We have lost one of the greatest and wiliest actors of the 20th century in Peter O’Toole, who passed away yesterday at age 81. He had announced his retirement from acting in the summer of 2012, but of course, he can’t really ever fully leave us. We will never see a new performance from this titan, but those he delivered over a 50-plus-year career are among the most memorable in all of cinema. Of course, any fan of Pixar Animation Studios knows O’Toole best as the voice of Anton Ego, the feared critic with whom Remy the rat clashes in the second half of Ratatouille. But well before he entered the recording booth for one of only a few voiceover performances, Peter O’Toole entered the pantheon of cinematic perfection with a string of roles most actors would kill for.
Though it was not his debut role, O’Toole truly arrived in 1962 as the star of David Lean’s Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia, as the fair-haired, blue-eyed T.E. Lawrence, a firebrand in the British army who leads an Arab charge against Turkey during World War I. The film has been justly praised over the past 50 years for being a marvelous visual feast; there are too many shots here to list, but consider the cut from Lawrence melodramatically blowing out a match to the setting sun in the Middle East, or the stark shot of a dot on the desert horizon turning into a man on a camel. Whether on Blu-ray or on the big screen, Lawrence of Arabia deserves to be called “epic,” but it wouldn’t work half as well without O’Toole at the center. Even as he was surrounded by more experienced performers, such as Claude Rains, Alec Guinness, and Jose Ferrer, O’Toole cut a dashing and enigmatic figure throughout, made slightly more poignant with the knowledge that Lawrence died in a surprisingly un-adventurous fashion. Some will debate if T.E. Lawrence is the best role Peter O’Toole ever had, but it is without question the most important, deservingly so.
There was very little evidence of a sophomore slump of sorts for O’Toole after Lawrence of Arabia, as he followed it up during the rest of the 1960s with leading parts in Becket, The Lion in Winter, and a remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, all of which garnered him Academy Award nominations, just like his work in Lean’s epic. Until the mid-1990s, he didn’t want much for work, even if all of his roles were perhaps not memorable in the right ways. But for a handful of slightly forgettable films, such as Supergirl, O’Toole continued to receive acclaim and awards for his work in the ballsy and crazy The Stunt Man as well as My Favorite Year, in which he played a barely veiled version of the swashbuckling star Errol Flynn as he makes a guest appearance on a variety TV show and is watched after by one of its young writers. (The show was clearly meant to be Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, and the young writer was inspired by My Favorite Year executive producer Mel Brooks, as well as another of that show’s writers, Woody Allen.) Over the last 20 years, as O’Toole entered his golden years, his work slowed a bit, but he got yet another Oscar nomination (his eighth, although sadly, he never won the golden boy) in 2006 for his leading role in Venus.
Yet, although it isn’t as rich, complex, and central a role as in some of his other notable films, there is no doubt that quite a few people remember Peter O’Toole best as Anton Ego. First introduced on television, alluded to as being more than partly responsible for the death of the protagonist’s cooking idol, Ego is a fearsome figure who seems beyond the point of humanization as he hunches over a typewriter, creating his latest screed as he sips on a glass of red wine in an office shaped like a coffin. Certainly, Remy’s choice to serve Ego, who re-reviews the once-famous Gusteau’s after it’s revitalized in the press, the eponymous dish is the key to what turns Ego’s head and inspires him to write a gushing review. But the way in which co-writer/director Brad Bird visualizes how that food makes Anton Ego feel, sending him back to his childhood, and the subtle ways in which O’Toole’s performance reflects his character’s change is a large part of why the third act of Ratatouille is so transcendent and moving. Ego’s new review of Gusteau’s is, as written, a sharp and intelligent commentary both on criticism and art; without O’Toole’s mellifluous voice delivering those words, however, the scene would not stand the test of time so peerlessly.
Peter O’Toole now belongs to the past, and yet his presence will loom over cinema for many years to come. Even now, watching Lawrence of Arabia is a breathtaking experience not only for the story’s massive scope, but because of its leading man. There is a sense in watching Mr. O’Toole that he was one of the most effortless actors of his generation; even in his darkest moments, he doesn’t seem to struggle to find the right emotions to convey. From nearly the very first, he entered iconography and would never leave it. And though he may not have been as present an actor as others in the Pixar universe, in only a few minutes, the character he played stalked, similarly, into the realm of the unforgettable. Peter O’Toole left the living world this past weekend, but for decades already, he has been a legend.