There is no doubt Peter O’Toole was one of the greatest actors the movies have ever seen. Since coming into 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.
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.”
At 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.
O’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’Toole 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 been 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.
O’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.