By Andrew Osborn
LONDON (Reuters) - Actor Peter O'Toole, who shot to international fame in the film classic "Lawrence of Arabia", has died aged 81 in London after a long illness, his agent said on Sunday.
O'Toole, who survived a bout with stomach cancer in the 1970s but whose health had been damaged by years of heavy drinking and chain-smoking, died in a London hospital on Saturday, Steve Kenis, his agent, told Reuters.
"Peter O'Toole's family announced today that very sadly Peter died yesterday, peacefully in hospital. He had been ill for some time," Kenis said in a statement.
O'Toole appeared in many acclaimed films, but is best remembered for his lead role in David Lean's 1962 blockbuster "Lawrence of Arabia" in which he played T.E. Lawrence, the eccentric British army officer who fought with Arab irregular troops against Ottoman Turkish rule in World War One.
O'Toole's striking good looks and charm sustained him through a stage and film career of more than 50 years that swung wildly between triumph and disaster, garnering him eight Oscar nominations but, to the disgust of his admirers, no win.
The most-nominated actor never to win the award, he eventually and reluctantly accepted an honorary Oscar in 2003.
Before doing so, he composed a hand-written open letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Later describing his reluctance to accept the award, he wrote: "I was enchanted but said that as I was still in the game and might yet win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?"
Believed to have been born in Ireland, O'Toole grew up in England and trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) where he was in the same class as Albert Finney.
His piercing blue eyes, tousled brown hair and 6-foot-3-inch (1.9 meter) frame made him an instant hit with women when he began his stage career in 1954.
He initially made waves on stage in several key Shakespearean roles, including an acclaimed turn as "Hamlet," before gaining fame in films such as "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Ruling Class", "The Stunt Man" and "My Favorite Year."
A SWAGGERING ROMANTIC
Living down his Lawrence of Arabia role became a major problem, however, and for most of the 1970s, O'Toole found he was playing nothing but the swaggering romantic actor.
In 1980, he made a humiliating return to the Shakespearean stage in London after a 20-year absence.
O'Toole's blood-soaked Macbeth at the Old Vic theatre provoked outright laughter from the audience and made front-page news for its sheer awfulness.
For the next few years, O'Toole found it difficult to be taken seriously as an actor. But in the late 1980s, he made a startling comeback.
He also gave up drinking. Years of abdominal pain and almost continuous consumption of alcohol had led to a diagnosis of pancreatitis and a warning that liquor would soon kill him.
A cameo role as the kindly but bemused English teacher in Bernardo Bertolucci's 1987 Oscar-winning film "The Last Emperor" showed the public a new side to the hell-raiser they had come to expect.
A year later, at the age of 56, he won rave reviews for playing his old Soho drinking pal in the play "Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell" in a part that seemed to mirror his own misfortunes.
He had announced he was retiring only last year.
"It is time for me to chuck in the sponge. To retire from films and stage. The heart for it has gone out of me: it won't come back," O'Toole said in a statement.
"It's my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one's stay."
Michael Higgins, the president of Ireland, was one of the first to react to his death.
"Those who saw him play leading roles on the screen from Lawrence in 1962, or through the role of Henry II in Becket, and The Lion in Winter, or through the dozens of films, will recognize a lifetime devoted to the art form of the camera," Higgins said in a statement.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said in a tweet that "Lawrence of Arabia" was his favorite film, hailing O'Toole's performance in it as "stunning".
Daughter Kate O'Toole thanked the public for what she described as an outpouring of love for the late actor.
She asked for her family to be allowed to grieve in private, saying in the same statement it would organize a memorial service "filled with song and good cheer" in due course.
O'Toole leaves behind children Kate and Patricia from his failed marriage with Welsh actress Sian Phillips and Lorcan, his son from a relationship with Karen Brown, a former girlfriend.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)