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Peter O'Toole's Long And Frustrating Half-Century Dance With Oscar: “Always A Bridesmaid, Never A Bride”

There is no doubt Peter O’Toole was one of the greatest actors the movies have ever seen.  Since coming intoacademy-awards-oscar-snubs-overlookedjpg-3f9c1ffb7a28120a_large major international stardom with his dazzling turn in Lawrence Of Arabia, O’Toole compiled a group of brilliant performances over the past half century that are second to none. But he also holds another distinction.

Related: ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’s Peter O’Toole Dead At 81

Peter O’Toole, who died this weekend at age 81, was Oscar’s biggest acting loser. Beginning with Lawrence in 1962 through Venus in 2006 he was nominated 8 times, all in the leading actor category, coming up heartbreakingly short every single time.  After going 0-for-7 with 1982’s My Favorite Year, the nominations stopped (even though O’Toole didn’t), and in 2003 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science‘s  Board of Governors finally decided to right a wrong and award an Honorary Oscar to the then-70-year-old O’Toole “whose remarkable talents have provided cinema history with some of its most memorable characters”.  To the Board’s surprise, particularly for a man who knew the agony of defeat seven times, he became the first person in memory to turn it down by writing a letter to the Academy that said in part, “I am still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright. Would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?” Then-Academy President Frank Pierson replied that the award was not for retirement but to celebrate a remarkable career and he pointed out stars like Paul Newman and Henry Fonda were given Honorary Oscars and went on to actually win one the very next year. O’Toole was finally convinced to accept, and attended the ceremony. As he received the statuette from Meryl Streep he won big laughs saying “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride my foot! I have my very own Oscar now to be with me ’til death do us part.”

Peter O'Toole deadAt least the Academy realized its mistake.  It was a satisfying moment, and just four years later O’Toole proved he wasn’t finished, grabbing his 8th and final nomination for the small but charming British film Venus, although he lost his last bid to win “outright” to first-time nominee Forest Whitaker (The Last King Of Scotland). Some legends are just star-crossed when it comes to Oscar.  Think of Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Barbara Stanwyck, and Edward G. Robinson (who was never even nominated).  They all would eventually receive honorary Oscars for a career of great performances, but never able to grab it for that one performance.  And of course there was the infamous case of O’Toole’s good friend and colleague Richard Burton (who died in 1984) who never got one in seven tries, and never even got the opportunity to win an honorary statuette. He and O’Toole were tied as the Academy’s biggest acting “bridesmaids” for over two decades until O’Toole finally topped him with that 2006 Venus nomination to go ahead by one. And that’s where it will stand for now.

peter-otoole-richard-burton-becketO’Toole’s second nomination in fact came with co-star Burton’s third go-round when he played Henry II in 1964’s Becket. They lost to Rex Harrison’s Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. I was absolutely certain O’Toole would win for reprising Henry II in 1968’s The Lion In Winter opposite Katharine Hepburn, who won her third Oscar, but instead he lost to Cliff Robertson who turned his one and only nomination into gold for the independently produced Charly. The next year he triumphed in the musical movie version of Goodbye Mr. Chips, even if the film fell short. Unfortunately the role of the English schoolmaster that brought Robert Donat a 1939 Oscar did not do the same for O’Toole who lost to True Grit’s John Wayne, winning on a wave of sentiment.  Burton was also nominated again that year keeping the losing rivalry going strong. A string of really interesting, edgy roles in 1972’s The Ruling Class, 1980’s The Stunt Man  and 1982’s My Favorite Year would bring O’Toole three more Best Actor chances but no prize. The latter film should have been a winner. O’Tooletumblr_lpahxoLpDj1qbhnrvo1_500 proved he could do comedy with the best of them as a former matinee idol-type actor named Alan Swann who appears on a live 1950s TV variety show and wreaks all sorts of havoc. He was absolutely brilliant but, alas, lost to first-time nominee Ben Kingsley in that year’s big Best Picture winner Gandhi.  To win an Oscar for Best Actor it always helps to be in a movie nominated for or especially winning Best Picture.  More voters see it.

