Late in the first half of Lawrence of Arabia, a dusty and dejected TE Lawrence, fresh from a battle in the Sinai Desert, is confronted by a motorcyclist across the Suez Canal. The knight shouts: “Who are you?” As Lawrence looks at him with a mixture of confusion and fear, it is clear that TE Lawrence – archaeologist, scholar and warrior – no longer has a clue who he is.
However, the same could be said of the actor who played Lawrence, Peter O’Toole, who endured one of the longest and most grueling shooting schedules in cinematic history. By the end of the shoot, he barely knew who he was.
By the time of his casting, aged 28, O’Toole had had a successful first season with the RSC in Stratford, and had appeared in small parts in some mediocre films. Yet Lawrence’s director David Lean had seen him play the debonair Captain Monty Fitch in the 1960 caper film The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, and later declared “I got it!”
Producer Sam Spiegel wasn’t sure. He’d had a previous fit with O’Toole, who ruined his audition for Spiegel’s Suddenly last summer, apparently on a whim. Playing a neurosurgeon, O’Toole had turned to the camera and said, “It’s all right, Mrs. Spiegel, but your son will never play the violin again.” Not only did he not get the part, but Spiegel’s reaction to Lean’s intention to cast him was to say, “I’m telling you, it’s not good. I know it.”
O’Toole was paid £12,500 for the role. It was a pittance for a leading man – supporting actor Jose Ferrer was paid double – but a fortune for the as yet unknown actor. As soon as he accepted it, he had to extricate himself from a season arranged with the RSC, resulting in a lifelong enmity between him and then art director Peter Hall, and then he headed to Jordan, where the film was to be shot, in in early 1961. The notoriously hell-bent actor, who had already acquired a reputation for heavy drinking and unreliability, arrived in the country deeply drunk and was interviewed by Anthony Nutting, a former diplomat who served as a consultant film technician. “You’re the only actor we have for Lawrence,” Nutting told him. “And if you get packed home, that’s the end of the movie, and that’s probably the end of you.”
O’Toole took him at his word, immersing himself in Lawrence’s character. He spent months doing everything from learning to ride a camel to being with Bedouin tribes, all in scorching heat that made normal movement nearly impossible. Lean encouraged this dedication, telling O’Toole, “Physical discomfort is the price of authenticity.” The fact that Lean shipped his air-conditioned Rolls Royce into the desert at enormous expense suggests that his commitment to this discomfort was less genuine than his protagonist’s.
When production began on May 15, 1961, Lean deliberately subjected the actor to dozens of takes in extreme heat with the goal of “knocking the wind out of his sails” and refused to praise his performance. This drove O’Toole to despair; Beneath his bravado and his charisma, the actor was deeply insecure about his first on-screen lead role and believed himself to be incompetent. One evening, angered by what he saw as his limitations, O’Toole punched the window of a trailer, seriously injuring himself.
Eventually, it became obvious that shooting in Jordan, miles away from civilization, was impractical. The cast and crew were beset by frequent outbreaks of dysentery and scarlet fever, often resulting in actors being unavailable for filming in what was becoming an increasingly unwieldy production schedule. Consequently, in December 1961, filming moved to the more manageable environs of Spain.
O’Toole celebrated the move to Europe by getting wildly drunk, and was a much less malleable presence afterward. Alec Guinness, who played the shrewd Prince Faisal, was initially smitten with him, writing in his diary: “[O’Toole] he has great rebellious charm and is wonderfully good as Lawrence. He’s great to play with and has great personal charm and cheerfulness. But seeing this cheerfulness up close in Spain was a less pleasant experience. After O’Toole misbehaved at a party and threw a glass of champagne in his guest’s face, Guinness wrote: “Peter could have been killed, shot or strangled. And I’m starting to think it’s a shame it wasn’t.”
By this stage of the production, O’Toole was increasingly restless and given to outrageous improvisations. One of the pivotal scenes of the film comes when Lawrence is kidnapped and flogged by the Turkish Bey: he is charged with homoeroticism, and the implication is that the sexually ambivalent Lawrence has been raped. When O’Toole and Jack Hawkins, as Lawrence Allenby’s superior general, had to play out a long and complex scene discussing Lawrence’s abuse, Lean asked for more takes, and finally an irritated O’Toole shouted: “I was f— -d by some Turks. The ever-kind Hawkins, who became a good friend and drinking partner of O’Toole, took it in stride and replied, ‘What a shame.’
O’Toole’s relationship with Spiegel did not improve during production, and he later said of the producer, “Destruction was Sam’s game … I couldn’t stand the man.” Yet Spiegel’s masterstroke, as Lean had nearly gone native during production, was to announce that the film would have a Royal Command Performance on December 10, 1962, meaning that since filming would finish on Aug. 18, Lean would only have four months to cut a four-hour movie together. O’Toole reluctantly admired Spiegel’s resolve: “I have to say it was a masterstroke on Sam’s part…[he] we knew we were going on too long; David and I had begun to forget that we were making a movie. After two years it had become a way of life”.
It had taken its toll on the actor psychologically as well as physically: he suffered a wide range of injuries, including groin strains, third-degree burns, a sprained neck, broken ankle bones, torn ligaments and a spinal dislocation. There were, on balance, easier ways to earn £12,500.
However, when the film premiered, it was obvious that Lean had created a masterpiece, aided immeasurably by its star’s intensely committed performance. At the premiere Noel Coward approached O’Toole. The mildest memory of their meeting has Coward say, “If you were prettier, darling, the film should have been called Florence of Arabia.” While the bolder version had him saying, “If Lawrence looked like you, Peter, there would have been a lot more than 12 Turks queuing up for the b—-ring session.”
Lawrence of Arabia was both a huge box office success and an immense success at the Oscars, winning Best Picture, Best Director and many other awards. It made its leading man a star and ensured that, until the very end of his career, he gasped gracefully as Lawrence’s Maurice Jarre theme song accompanied his entrance onto countless awards stages and chat show couches.
Yet Spiegel never took a liking to him. “Make a star, make a monster,” he said. And Lean avoided the role of mentor he was supposed to assume in O’Toole’s life and career. He called O’Toole “a real dope” to a friend, referring to the actor’s drunken chat show appearances — which could have cost him an Oscar — and inability to meet publicity commitments due to a hangover from a hangover.
But O’Toole stuck to Lean. At the director’s memorial service, he recited John Donne’s poem Death, Don’t Be Proud. And when asked about their relationship, he replied: “The most important influence in my life has been David Lean. I majored in Lean, got my Lean degree, working with him basically day and night for two years. The results speak for themselves, 60 years later.