Originally published March 3, 1963
Four months before shooting for Lawrence of Arabia was scheduled to start, Peter O’Toole arrived in Jordan. He was determined to learn the Arabic tongue, familiarize himself with Bedouin dress, and master the art of riding a camel.
In the beginning the Bedouin seemed hardly hospitable. “I was scared stiff,” O’Toole recalls; “they wore guns and daggers and all sat for hours without saying a word. I was sure they were planning some untimely end for me. Finally, I realized that the Bedouin never speak unless they have something important to say. It was wonderful, like being in a warm bath. For the first time in my life I didn’t have to push a conversation.”
In time O’Toole could speak a passable Arabic, ride a camel at 30 miles per hour, and don native robes with confidence. And now the Bedouin were calling him “El-Aurens,” the same name they had once given Lawrence. Yet few people expected him to plunge into the role with the stamina he showed. “Ordinarily,” muses his wife, “he hates physical exercise, but there he was showing great endurance. It was almost as if he had somehow assimilated Lawrence’s masochistic pleasure in driving himself to exhaustion.”
O’Toole came perilously close to missing the part entirely. “At first, when I acquired the rights for Lawrence,” says Sam Spiegel, the squat, hawk-nosed, immensely gifted producer, “I wanted Brando as my lead. He is a big name, and this is an expensive production.” Brando rejected the offer. David Lean, director of Lawrence, suggested O’Toole, who had drawn rave reviews at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford.
Spiegel had heard of O’Toole’s reputation as a braggart and a drinker. “Sam was against me from the start,” O’Toole says, wincing. “He believed those stories. We didn’t get along at all. It hardly helped matters when a fifth of whiskey tumbled from my pocket during our first meeting.”
O’Toole is colorful in a contradictory way. Off camera he fosters an engaging if not altogether true picture of himself as a brash, irresponsible sort — a latter-day Errol Flynn. On camera he changes pitch, seldom sulks, squeezes every shade of meaning from his lines in a furious, cast-iron desire to excel.
O’Toole dominates Lawrence of Arabia. He is on camera for 218 minutes, and he spins off — now with arrogance, now with resignation — a record 648 lines. It is the longest speaking part in the history of movies.
“I’m the hardest-working bloody actor I know,” he says, and there is little doubt he believes it.
—“O’Toole Oscar Winner?” by Trevor Armbrister, March 3, 1963
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