The irony of all this is that O’Toole by all rights should have beeni9Qb6MWPPDFc spared the numerous near-misses by actually winning that Oscar on his first time out 51 years ago for his stunning T.E. Lawrence. That David Lean masterpiece swept the 1962 Oscars winning seven Academy Awards including Best Picture. O’Toole simply dominated it in a performance that has stood the test of time. But O’Toole had the dumb luck to be caught up in one of the most competitive years ever for Best Actor (much like this year will be). The nominees, in addition to O’Toole, were Jack Lemmon in Days Of Wine And Roses, Burt Lancaster in Birdman Of Alcatraz, Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce Italian Style and Gregory Peck as the immortal Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird. Peck, having lost four previous times in the 1940s, was simply towering in the role in addition to being a Hollywood favorite and leading citizen of the town. He could not be denied.  He deserved it though, and I think the Academy made the right decision in retrospect, but you still get lots of arguments to this day that the Oscar should have gone to O’Toole.  In any other year it probably would have.

Peter O'Toole VenusO’Toole’s place in Oscar history will likely be secure for a very long time. It’s a shame he never won one of those “buggers” outright but the sheer number of times at bat proved this iconic star’s unique and singular talent without a doubt. I am glad we got to see him hold one of those statuettes, and that he changed his mind about accepting a well-deserved tip of the hat to a lifetime of remarkable achievements. As he said that evening in 2003: “I wish the Academy to know that I am as delighted as I am honored. And I am honored. The magic of movies enraptured me when I was a child. As I totter into antiquity, movie magic enraptures me still. Having already bagged this baby, spared uncertainties prior to the opening of an envelope, I am able to think. I think of our colleagues, our old friends now gone, who played their parts in this ceremony. I think of the sumptuous talents alive and well and with us now. I think of the astonishing  young, the gifted, and able young men and women who I meet practically every time I go to work, and of whom I grab energy in handful… And now at this last you’ve given me this delightful shock. You’re very good and I thank you.”

After so many times when he didn’t go home with one it may well have been a “delightful shock,” but I am glad the Academy didn’t take O’Toole up on his suggestion to “defer the honor” until he was 80.

  1. Awards are so stupid, and they lead to this kind of nonsense: The greatest actor of his generation being eulogized through the prism of…Oscar votes.

    1. Please like this page to support and respect Peter O’Toole as a great actor and 8 time Oscar award winner.

      1. Am in total agreement. I’m only sorry that he wasn’t brought to replace his friend Richard Harris as Dumbledore. He would have been perfect and a fitting memorial.

    2. I agree. To place such importance on an accolade is really unbecoming, especially when the artist is always chasing it. We can make a long list of sub-par Oscar winners over the years. Peter O’Toole’s work stands on its own merit and it’s not like he died unknown and impoverished, as many good actors have.

  2. I’m not an actor, I’m a. . . well. . . book guy, but I think I’d prefer a prize for my life’s work rather than for a single book. A single transcendent piece of work is lovely, and it’s great that people enjoy it and admire it, but to have your entire creative life judged as a whole as excellent is better still.

    The man lived a hell of a life. Would that we could all, at age 81, look back from our death bed and see so much good work, so much enjoyment (and pain), so much joy.

  3. Brilliant actor! Should have won the Oscar for The Stunt Man, an amazing performance that is vividly imprinted in my memory.

  4. My Favorite Year was brilliant with a perfect script great direction and perfect casting. Here are two of the funniest scenes and the trailer.

  5. Yes, Peter O’Toole was a brilliant actor whose first Oscar nomination came during one the most competitive Academy Award races ever. No, this upcoming Academy Awards year is not in the running for that distinction (how young are you people?). Check out all the classic films that were released in 1962 – the field of great movies truly made it an honor to be nominated back then. The same cannot be said for the calendar year of 2013.

    I truly don’t mean to come off as curmudgeonly, however, this lack of history and context is why legendary performers such as Peter O’Toole don’t get the press or tributes they have earned upon their passing.

