Back in the seventies, when I first saw The Ruling Class on television (too young to have seen and appreciated it in the theater), I immediately fell in love with Peter O'Toole as an actor. I had not yet seen Lawrence of Arabia, My Favorite Year or Lion in Winter but I knew I was watching one of the most energetic, daring and powerful actors the cinema had at its disposal. No matter what else of his I saw, including the disappointing efforts like Man of La Mancha, Goodbye Mr. Chips and Creator, nothing ever dissuaded me from that view.
Through the years I saw most of his work, and like most successful actors, he did a lot of movies that one wouldn't care to see twice. But, damn, he was on in every one of them! The man had a fury inside him for performance and unleashed it every time the camera rolled. One scene of his that always stands out for me, though rarely noted among the massive breadth of his work, is a small one in The Stunt Man, where he plays megalomaniacal director Eli Cross, in which he berates the cameraman for yelling "cut" during a scene because the film was about to run out. There was only 22 seconds left of film to go. He reacts violently and says, with all the pychotic energy O'Toole could muster,
In 22 seconds, I could break your fucking spine. In 22 seconds, I could pinch your head off like a fucking insect and spin it all over the fucking pavement. In 22 seconds, I could put 22 bullets inside your ridiculous gut. What I seem unable to do in 22 seconds is to keep you from fucking up my film!Here's the thing: O'Toole was a thin, spindly man, not the kind that would exactly make you shake with fear if he threatened you but in that scene, in that moment, you believe he could kill a man for, er, fucking up his film.
Over the years I came to believe that Peter O'Toole, despite having never won an Oscar, deserved about ten of them. Sometimes he deserved an honorary Oscar for appearing in movies like Phantoms and giving a performance worthy of, well, any movie that wasn't Phantoms. He wasn't just a great actor, one who never disappointed me, ever, in any role in any movie. He was one of the greatest actors the cinema has ever known, or ever will. Rest in Peace, Peter O'Toole.