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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Peter O'Toole has died at the age of 81. O'Toole became a sudden star in the title role of the 1962 epic "Lawrence of Arabia." That earned him the first of his eight Oscar nominations. Critic Bob Mondello says he'll be remembered for being flamboyant, both on screen and off.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Blond, blue-eyed, and wearing blazing white robes in "Lawrence of Arabia," Peter O'Toole was handsome enough - many said beautiful enough - to carry off the scene in which director David Lean simultaneously made stars of both his title character and his leading man. The scene: a wrecked train, blown up by Lawrence and surrounded by his Bedouin followers, one of whom has just smashed a news photographer's camera. O'Toole's Lawrence explains why.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

PETER O'TOOLE: (as Lawrence) He's a bit old-fashioned. He thinks these things will steal his virtue. He thinks you're a kind of thief.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photographer) Is it all right if I take your picture?

O'TOOLE: (as Lawrence) All right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as photographer) OK. Just walk.

MONDELLO: So he walks, as the men around him chant his name. And then, responding to their cheers, he leaps atop the train wreck, striding down its length as the wind whips his robes. Silhouetted in the sun, he might as well be a god.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA")

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (chanting) Lawrence! Lawrence! Lawrence!

MONDELLO: The part of T.E. Lawrence, which at one point could have been Marlon Brando's for the asking, earned O'Toole his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Within a few years he had two more nominations - both, oddly enough, for playing King Henry the second - who battled Katherine Hepburn in "Lion in Winter", and who thought he could outsmart Richard Burton in "Beckett."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BECKETT")

O'TOOLE: (as Richard II) An extraordinary idea is creeping into my mind. A master stroke. I'm suddenly very intelligent. It probably comes from making love to that French girl last night. I'm subtle. I'm even profound. Oh, I'm so profound it's making my head spin.

MONDELLO: O'Toole was always larger-than-life whether playing dreamers and mad romantics on stage, where his classical training made him a matinee idol, or in public, where his drinking and carousing were legendary, or on screen, where he earned another Oscar nomination playing a hard-drinking matinee idol in "My Favorite Year." One who liked to make an entrance, even if it meant swinging into a window from a building's roof.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY FAVORITE YEAR")

O'TOOLE: (as Alan Swann) Now all we have to do is get from here to there.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It won't work.

O'TOOLE: (as Alan Swann) It's worked perfectly well in "A Slight Case of Divorce."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That was a movie. This is real life.

O'TOOLE: (as Alan Sweann) What is the difference?

MONDELLO: That may have seemed a reasonable question to O'Toole, whose off-screen drinking buddies included many of the great actors of his generation - Burton, Trevor Howard, Richard Harris. He outlasted them, despite a medical history that had people counting him out in his 40s. He once told an interviewer that his only exercise was walking behind the coffins of my friends who took exercise.

But he persevered. In the movie "Venus," at the age of 75, he was charismatic as ever, playing a lusty old actor who realizes there are loose ends in his life he should tie up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "VENUS")

O'TOOLE: (as Maurice) I did love you. For a time. For the rest of the time, I was fond of you.

VANESSA REDGRAVE: (as Valerie) Oh, please. No.

O'TOOLE: (as Maurice) More than fond of you.

REDGRAVE: (as Valerie) No. Don't. No, you don't have to.

O'TOOLE: (as Maurice) This is my good-bye to you.

REDGRAVE: (as Valerie) Why? Where are you going?

O'TOOLE: (as Maurice) We won't live forever.

MONDELLO: No, but after more or less clinching another Oscar nomination with that line, Peter O'Toole made every moment count. Twelve roles in the last seven years of his life - food critic to pope - exuberant every one. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News.

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