Dublin Film Festival: Jim Sheridan on his new Peter O’Toole documentary 

It was a red letter day for Anthony Hopkins when he was cast in the 1968 film The Lion in Winter, a ferocious study of medieval court life. It was his first big break on screen, and he was playing alongside Peter O’Toole, the man who inspired him to be an actor. 

Hopkins was captivated with O’Toole ever since he’d seen him perform on stage at Bristol’s Old Vic theatre. O’Toole was like a “wolf” exclaims Hopkins in Jim Sheridan’s documentary about the life of O’Toole, which screens this weekend at the Dublin International Film Festival. O’Toole even looked “wolf-like” adds Siân Phillips, O’Toole’s ex-wife, suggesting he was a man that could lead women astray.

“He was just a very dangerous man, with a big appetite,” says Sheridan. “He consumed everything. I hadn’t realised quite how crazy he was – how much he drank and other things he consumed. He was just out there. He was a hellraiser, much bigger than Richard Harris, and Harris looked up to him. He told Harris, ‘Don’t act until they come close in on you’, in close-ups. 

“O’Toole was part of a generation that grew up during and after the Second World War when there was deprivation and rationing and ‘no drink’. They all decided: We’re going to live now.” 

Perhaps O’Toole’s carousing is best captured in the legendary yarn about how himself and the actor Peter Finch bought a pub in Wicklow in the 1960s as the only means available to them to continue drinking after hours. (The publican returned their cheques to them the following day.) 

In a telling passage in the documentary, Stephen Fry recalls chatting to Kenneth Branagh when the pair concluded that no one will talk about them in 50 years’ time because their social lives are so bland, unlike the way people will talk about the exploits of O’Toole and his generation because they lived life to the hilt.

O’Toole was born in 1932. He died in 2013. Sheridan has summoned an impressive line-up of witnesses to reflect on his life. Besides O’Toole’s closest family members, contributors include Hopkins, Branagh, Fry,  Petula Clark and Succession star Brian Cox, a scene stealer in the documentary, who draws a vivid portrait of O’Toole’s personality and acting chops. Sheridan’s own connection with O’Toole goes back to the early 1980s.

“I knew him well,” says Sheridan. “He was a decent fella. He helped me in the Irish Arts Center in New York when I was running it. He appeared in a show there for us, Brendan Behan’s The Hostage. It caused a bit of a stir. His daughter Kate was in it. We were missing an actor one night. He was in New York, so he came along and played the part. 

“He was very sweet, but he was always in character. Larger than life. His dad was a bookie. Bookies have to be flamboyant if they’re to be any good. Peter picked it up from the da. He was totally flamboyant.”

Peter O'Toole with Sian Philips on the set of Lawrence of Arabia.
Peter O’Toole with Sian Philips on the set of Lawrence of Arabia.

 O’Toole had a complex relationship with his Irish father. He bullied him when O’Toole was a child growing up in an Irish area of Leeds. O’Toole’s ex-wife, who was given a damehood for services to British theatre, says he confided elements of his dark childhood to her during their 20-year marriage.

 “His childhood was difficult because they were not well off,” says Sheridan. “His father’s income was very variable, as he was a bookie, but Peter adored him.”

 O’Toole’s Irish identity was important to him. He bought a cottage with 70 acres in Clifden, Co Galway. He had a Celtic personality, as Branagh reflects in the documentary. 

“His Irish identity was hugely important to him,” says Sheridan. “It was what separated him from every other English actor. He loved being Irish. He was more Irish than the Irish themselves, although he spoke with a plummy, posh English accent, which he learned so that he could get parts, darling.” 

 Cox argues that O’Toole could do “British” better than any of his peers, including Albert Finney and Alan Bates, who were both classmates of O’Toole at RADA, along with Richard Briars. (According to Briars, other students at the famous drama school called O’Toole “Sir”.)

 Cox also suggests that O’Toole spent his life walking a tightrope, navigating a course between his hellraising lifestyle and the classical actor he wanted to be.

What emerges from Sheridan’s documentary is a portrait of a tormented and peculiar man. He began doing cocaine after he quit drinking in the 1970s. Carolyn Seymour, who starred alongside him in the 1972 film The Ruling Class, said O’Toole expected to get “perks” from the leading ladies he acted with. During their time they on set together, she was dating the film’s director, Peter Medak, who she married the year after the film was released. 

Seymour remembers O’Toole acting petulantly when she didn’t yield to his advances. He wouldn’t make eye contact with her. A lot of their scenes were shot at an angle so O’Toole could pretend he was looking at her, but he wasn’t, only into the camera.

The camera loved him. His performance in Lawrence of Arabia, which earned him his first Oscar nomination in 1962, catapulted him into stardom. He got paid £19,000 for two years’ work, the lowest paid of the cast’s stars, among them Alec Guinness, Omar Sharif and Claude Rains. It was a role O’Toole was born to play, although the film’s producer, Sam Spiegel, was against him being cast in the lead, as he’d just finished making a film with Montgomery Clift, and apparently he didn’t want to work with another boozy actor. Albert Finney was his preference.

When O’Toole called him “Mrs Spiegel” during a meeting, it didn’t endear him to the film producer. David Lean, the film’s director, was adamant, however, and O’Toole got the part. It was the perfect vehicle for the rage that burned within his soul. He was a firebrand. After finishing a particularly raw scene with Katherine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter, O’Toole vomited from the exertion.

“He was an amazing actor,” says Sheridan. “He was amazing in The Lion in Winter. He was amazing in My Favourite Year. He’s great in a lot of movies. Lawrence of Arabia was just a time bomb. Before Daniel Day Lewis, he was probably the most versatile actor in Europe. I mean eight nominations for the Academy Award. What more can you say?”

  •  Peter O’Toole: Along The Sky Road To Aqaba will screen at Dublin International Film Festival, Saturday 3.30pm, Lighthouse Cinema, Dublin and soon after will be coming to Sky Arts. See: www.diff.ie
Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in God's Creatures.
Paul Mescal and Emily Watson in God’s Creatures.

Five other highlights at Dublin International Film Festival

God’s Creatures (7pm & 9.20pm, Thursday, Light House): Set in a remote Irish fishing village, Emily Watson finds herself in a moral quandary trying to protect her son, played by Oscar nominee Paul Mescal.

Accidental Anthropologist (4pm, Saturday, IFI): Benjamin Gault was an American naturalist who filmed in Cork and Kerry during the 1920s. His footage has been restored, offering charming insight into Irish social life and wildlife a century ago.

Close (6.10pm, Saturday, Light House): Belgian director Lucas Dhont’s Cannes Grand Prix-winning film about a friendship between two young boys that comes to a sudden end.

Barber (8.30pm, Sunday, Light House): Aidan Gillen plays a private eye in Fintan Connolly’s film noir set in Dublin about a young woman who goes missing during a pandemic.

How to Blow Up a Pipeline (8.30pm, Tuesday, Light House): Daniel Goldhaber’s film about environmental activists plotting to wreak mayhem at an oil pipeline was a smash hit at the Toronto Film Festival.

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