Top Ten Peter O'Toole Films
Peter O’Toole: considered one of the greatest actors of the 1960’s, he remained a respected presence in the film industry right up until his death at the age of 81. He achieved star status, as well as his first Best Actor nomination, with his very first leading role and he never really slowed down. Nominated for a record-breaking 8 Academy Awards for Best Actor, Peter made a career out of playing complex and often haunted characters. Despite his movie star good looks, Peter rarely played a traditional leading man, instead opting for characters that might be a little more challenging for audiences to accept.
Occasionally, he loaned his lyrical British tones to voice-over work, with great effect. (Younger filmgoers may recognize his dulcet tones as those of Anton Ego, the uptight villain of the popular Pixar film, Ratatouille). On this top ten list of Peter’s work in film, you will find an impressive variety of film genres represented and 7 out of his 8 Academy Award nominated roles are included, as well. (You'll, also, find his remaining nominated role listed as an Honorable Mention at the end of this list). So, sit back, relax, and take a look at a true acting giant at work.
FYI: I chose the order of my Peter O’Toole top ten by considering each film's importance in Peter’s overall career, the size/importance of his role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like, IMDB, Netflix, and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes. If you discover your favorite Peter O’Toole film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Peter O'Toole Films
- Lawrence of Arabia
- The Lion in Winter
- The Ruling Class
- My Favorite Year
- How To Steal A Million
- The Stunt Man
- The Night of the Generals
- The Last Emperor
1. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962)
Widely considered to be director David Lean's epic masterpiece, Lawrence of Arabia is, also, the film that rocketed Peter O'Toole to stardom. It tells the true story of T.E. Lawrence, a British Army officer known globally for his role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the 1910’s. Largely based on the real Lawrence’s autobiography, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, this Oscar-winning film follows Lawrence on his self-imposed quest to free the Arab people and his struggle to come to terms with his conflicting Arabian and English loyalties. Peter gives a powerful performance as Lawrence, a man who can be charismatic, flamboyant and, at times, surprisingly arrogant. But, Peter is not the only actor to watch in this film. Anthony Quinn, Alec Guinness, and Omar Sharif (in his Hollywood film debut) all give star-making performances, though Sharif and Peter were the only ones who, actually, received Oscar nods. The actual production of the film was a grueling affair, lasting over a year in the hot deserts of Jordan and Morocco. Nearly everyone on the film battled sickness and Peter, barely, avoided death when he fell off his camel during a battle scene. But, their many pains certainly pay off in the finished film. You will never see the desert look more majestic (or endless) than in this movie. And believe me, this is the kind of film that demands a viewing in widescreen. Its striking visuals will stay with you long after the credits roll, making it very easy to see why the American Film Institute named it the greatest epic of all time.
2. "The Lion in Winter” (1968)
Based on the play by James Goldman and adapted by him for the screen, The Lion in Winter is a family drama featuring the ultimate dysfunctional family. Inspired by the lives of the real King Henry II of England and his family, most of the action of the film takes place over a particularly eventful Christmas Eve. King Henry (played by Peter) has summoned his three sons (Richard, Geoffrey, and John) home to celebrate the holiday and has even allowed his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katharine Hepburn), temporary leave from prison for the celebration. Now that his family is gathered, Henry plans to, finally, announce which son will be heir to the throne. However, Eleanor and Henry do not agree on which son is worthy of the crown. Henry wishes his youngest son, the immature John, to be king, but Eleanor insists that their eldest, the famed Richard the Lion-Heart (played by Anthony Hopkins in his film debut), will prove to be a better ruler. As the king and queen plot behind each other’s back to ensure their favored son wins the throne, their sons, and even the visiting King Philip II of France (played by Timothy Dalton, also, making his film debut), all develop schemes of their very own. As the action unfolds, we watch as this family tears itself apart, each person attempting to stake a claim on Henry’s empire with little to no regard for the pain they may cause each other. Peter gives an incredible performance as the 50-year-old King Henry (in reality, Peter was only in his mid-30’s at the time). He even holds his own opposite the more age-appropriate Hepburn, who won an Oscar for her magnetic performance. The two stars share a remarkable chemistry in the film, showcasing the complex relationship between the two monarchs, a strange mixture of blind hatred and unwavering affection.
3. "Becket" (1964)
Based on the Tony award-winning play Becket, or The Honour of God, Becket tells the true story of Catholic saint, St. Thomas Becket. The movie represents the first time Peter played King Henry II on film (4 years before The Lion in Winter). In this film, Becket (played by the great Richard Burton) is a loyal and trusted friend of the powerful King Henry. As evidence of their friendship, the king has given Thomas many titles over time to further his power. So, when the Archbishop of Canterbury dies, Henry doesn’t hesitate to bestow a new title onto his friend. However, Thomas begins to take his new status as archbishop very seriously. And when Henry realizes that Thomas is beginning to favor God’s will over his king’s, it may mark the beginning of the end of their friendship. Peter is captivating as the egotistical and spoiled Henry. But, without a doubt, the film truly belongs to Richard Burton, who manages to believably take the character of Becket from an indifferent, directionless reveler to a principled man of faith. Although not entirely historically accurate, this film is a fascinating depiction of a friendship unraveling as we watch Becket choose to stand up for what he knows to be right, even while his best friend asks him to do otherwise.
