third Academy Award nomination.
1. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962)
Although O’Toole has played minor roles in three previous films, he was a revelation to movie audiences in his first big film, David Lean‘s “Lawrence of Arabia,” which has now come to be considered a modern classic. His take on T.E. Lawrence was enormously complex, as the character must reconcile being a warrior despite his aversion to violence. For his performance, O’Toole was nominated for his first Academy Award and earned his first Golden Globes nod.