  6. Peter O´Toole was maybe too beautiful – to be accepted as a serious actor back in the days, when Hollywood was bankrolled by double-standards. Gregory Peck winning instead is a scandal, the guy walked and talked nicely thru the part because the character was nice and Peck was nice; is that acting? And O´Toole not winning for MY FAVORITE YEAR in 1982 is yet another scandal; instead popular humanism won for Gandhi. That´s exactly what THE OSCARS are. A bunch of baloney. Rocky won in 1976, not Taxi Driver. The French Collection won in 1971, not A Clockwork Orange. The list is long, but the night is short. Come to think of it. Neither Stanley Kubrick nor Alfred Hitchcock ever won an Oscar. How about that? Sleep on it.

    1. “If you had been any prettier, the film would have been called Florence of Arabia”.
      Noël Coward after seeing the première of the film.

  7. Kubrick won a visual effects Oscar for 2001 I believe.

    Kudos on being the only living human being who thought Peck didn’t deserve that Oscar.

    1. Count me as the second person who believes Gregory Peck did not deserve that Oscar. Could an older Peter O’Toole have played Atticus Finch. Of course. Could a younger Gregory Peck have played Lawrence of Arabia. Don’t be silly.

  8. He was one of the greatest actor of all times, very few actors could match his extraordinary
    acting talent, a unique personality evolving on the big screens, he will remembered always
    as the creates of them all!

  9. Pete – I repeat: neither Stanley Kubrick nor Alfred Hitchcock won an Oscar, visual effects being ineffective. I still stand by my opinion that Gregory Peck won in 1962 because of popularism. You just can´t see the difference between acting and popularism.

  10. O’Toole was never a Hollywood player– he adhered to his own rules. That’s why he never won an Oscar outright.
    He was also never knighted because he declined when offered because of the way the English treated the Irish.
    What he leaves this Earth is far better than any paltry award: A magnificent body of work filled with integrity, exuberance & the beauty of being the outsider.

  11. Well, yeah, sometimes an actor just has the bad luck of giving the performance of the year in the very same year that some *other* actor gives a wonderful but lesser performance in a zeitgeist film. That was O’Toole’s “misfortune” with the 1962 Oscars.

    The range that the role of T.E. Lawrence demanded was staggering. Almost brutal in the way the character was stripped down psychologically. O’Toole was like a freaking athlete with how he pinned to the mat every emotion, every gaze, that the script and director called for. BAM. POW. Close-ups, extreme long shots — didn’t matter where he was on screen, you watched him. Masterpiece of a performance in a masterpiece of a film.

    But Gregory Peck walked away with the Oscar. Atticus Finch, an understated but straightforward hero. A Civil Rights film in Civil Rights-era America.

    In spite of the misfortune of timing, O’Toole’s good fortune that year was to have given that performance on film. In the end, O’Toole’s not winning the Oscar for Lawrence rather pales in significance to his having played the role itself, and having his effort captured in a medium where there would always be an enduring testament to his talent.

  12. The people all outraged at O’Toole’s Oscar snubs would have a substantially better case if you zeroed in on losing for 1968’s Lion in Winter to Cliff Robertson. Gregory Peck revisionism is just weird.

  13. In Beckett,Peter O’Toole brought an energy to the screen that will always be the classic performance by any actor ever!!Peter and Burton’s acting was akin to two world champions in a ring or in any other competitive sport.Two of the most talented actors of any film era!Peter playing King Henry and Burton playing Becket; their performance was like watching a chess match.

  14. Great artilcle, Mr. Hammond. The brilliance of this great actor will live on, long after “who should have won” arguments. His performances hold the answer. Truly brilliant.

  15. i first saw him as a kid in Lord Jim…he mesmerized me then as he did in every movie i saw him in. When i saw the reissued Lawrence..i was stunned he hadn’t won the Oscar for that despite To Kill A Mockingbird being one of my favorite films….when i think of brillant performances i think of Stunt Man, Ruling Class, My Favorite Year, Lion in Winter and the achingly beautiful performance in Venus..and on stage in Pygmalion .who cares what awards he got he left behind an incredible body of work that will stand the test of time while the guys he lost too will be sidelined to a record book.

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