Trivial Matters #24 – Peter O’Toole

As it’s Friday the 13th, I want to share with you the unlucky saga of Peter O’Toole and his eight unsuccessful nominations for Best Actor from 1962-2006.

By 1968 he had already perfected his “crestfallen yet classy” face.

It’s the record for futility in the acting categories (Richard Burton is second with seven), and looking at the performances alone it seems astounding that he didn’t win at least two:

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962); lost to Gregory Peck, To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Becket (1964); lost to Rex Harrison, My Fair Lady
  • The Lion in Winter (1968); lost to Cliff Robertson, Charly
  • Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969); lost to John Wayne, True Grit
  • The Ruling Class (1972); lost to Marlon Brando, The Godfather
  • The Stunt Man (1980); lost to Robert de Niro, Raging Bull
  • My Favorite Year (1982); lost to Ben Kingsley, Gandhi
  • Venus (2006); lost to Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland

All very solid performances from one of the best actors of all time, and he struck out eight times. If that isn’t enough for you to conclude that existence is unfair and absurd–or at the very least, that the Academy Awards are–keep in mind that we live in a world where Peter O’Toole never won an Oscar but Nicolas Cage did.


However, when one takes a closer look at the actors on that list who won, it becomes clear that O’Toole was just cursed to almost always come up against a nominee who was just not going to lose. The precedent was set with his first nomination, for his career-making–and career-defining–portrayal of T.E. Lawrence. Almost any other year that’s a gimme, but in 1962 it was up against Gregory Peck’s equally defining role as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and let’s face it, Peck was just about guaranteed the win for that one (deservedly).

The pattern continued for most of O’Toole’s career: John Wayne in 1969 (one of the Academy’s famous “oops, we forgot to give this performer an award” awards), Marlon Brando in 1972 (even though he refused to accept it), Robert de Niro in 1980, Ben Kingsley in 1982, and Forest Whitaker in 2006. Each of them locked down their Oscar roughly six seconds after their films were released.

There were only two years in which O’Toole wasn’t just one of four actors tossed in to create the illusion of competition: 1964 and 1968. In 1964, he was nominated alongside his Becket co-star and fellow Oscar snubbee Richard Burton, a situation that rarely bodes well for either party. Rex Harrison had won the Golden Globe, but his win this year was not a foregone conclusion as were the ones I mentioned above…still, O’Toole and Burton canceled each other out (Peter Sellers should have won, anyway).

1968 was an odd year…it was not a particularly strong slate for Best Actor, and Cliff Robertson’s win for Charly was unexpected and, for many, ridiculous. I’ve not seen The Lion in Winter (yet! Stay tuned for the 41st Academy Awards), but I’ve seen Charly and I can say that neither the film itself nor Robertson’s performance is anything special. This is the only one of O’Toole’s losses for which I cannot find a compelling reason.

Alas, O’Toole was only ever recognized by the Academy with a paltry Lifetime Achievement Award, and is now remembered for this dubious record–well, also for being an amazing actor, equally adept at drama and comedy, and a wonderfully eccentric character in real life.

But one can dream, and here are some trivia entries from alternate universes in which O’Toole won. (Not all the same universe, though, or the entries after his second win would become awfully repetitive.)

  • Peter O’Toole is the only actor to win Best Actor for his debut starring role, as T.E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
  • With his win for The Lion in Winter (1968), Peter O’Toole became the first performer to win for playing a character for which he had been previously nominated (King Henry II, whom he played in Becket [1964]).
  • Robert Donat and Peter O’Toole were the first performers to win Oscars for playing the same character in different films, for their roles as Arthur Chipping in Goodbye, Mr. Chips in 1939 and 1969, respectively.
  • Peter O’Toole’s win for Venus (2006) set a new record for longest gap between a performer’s first nomination and first win: 44 years (since his nomination for Lawrence of Arabia [1962]). The previous record had been 41 years, set by Henry Fonda between The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and his win for On Golden Pond (1981).

5 thoughts on “Trivial Matters #24 – Peter O’Toole

  1. Ha Ha – I know how you love Peter O’Toole. Have you seen “Venus” – I don’t know how he could be better than Forrest Whitaker in “Last King”


  2. Clearly should have won over Rex Harrison, O’Toole was fantastic in Beckett, no one can yell and scream like he can. Also, as much as I love Gregory Peck and think he’s a phenomenal actor, the role was bound to win an Oscar, Tommy Wisseau could have played Finch and won….ok maybe I’m stretching it a bit, but Atticus Finch was an Oscar winning role no matter what.


    • I think Wiseau could pull off Atticus Finch. Doesn’t his closing argument at the trial boil down to “If a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live”?


  3. Pingback: Regarding the Second Decade of Oscars | Oscars and I

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