At lunch one day in the late 1990s, Richard Harris, then aged sixty-seven, turned to Peter O’Toole and said, ‘Chaps like us, after all we’ve done, we should be dead, shouldn’t we?’ ‘But, Richard,’ replied O’Toole, who was sixty-five, ‘we already are!’ And had been some while, one feels bound to add. Few show-business lives are suited to the curves and contours of biography, but O’Toole’s was more misshapen than most. His career was over almost as soon as it began. His best work in the theatre was at the Bristol Old Vic in the late 1950s during his first three years as a professional. Subtract Lawrence of Arabia (1962) from his cinematic CV and he’s not even an also-ran.
What went wrong for the actor in whom a prescient Kenneth Tynan ‘sensed a technical authority that may, given discipline and purpose, presage greatness’? Well, as Robert Sellers’s worshipful book is desperate to make clear, O’Toole was so frequently drunk or otherwise bombed he couldn’t be disciplined. As for purpose, Sellers is right to argue that O’Toole wanted to revive the tradition of ‘barnstorming actor managers’ such as Henry Irving and O’Toole’s ‘hero’ Edmund Kean. Alas, he sought to make his prancing, stentorian mark on