4. "The Ruling Class" (1972)
A pitch black comedy (with odd musical interludes), The Ruling Class is based on the stage play of the same name by Peter Barnes (who, also, adapted the screenplay). Peter, himself, actually, bought the rights to the play and worked on the film for free in order to get it made. Peter plays the part of Jack, the mentally ill son of the eccentric Earl of Gurney. So, when the Earl, accidentally, hangs himself, the other members of the family are shocked to discover that he has left his entire estate to his paranoid schizophrenic son (who, also, happens to believe he's Jesus Christ). Deeply disturbed by the idea of crazy Jack becoming the next Earl, the rest of the family decide to do whatever they can to move the title on to someone else. Soon, it seems like the only way Jack will avoid being stripped of his title and thrown into a mental institution is if he is proven to be normal. But the real question is: how do you tell the difference between a madman and a British Lord? Described by Peter as “a comedy with tragic relief”, this satirical film may not be for everyone but, it has certainly earned its share of fans as a cult movie. But, be forewarned, this film’s light-hearted tone eventually takes a shocking twist, leading to the film’s disturbing final scene, which will haunt you long after the movie ends.
5. "My Favorite Year" (1982)
Set in 1954, My Favorite Year stars, a pre-Perfect Strangers, Mark Lynn-Baker in his first starring role as Benjy Stone. Benjy is a junior comedy writer on the live variety show, "Comedy Cavalcade", starring (and run by) Stan “King” Kaiser. When the Errol Flynn-esque Alan Swann (Peter) is booked as the Cavalcade’s next guest star, Benjy is elated to finally meet his childhood icon. But, when a very drunk Alan Swann arrives at his first meeting with the writers, King Kaiser wastes no time in firing the unreliable star. In defense of his icon, Benjy begs King to reconsider, which soon leads to Benjy becoming Swann’s official handler. With his job on the line, it is now Benjy's sole responsibility to make sure the actor appears at every rehearsal on time and sober. And although Alan Swann is appreciative of his young babysitter’s efforts, the star’s propensity for hiding liquor anywhere and everywhere means that Benjy will, definitely, have his work cut out for him. Peter is hilariously charming as the seemingly carefree Alan Swann. The performance earned him his 7th Oscar nomination, making him one of the few stars to be recognized by the Academy for a comedic performance. And here’s an extra fun fact for you: TV fans might notice that the fictional "Comedy Cavalcade" is depicted as being filmed at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the current home of TV shows like 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live. The reason is that "Comedy Cavalcade" is, actually, a fictionalized version of Sid Caesar’s famed variety show, Your Show of Shows (which, naturally, was, also, filmed at “30 Rock”).
6. "How To Steal A Million" (1966)
How To Steal A Million is unusual in the repertoire of Peter O’Toole. It marks one of the only times that Peter ever played a traditional romantic lead and one of the few times that he appeared in a romantic comedy at all. But, if his performance in this charming romantic-comedy/heist film is any indication, it seems he would have shone in the romance genre if he had ever chosen to regularly pursue it. It doesn’t hurt that his co-star in How To Steal A Million is the adorable Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn stars as Nicole, the granddaughter of a compulsive art forger. When one of her grandfather’s fakes is, actually, admitted into a museum, it’s up to Nicole to steal it back before the museum discovers it's a forgery. But Nicole has never, actually, committed a crime in her life. So, she enlists the help of Simon (Peter), the man she recently caught trying to steal one of her grandfather’s paintings. Simon claims to be an experienced burglar, but it remains to be seen if he’s clever enough to get them past the museum’s tight security. Both Peter and Hepburn are at their charismatic best in this movie and they play beautifully off of one another. Set and filmed in France, the film features some beautiful locations but, it’s Simon's complicated heist scheme and the changing relationship between him and Nicole that will keep you coming back for more.
7. "The Stunt Man" (1980)
Filmed in 1978, The Stunt Man took more than two years to be released, but was met with great critical acclaim (and a 6th Oscar nomination for Peter) once it was. Adapted from the novel by Paul Brodeur, The Stunt Man stars Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter) as Cameron, a Vietnam vet on the run from the police who, accidentally, stumbles onto the set of a major motion picture. When he witnesses the accidental death of the production’s stuntman, the egomaniacal director, Eli Cross (Peter), immediately, takes it upon himself to blackmail Cameron into taking the stuntman’s place so that the filming may go on as planned. Eli even goes so far as to call Cameron by the former stuntman’s name, so that word of the accident won’t spread. At first, it seems like Cameron’s new situation won’t be that bad. His new alias protects him from police suspicion and he’ll be paid for his work on the film. However, Eli’s penchant for long takes and “spontaneity” on the set means that the line between fantasy and reality becomes increasingly (and potentially dangerously) blurred. And soon Cameron begins to question how far Eli might be willing to go to protect his artistic vision. Peter gives a pitch-perfect performance as the obsessive filmmaker, Eli, pulling much of his characterization from his Lawrence of Arabia director, David Lean. Beautifully filmed in and around the historic Hotel del Coronado (located near San Diego), this movie offers a unique look on the strange nature of filmmaking and the bizarre mixture of fantasy and reality it can sometimes entail.
