Peter O’Toole, one of the last century’s greatest actors whose roles in films such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “The Lion in Winter” earned him eight Oscar nominations but no wins (a record), died Saturday (Dec. 14) at the age of 81.

Peter O'Toole as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. (Image via Wikimedia Commons

Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. (Image via Wikimedia Commons

O’Toole grew up in Leeds, England, the son of an English nurse and an Irish bookie. He was evacuated from Leeds during World War II and sent off to Catholic school, where the nuns forced him to become right-handed.

O’Toole recalled one time in his childhood when his father, Patrick, “stood his young son up on the mantelpiece and said: ‘Jump, boy. I’ll catch you. Trust me.'” O’Toole jumped and fell onto the floor with a thud. “The lesson, said his father, was ‘never trust any bastard.'” It’s hard to imagine that lesson not bearing itself out in O’Toole’s worldview.

In a 2007 interview with The New York TimesO’Toole described himself as a “retired Christian.” He played, among others, the pope (twice–onstage early in his career and in “The Tudors”), a Catholic priest (“Fore Greater Glory), and a British lord who thought he was Jesus (“The Ruling Class”).

O’Toole left his Catholic faith behind in his childhood, but often had high praise for the figure behind Christianity. Speaking of his admiration of the Sermon on the Mount, O’Toole said, “No one can take Jesus away from me…there’s no doubt there was a historical figure of tremendous importance, with enormous notions. Such as peace.”  He didn’t have much use for the institution of the Catholic church, but he held Jesus in reverence.

In 2003, O’Toole was given lifetime achievement Oscar. He began his long-awaited acceptance speech by saying, “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride — my foot. I have my very own Oscar now to be with me till death us do part.” His influence will be felt on the stage and screen for the foreseeable future, and his resonant questions about the utility of organized religion are only gaining momentum in the public conversation about faith.


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Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura Turner is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. In addition to being a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s “Her.meneutics” blog, she has also written for publications such as Books & Culture and The Bold Italic. She is interested in the intersection of church and culture.


  1. “The Ruling Class” is one of the best movies I have ever seen on the subject of religion. It satirically shows the connection between mental illness, delusional religion and politics.

  2. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Peter O’Toole not only played a priest in “For Greater Glory” (that can cover a lot of territory today), but a priest who was martyred by secularists for his faith. His execution was clearly modeled on Mexican Catholic hero Father Miguel Pro.

    • “Secularists” is a cute way of tying in the anti-clerical anti-catholic nature of the Mexican government at the time with modern people who are just annoyed about obnoxious intrusion of sectarianism into the democratic process. Not accurate but it lets you get in your little partisan theocratic digs in where it does not belong.

      Peter O’Toole was an actor who always delivered great performances even when the film itself did not require it. A consummate professional who really knew how to sell wild-eyed enthusiasm without becoming cheesy.

  3. The “utility” of organized religion? For whom? The self obsession which has rendered our culture so sick? As a Catholic, find O’Toole’s lack of commitment–though of course utterly PC– sad and banal, as I do people who are too lazy to take on the challenges and gifts of getting over their facile stereotypes and being in religious community, which Christ Himself advocated. Taking on those challenges and learning from them–as most people in the world do, though they are considered “underprivileged” from our narrow vantage point — renders great gifts. The narcissism of our culture renders us poor. And religion has zero to do with “utility.” That is so culture-bound and sad. It is about grace.

  4. Erich Zeichner

    to paraphrase, no middlemen, no brokers, whether they be priest, religious hierarchy, doctrinarian, or otherwise, can take Jesus away from me (you can’t take something away over which you have no ownership)……in other words, he grasped an important distinction between organized religion, & what Jesus himself actually taught & made evident, which is that everyone has wholesale access to God if they so desire, there are no legitimate retail outlets as some would have us believe

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