Acting legend and former Hampstead resident Peter O’Toole dies aged 81

Acting giant Peter O'Toole died aged 81. Picture: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Acting giant Peter O'Toole died aged 81. Picture: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

Actor and former Hampstead resident Peter O’Toole, who achieved stardom in the Oscar-winning epic Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), has died at the age of 81.

The acclaimed leading man, who received an honorary Academy Award in 2003 for his body of work, died on Saturday at the Wellington hospital in London after suffering a long illness, his agent Steve Kenis said.

“He was one of a kind in the very best sense and a giant in his field,” Mr Kenis said.

Mr O’Toole enjoyed a long stage and film career, nominated for an Oscar eight times.

Tributes for the Irish actor have flooded in from political leaders and fellow Hollywood stars, describing him as wild, generous, and an acting legend.

Ireland’s President Michael D Higgins said: “Ireland and the world has lost one of the giants of film and theatre.

“In a long list of leading roles on stage and in film, Peter brought an extraordinary standard to bear as an actor.”

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Mr Higgins offered his condolences to Mr O’Toole’s family and said he would miss his “warm humour and generous friendship”.

Prime Minister David Cameron added: “My thoughts are with Peter O’Toole’s family and friends.

“His performance in my favourite film, Lawrence of Arabia, was stunning.”

Tributes also poured in from Hollywood and the acting community.

Golden Globe-winning American actor Michael Chiklis described him as the “original, hard drinking, classic, actor’s actor”, while Stephen Fry said: ”Oh what terrible news. Farewell Peter O’Toole. I had the honour of directing him in a scene. Monster, scholar, lover of life, genius...”

After completing National Service in the Royal Navy, Mr O’Toole started his career in acting, as he said, “quite by chance”.

“I hitched to London on a lorry, looking for adventure,” he said.

“I was dropped at Euston Station and was trying to find a hostel.

“I passed the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and walked in just to case the joint.”

He ultimately took up a scholarship, “not out of burning ambition but because of all the wonderful-looking birds”.

His West End debut in 1957 was in a disastrous comedy called Oh My Papa, which was booed at the Garrick as the curtain fell on the opening night.

The drinking spree which followed landed him in court, where he was fined 10 shillings (50p) for being drunk and disorderly.

But he put that disaster behind him.

He was soon well on the road to fame, winning the 1959 Best Actor of the Year award in Willis Hall’s The Long And The Short And The Tall.

When he was still in his mid-20s he joined the Shakespeare Memorial Company where he consolidated his position by tackling roles like Hamlet, Shylock and Petruchio.

But it was his performance in his first big film, in 1961, as Lawrence Of Arabia that launched him as an international name.

Described later as a man who wasted his genius on his legendary, heroic and seemingly endless drinking bouts, his Hampstead house rules for New Year’s Eve parties became infamous.

They read: “Fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping polite conversation and the breaking of bones, such jollities constitute acceptable behaviour, but no acting allowed.”

His days of riotous behaviour were brought to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s, when doctors diagnosed pancreatitis and warned him he would drop dead if he took another drop.

He had yards of his intestinal tubing - “most of my plumbing” - removed and he gave up drinking, almost.

Irish actor Jason O’Mara described O’Toole as “an acting legend and a hell raiser”.

“His last act of defiance was living to see 81, but the work will live on forever,” he said.