O’Toole is born on August 2, 1932, in Leeds, Yorkshire, England. Some sources give his birthplace as Connemara, County Galway. Records from the General Register Office in Leeds confirm that O’Toole is born in the north England town in 1932. He is educated at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. He is a reporter for the Yorkshire Evening Post in his teens and makes his amateur stage debut at Leeds Civic Theatre. After serving two years in the Royal Navy, he acts with the Bristol Old Vic Company from 1955 to 1958 and makes his London debut as Peter Shirley in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara (1956). He appears with the Shakespeare Memorial Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in 1960 in highly praised performances as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, and he plays the lead in Hamlet for the inaugural production of the Royal National Theatre in London in 1963. A prominent film star by this point in his career, he continues to appear on stages throughout the world to great acclaim. He is named associate director of the Old Vic in 1980.
O’Toole makes his motion picture debut in Kidnapped in 1960 and two years later becomes an international star for his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence in David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In 1964 he plays Henry II of England in Becket, and he has the title role in Lord Jim (1965). He appears as Henry II again in The Lion in Winter (1968), a film notable for the witty verbal sparring matches between O’Toole and costar Katharine Hepburn. The Ruling Class (1972), a controversial black comedy that has become a cult classic, casts O’Toole as a schizophrenic English earl with a messiah complex.
Personal problems contribute to a decline in his popularity during the 1970s, but he makes a strong comeback in the early 1980s with three well-received efforts. He portrays a duplicitous and domineering movie director in The Stunt Man (1980), and his performance as the Roman commander Lucius Flavius Silva in the acclaimed television miniseries Masada (1981) is hailed as one of the finest of his career. His most popular vehicle during this period is My Favorite Year (1982), an affectionate satire on the early days of television, in which he plays Alan Swann, a faded Errol Flynn-type swashbuckling screen star with a penchant for tippling and troublemaking.
O’Toole subsequently maintains his status with fine performances in such films as the Oscar-winning The Last Emperor (1987), the cult favourite Wings of Fame (1989), and Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997), in which he portrays Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Notable screen roles in the 21st century included King Priam in the historical epic Troy (2004), an aging romantic in Venus (2006), the voice of a haughty food critic in the animated Ratatouille (2007), and a priest in the historical drama For Greater Glory (2012). In addition, in 2008 he portrays Pope Paul III in the TV series The Tudors.
In 1992 O’Toole publishes a lively memoir, Loitering with Intent: The Child. A second volume, Loitering with Intent: The Apprentice, appears in 1996. He is nominated for an Academy Award eight times — for Lawrence of Arabia, Becket, The Lion in Winter, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class, The Stunt Man, My Favorite Year, and Venus — but never wins. In 2003 he is awarded an honorary Oscar. He receives an Emmy Award for his performance as Bishop Pierre Cauchon in the television miniseries Joan of Arc (1999).
O’Toole dies on December 14, 2013 at Wellington Hospital in St. John’s Wood, London, at the age of 81. His funeral is held at Golders Green Crematorium in London on December 21, 2013, where his body is cremated in a wicker coffin. His ashes are planned to be taken to Connemara, Ireland. They are kept at the residence of the President of Ireland, Áras an Uachtaráin, by President Michael D. Higgins, an old friend of O’Toole. His family has stated their intention to fulfill his wishes and take his ashes to the west of Ireland.