Credit: Courtesy Everett Collection

Peter O’Toole, arguably the most strikingly charismatic, most eerily handsome, most preternaturally gifted actor of his acting generation, died Saturday at a London hospital at age 81.

O’Toole was part of the 1954 graduating class of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art along with Richard Burton, Albert Finney, and Alan Bates. After a supernova first decade — a 10-year run from 1958 to 1968 that included two stage Hamlets, two filmed Henry IIs, and an incandescent, career-defining title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia — O’Toole let the momentum slip. The 1970s were a blur of bombs and bad health; the comeback in the early 1980s was gratifying but never fully took hold.

It may have been the booze, which he gave up (more or less) in 1975, after stomach operations saved his life. Or it may have been a curious hesitancy about the whole charade of impersonating a star. Burton roistered in the role of a celebrity; Finney used it, got bored, and became a character actor. But O’Toole made uncertainty his metier. His T. E. Lawrence is the adventure hero who never quite comes into focus — who actually seems terrified of what heroism may bring. That was a very modern tack to take, but if it made O’Toole a blue-eyed existential poster boy for the burgeoning counterculture, it seemed to hobble him ever after. He was nominated for an acting Oscar eight times and never won a competitive prize, an Academy record.

Blessedly, none of this seemed to faze the actor, who galumphed through life as if it were all one grand, unexpected adventure. And perhaps it is, when you’re co-starring with Alicia Silverstone in a direct-to-video movie called Rock My World (2002) and, two years later, playing Priam, King of Troy, opposite Brad Pitt. But there was always pride of craft in O’Toole, and an insistence that he wasn’t quite dead yet. When the Motion Picture Academy awarded him an honorary Oscar in 2003, the 70-year-old actor initially balked, asking the Academy to defer the honor until he was 80 because he “might win the bugger outright” before then. (He earned one more nomination three years later for the British indie Venus, losing Best Actor to Forest Whitaker for The Last King of Scotland.) He ended up retiring from acting altogether in 2012, writing, “the heart for it has gone out of me: it won’t come back.”

He was born Peter Seamus O’Toole in Ireland in 1933. His father, known as “the Captain,” lived the itinerant life of a racetrack bookie and settled in Leeds, England, where the young Peter grew up avoiding school and its attendant nuns as much as possible. An early, abortive career in journalism led to the Navy, which led to nothing much, and in 1952, O’Toole found himself stranded in Stratford with 30 shillings to his name. He spent the money on a theater ticket; the play was King Lear and the star Sir Michael Redgrave. O’Toole immediately knew what he wanted to do with his life.

The next day he hitchhiked to London and charmed his way into the Royal Academy, scholarship and all. After seven years of the itinerant players’ life, O’Toole caught the critics’ notice in Hamlet and scored a triumph in the anti-war play The Long and the Short and the Tall. The film offers poured in.

Curiously, O’Toole’s first movie roles were small-scale, almost invisible: a secondary pirate in Disney’s Kidnapped (1960), an Arctic policeman in The Savage Innocents (1959). Then came the hard two years in the desert with Lean making Lawrence, the true story of the enigmatic British soldier who led the Arab revolt against the Turks during WWI. O’Toole sustained sand burns, broken bones, a dislocated spine, and camel bites — and delivered a figure of tremulous, insecure majesty. The response was instantaneous and idolatrous: Variety proclaimed “a new star on the horizon,” while Box Office correctly surmised that “this will be one of the most talked-about performances of recent years.” Noel Coward dryly informed O’Toole, “If you’d been any prettier, it would have been Florence of Arabia.”

The actor’s next screen role was an intentional change-up: a sly, brutish Henry II in Becket (1964) opposite Richard Burton in the title role. O’Toole had been married since 1959 to actress Sian Phillips (by whom he had two daughters, Patricia and actress Kate O’Toole; there’s also a son, Lorcan, by later companion Karen Brown), but that didn’t stop the two bad boys from tearing up the town between and even during shots. (O’Toole later confessed he was as soused as Henry historically was in the scene where he orders Becket murdered.)

He returned as an older, testier Henry Plantagenet in 1968’s The Lion in Winter, matched stride for stride by Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine (and a very young Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionhearted); it may be O’Toole’s finest, fiercest moment onscreen. Then began the drift: terrible movies like Man of La Mancha (1972) and Bob Guccione’s Caligula (1979; O’Toole played Tiberius and later remarked, “Johnny Gielgud came up to me in a muslin gown and said, ‘Do you think we’re in a blue film?’ … I don’t think I’ve given a funnier performance in my life.”) His 1978 stage Macbeth was so legendarily awful that London crowds lined up to watch the train wreck. His wife left him for a younger man.

So perhaps we should be thankful for the two films that rescued O’Toole from eternal ridicule. In The Stunt Man (filmed in 1978, released in 1980), he plays Christ-like film director Eli Cross, tormenting and mentoring a baffled young Steve Railsback. It’s a performance every bit as magisterial as O’Toole’s own legend. He tweaked that legend further in the nostalgic comedy My Favorite Year (1982), playing besotted Hollywood star Alan Swann as a sweet amalgam of Errol Flynn and one Peter O’Toole.

From then on he worked constantly and happily, rarely in the lead, always a dignified, slightly moony fringe benefit in films like The Last Emperor (1987) and TV miniseries like Joan of Arc (1999). He wrote his memoirs — two volumes of a planned trilogy, puckishly titled Loitering with Intent — and lived like he was inventing anecdotes for the third. In 1993, he told a reporter about his youth, “What can I say? It was a journey. I had no compass.” Yes, but he led us places no one else had ever been.

–Written by Ty Burr