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Peter O'Toole, 'Lawrence of Arabia' Hero and Hollywood Icon, Dies at 81

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Peter O'Toole in 1990. (Photo: David Montgomery/Getty Images)

Peter O'Toole in 1990. (Photo: David Montgomery/Getty Images)

In one of his best and best-known roles, Peter O'Toole got a big laugh by declaring, "I'm not an actor! I'm a movie star!"

O'Toole, of course, was both.

The swashbuckling Hollywood icon died Saturday at London's Wellington Hospital after battling a long illness, according to his agent, Steven Kenis. The legendary thespian, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor an astounding eight times and was bestowed an Honorary Oscar, was 81.

One of the most gifted performers of his generation, O'Toole rose to fame with his starring role in "Lawrence of Arabia" and appearing in a variety of screen classics like, "Beckett," "The Lion in Winter," "My Favorite Year," "The Last Emperor" — and cult favorites like, "What's New Pussycat," "The Ruling Class," and "The Stunt Man."

[Photos: Peter O'Toole's 14 Most Memorable Movie Roles]

He was also a larger-than-life personality whose hard drinking, outspoken nature, and romantic escapades were nearly as well known as his movies.

O'Toole, the actor, won international acclaim, and O'Toole, the movie star, was dependable tabloid fodder.

A Life Full of Drama

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Peter O'Toole in 1962 (Photo: Everett Collection)

With his radiant blue eyes, chiseled features and blonde hair, O'Toole seemed destined for stardom, and his life was full of drama from the start — no one seems certain exactly when or where he was born, and O'Toole himself said he had two different birth certificates with conflicting information. (He chose to celebrate the occasion on Aug. 2.) O'Toole was born in either 1932 or 1933 to an Irish family, and grew up in Northern England. As a boy, after dropping out of Catholic School (where the nuns forced the left-handed lad to write with his right hand), O'Toole studied to be a reporter and became an apprentice at the Yorkshire Evening Post. O'Toole worked there until he was drafted into the military, and after his release, he enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1952. As O'Toole put it, "I soon found out that, rather than chronicling events, I wanted to be the event."

O'Toole's two years at RADA found him studying beside three other giants of the British stage and screen — Albert Finney, Alan Bates, and Brian Bedford. Like his friends, O'Toole represented a new breed of British actor, one who combined classical technique with a passionate, emotionally direct approach. But while Finney and Bates broke through to stardom with "kitchen sink" dramas such as "The Entertainer" and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," O'Toole confined himself to stage work and small TV and movie roles until David Lean approach him for "Lawrence of Arabia."

Overnight Stardom

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O'Toole in 'Lawrence of Arabia'

O'Toole spent two years in the desert with Lean making "Lawrence of Arabia," and upon its release in 1962, it was an immediate critical and commercial success that turned O'Toole into a A-list star. O'Toole enjoyed further success with his next two films, "Beckett" and "Lord Jim."

But with fame and wealth came temptation, and he became a legendary drinker and hell raiser, known for long, boozy escapades with friends including Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Michael Caine. He also had an affair with bombshell Ursula Andress ("Dr. No," "Casino Royale") while he was married to actress Sian Phillips. O'Toole would in time father two daughters with Phillips and a son with longtime paramour, model Karen Somerville Brown.

While more celebrated roles followed between 1963 and 1972, O'Toole received five Oscar nominations by that time (but no wins yet). By the mid-'70s, the prestige projects began drying up as drinking took its toll, and O'Toole was reduced to appearing in "Man Friday," "Zulu Dawn," and the fabled disaster "Caligula." In 1975, O'Toole was forced to give up drinking due to medical issues, and years of abuse to his body led to emergency surgery in 1976 to remove large portions of his stomach and intestine. A blood disorder put O'Toole in the hospital again in 1977, and it seemed an open question if he had it in him to make a comeback.

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He did. In 1980, O'Toole gave a dazzling performance in "The Stunt Man" as a filmmaker who toys with life and death, fantasy and fact. O' Toole earned an Oscar nomination for his work, and another followed in 1982 when he played fictive Hollywood swashbuckler Alan Swann in the "My Favorite Year." While the character was modeled after notorious Hollywood reveler Errol Flynn, O'Toole's cheerful familiarity with debauchery certainly informed the part, and it was considered his finest comic performance.

Latter Years

From the mid-'80s onward, O'Toole's career followed the path of many major actors of his generation — he became a journeyman player who could rise to the occasion when he was given a prestige role in a project like "The Last Emperor" or "Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell," and could take a paycheck for something like "King Ralph" or "Club Paradise" without embarrassing himself.

O'Toole published the first of three memoirs, "Loitering With Intent," in 1993, sharing revealing tales of his misspent years.

In 2003, O'Toole finally won his first and only Oscar — for lifetime achievement. He cheerfully accepted the trophy with the words, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride my foot!" And there were still occasional triumphs: O'Toole received his eighth Oscar nomination as an elderly man in love with a younger woman in 2006's "Venus." And his voice performance as restaurant critic Anton Ego in "Ratatouille" was a model of how to do a celebrity cameo in an animated feature.

As age and infirmity took hold, O'Toole began tapering off his work schedule, and in 2011, the actor issued a self-penned press release announcing his retirement. "It's time for me to chuck in the sponge," O'Toole wrote. "To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back." But O'Toole wasn't good to his word. In 2013, he appeared in the historical drama "Katherine of Alexandria," and he was cast as Symeon in 2014's "Mary, Mother of Christ." Up to the end, Peter O'Toole could never resist the pleasure of being the event.

Peter O'Toole leaves behind an ex-wife, Welsh actress Siân Phillips, and three children: daughters Kate and Patricia, and son Lorcan.

Jenny Depper contributed to this report.

Watch Peter O'Toole in the trailer for 'Lawrence of Arabia':

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