Peter O’Toole, who died Saturday in London at age 81 after being ill for some time, was an expert at playing the men who played the games.
From T.E. Lawrence, who helped Arabia win its war but was outmaneuvered in trying to help it secure its peace; to Henry II, who manipulated his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, friend, Thomas Becket, and sons as if they were chess pieces; to old King Priam, not to proud to beg Achilles for the body of his son Hector, O’Toole left an indelible mark embodying men who had seen the worst of conflict but refused to yield the field. His Priam, a father who had lost a beloved son, on his knees before Brad Pitt’s Achilles, a son who would never see his father again, was the best thing about “Troy” – a reminder, as Nelson Mandela was in a different way, that enemies can put aside their differences for a greater good.
I had adored O’Toole since seeing him as the young Henry II to Richard Burton’s title character in the 1964 film of Jean Anouilh’s “Becket,” one of the great power “plays.” It’s a homosocial, if not homoerotic, story of a king who appoints his pal first chancellor of England and then Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church there, never understanding, as political theorist Michael Harrington once observed, that the job makes the man. Becket was happy to serve Henry until he got a boss with greater authority – God. The scene on the beach in which the two meet for the last time is one my sisters and I read and reread as children.
After that, I followed O’Toole’s career religiously, from some very funny performances (the “Topkapi”-like “How to Steal a Million” with Audrey Hepburn) to the deeply poignant (the title character in “Goodbye, Mr. Chips”). I even enjoyed his singing in the uneven but still stirring “Man of La Mancha.”
So I was delighted as a journalist to cover the press conference for “Troy.” Picture a room filled mostly with Web “reporters” who looked like Comic Book Guy from “The Simpsons.” In trooped the stars, with the Comic Book Guys peppering Brad Pitt with questions about whether he and then-wife Jennifer Aniston were going to have a baby. (Guess not.) Finally, O’Toole waltzed in, all dapper in a fedora and bright scarf. He started telling us how T.E. Lawrence kept an annotated copy of Homer’s “The Odyssey” with him, much as Alexander the Great, who believed he was Achilles’ descendant, kept an annotation of Homer’s “The Iliad” that had been prepared for him by his teacher, Aristotle.
Well, I was like a cat in cream. And there was nary a peep out of the obnoxious CBGs. We were all like kids in the presence of a seemingly disapproving but really caring headmaster, not unlike Mr. Chips, one who understood that regardless of your social status, it is possible to rise in this world through the life of the mind.
I imagine a good many people have been turning to YouTube to watch clips of O’Toole. I think of the final moments from “Man of La Mancha,” as his Cervantes goes off to face the Inquisition with that most elusive of qualities, courage, and, of course, the final moments of “Lawrence of Arabia.”
“Home, sir” his soldier-driver says with emphasis. As Maurice Jarre’s haunting theme softly returns, O’Toole’s Lawrence glimpses a passing motorcycle, which will one day be the vehicle of his death.
His Lawrence – a bridge between two worlds, resident of neither – stares off into space, not quite certain where he’s going or even where he’s been. Or at least that’s what we assume, for his face is veiled by the windshield and enveloped, as we all must one day be, in dust.