The last hellraiser

Peter O'Toole was one of the great tragic heroes of the 1960s.

Dying is easy, comedy is hard," said Peter O'Toole in one of his films. Indeed O'Toole, with his gaunt, sepulchral, face, his sorrowful blue eyes, his reputation of being mad, bad and dangerous to know, always seemed to be haunted by his own mortality. And death became him. O'Toole made his first appearance in Hollywood on a speeding motorbike, crashing fatally into a lamp post. That was in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), where he plays the doomed and brilliant T.E. Lawrence, wandering the desolate expanses of the Sahara desert while Maurice Jarre's elegiac title track swells in the background.

By the time Hollywood claimed him, O'Toole already had a distinguished career on the British stage — playing Hamlet in the National Theatre Company production directed by Laurence Olivier and the original angry young man, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger. O'Toole, always the outlier, was said to have brought a gritty realism to the mannered, declamatory Shakespearean theatre of the time. Yet when he returned to the stage in 1980, his Macbeth was criticised for being dated and gimmicky. Making the transition from stage to film, O'Toole seemed to be the natural successor to British actors like Olivier and John Gielgud. Like Olivier, there would always be a hint of the stage about him, whether he was playing the tempestuous Henry II in Becket (1964) and The Lion in Winter (1968) or the crazed Emperor Tiberius in Caligula (1979).

Along with Richard Burton, O' Toole would be one of the great tragic heroes of the 1960s, dissolute, self-destructive, driven by a great discontent. But in real life, O'Toole declared himself to be the cheerful rebel. He was the last of the "hellraisers", the one who survived all his peers. As he makes his final exit now, the lights go out. It's the end of an era.

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