Peter O’Toole: Hampstead friends and the man who used to ‘carry him home’ pay their tributes

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

Tributes have poured in for acting legend Peter O’Toole as former friends and neighbours remembered his “hellraising” exploits during his time in Hampstead.

Neighbours, restaurant owners and even the man who “carried him home” after drinking sessions in The Old White Bear pub in Well Road spoke of their “sadness” after the former Hampstead resident had passed away last Saturday.

The celebrated actor died aged 81 at The Wellington Hospital, St John’s Wood, after suffering a long illness.

His gift on screen was recognised worldwide following his performance in the Oscar-winning epic Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, and as his fame grew, so too did his notoriety. House rules for the New Year’s Eve parties he held at his home in Heath Street became infamous, insisting, as they did, on “fornication, madness, murder, drunkenness, shouting, shrieking, leaping police conversation and the breaking of bones – but no acting”.

Friends he made while living in Hampstead insist, however, there was another side to the “madness”.

“The ‘hellraiser’ you hear about in the press was Peter’s past,” said friend Keith Hunt, who managed the Royal Free Hospital’s recreation room and used to help organise parties which were held there for Mr O’Toole’s children.

“I would know – I used to have to carry him home after our drinking sessions in The Old White Bear pub.

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“He was a smiling drunk – always laughing and joking.

“But I will mainly remember him as a very kind and very loving man. When he walked into a room he had such an aura about him – even those who didn’t know who he was would comment on it.”

Moving to Hampstead saw him ­become a regular face in the village’s pubs and eateries, but his involvement in the community was not limited to wild parties.

Whether it was opening Hampstead nursery school The Phoenix, supporting the Royal Free Hospital or even involving himself in local politics, his ties to the community are remembered by many of his generation. “He campaigned for me and was, as you can imagine, quite the character,” said Ben Whittaker, CBE, who became the Labour MP for Hampstead in 1966.

“I remember during one of our rallies he celebrated so heavily his memory suffered somewhat and the only words of support he could muster to the audience was ‘vote for Hampstead!’ There was no-one quite like him.”

Reports abound of a unique campaign strategy – unknown to Mr Whittaker – that saw the star hire a coach “with Guinness on tap” to travel around the local pubs promising ­Labour voters a “free drink and ride” if they went to the polling station to cast their vote.

But alongside the reputation as a lover of drink lies another many old friends in Hampstead will remember.

“‘Hellraiser’ was how he was often described but as his friend for over 50 years, I will remember him as just the opposite,” said Bernardo Stella, 77, owner of La Gaffe restaurant in Heath Street.

“After he started coming to my restaurant he became more family than family itself.

“Even after the doctors told him in the mid-70s that he could no longer drink he still used to come in and drink coffee – as well as take some other substances I wasn’t quite sure about.

“But he was always very well ­behaved.

“That’s not to say he wasn’t shy of sharing his views.

“I remember one evening a customer asked him to stop smoking, which was a bit of a mistake. He turned to her and said simply ‘F*** off’. But it was done in such a way that it appeared almost elegant.

“His delivery was unique, his acting was legendary and we will all miss him terribly.”