8. "The Night of the Generals" (1967)
Shot on location in Warsaw (unusual for a Hollywood film during the Cold War), The Night of the Generals reteams Peter with his Lawrence of Arabia co-star Omar Sharif, in a story that spans the 1940s through the 1960s. Based on the novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, the film is set in Poland during the German occupation. Sharif plays Major Grau, a German inspector who has been assigned to investigate the gruesome murder of a local prostitute. An eyewitness claims that the murderer was a German general and it turns out that three generals were unaccounted for on the night of the murder. Grau knows he's taking a big risk investigating high-ranking Nazi officers, but he's willing to do whatever is necessary to see that justice is done. Peter plays the role of General Tanz, the youngest and most vicious of the three generals. Tanz’s sadistic pleasure of battle could make him the most likely suspect, or it could be the very thing that exonerates him.
9. "Venus" (2006)
A quiet study of what it’s like to reach the end of your life, Venus features Peter in a wonderful performance that earned him his last Oscar nod (his 8th). Peter plays the role of Maurice Russell, a highly respected stage and screen actor who has reached the twilight of his life. He spends most of his days swapping pills with his old friend, Ian, or visiting his wife, Valerie (played by Vanessa Redgrave), from whom he’s been separated for quite some time. When Maurice’s doctor diagnoses him with prostate cancer, Maurice realizes he only has a short time left to live. But, Maurice’s world is rocked when Ian’s grandniece, Jessie, comes to stay with her great-uncle in London so she can pursue her modeling career. It turns out that Ian can’t stand the ill-mannered girl, but Maurice soon finds himself drawn to the brash teenager. Slowly, the unlikely pair form an unusual friendship and Maurice begins calling the aspiring model, Venus (after his favorite painting). For a time, his Venus’ company gives Maurice a new lease on life but, eventually, he comes to realize that although Jesse might indulge his growing love for her, she may never be able to fully reciprocate his feelings. But, when their relationship does, finally, come to an end, Maurice will not be the only one that’s changed.
10. "The Last Emperor" (1987)
Possibly my most controversial choice for the top ten, The Last Emperor features Peter in a much smaller role than most of the other films on this list. But, the popularity and prestige of this Oscar-winning epic made it difficult to ignore. Based on the life of the last emperor of China, Pu yi (later known as Henry Pu-yi), the film follows the young emperor from his ascension to the throne at age three to his imprisonment as a war criminal and subsequent rehabilitation. Peter plays the relatively small, but memorable, role of Reginald Johnston, Pu yi’s tutor and lone father figure. The film offers a fascinating look into the lost world of Imperial China from behind the walls of the legendary Forbidden City. The cinematography is truly stunning and most of the film was shot in the actual locations where these historic events took place. This includes the Forbidden City, itself, making The Last Emperor the first feature film in history authorized to film in the historic palace. Unfortunately, the movie can be a little hard to follow at times if you’re unfamiliar with Chinese history, but it's a fascinating story that shows how quickly times change and that no one's destiny is ever truly written.
Honorable Mention: "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" (1969)
I could not conclude a Peter O’Toole Top Ten without mentioning all of his Oscar nominated films and this charming musical represents his 4th nomination for the Best Actor statuette. Honestly, I’m terribly sorry that this film is not more popular, for I would have loved to have made room for it in the top ten (but, I have a weak spot for musicals so, I’m biased). A musical version of the 1939 film classic, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is one of a handful of musical roles that Peter (surprisingly) took on over the years. But, unlike his other notable appearance in the musical, Man of La Mancha, Peter, actually, performs his own songs in his one (and quite admirably I might add). The film tells the story of Arthur Chipping (Peter), a somewhat stodgy Latin professor at an all-boys boarding school. Although well-meaning, Chipping is disliked by most of his students, who find him dull. But, during his summer vacation, Chipping meets Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark), a beautiful music hall star. Although, he doesn’t quite fit in her world and she would not classify as a typical professor’s wife, the two begin a romance that will change Chipping’s life forever. Featuring the directorial debut of choreographer Herbert Ross and a rare film appearance by the legendary Michael Redgrave (patriarch of the Redgrave acting legacy) as the school’s headmaster, this beautiful love story set to music is not to be missed.
If you would like to learn more about the incredible Peter O’Toole, I highly recommend the book, Loitering with Intent (which is Peter’s two volume autobiography consisting of The Child and The Apprentice) or Peter O'Toole: The Definitive Biography by Robert Sellers.
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© 2011 Lindsay Blenkarn