There’s a scene in Lawrence of Arabia that’s worth quoting at some length because it’s an example of where Peter O’Toole could do more than simply inhabit a role – he could own it. He could blur the line between character and actor, looking smart but a bit dishevelled at the same time.
General Murray: If you're insubordinate of me, Lawrence, I shall put you under arrest. Lawrence: It's my manner, sir. Murray: Your what? Lawrence: My manner, sir. It looks insubordinate, but it isn't really. Murray: No, I can't make out whether you're bloody bad-mannered or just half-witted. Lawrence: I have the same problem, sir.
O’Toole didn’t have a signature look any more than he had a definite nationality (he had birth certificates for both Connemara in Ireland and Leeds). But he could and did consistently dress like someone of no fixed abode and make it look good.
And when your regular drinking partners include the likes Richard Burton, Michael Caine, Richard Harris and Robert Shaw, it’s not always intentional if you end up at dawn looking like you’ve hit rock bottom and rock bottom has hit you right back. Sometimes it just happens.
When it comes to his fashion choices, he didn’t even have phases. He gave the appearance of one who would simply go on a rager through the costume department or along the length of Savile Row and coming out the other side wearing who knows what whilst looking faintly surprised and rather dashing. No, consistency was not his wish, let alone his forte. Having turned down a CBE in 1988, he eventually found himself turning down a knighthood, too:
"I felt that, in my case, it just wouldn't suit me, that's all. It would be like wearing a suit every day of your life."
Perhaps it’s this talent for glorious but eloquent understatement bordering on self-deprecation that’s at the heart of his enduring appeal. The man who could, but wouldn’t, who was nominated for eight Oscars but won none, who made down-at-heel look dapper and professional genius look easy.