How Peter O'Toole smuggled a naked Liz Taylor into his bed: New biography lays bare the actor's antics with some of Hollywood's most formidable figures

  • O'Toole met Richard Burton on the set of the 1964 film, Becket
  • They enjoyed wild alcohol-fuelled lunches lasting several hours
  • Katharine Hepburn, Richard Harris, and Audery Hepburn all got swept up in his wild escapades 

His womanising was as notorious as his boozing — but a new biography of Peter O’Toole reveals we didn’t know the half of it. On Saturday, the first of our two uproarious extracts told of the time he got so drunk he tried to pay for sex in a nunnery. Today, we lay bare how his escapades with some of Hollywood’s most formidable men and women left a trail of carnage . . . 

Prankster: Peter O'Toole, left, Elizabeth Taylor, centre, and Richard Burton, right, in Under Milk Wood

Prankster: Peter O'Toole, left, Elizabeth Taylor, centre, and Richard Burton, right, in Under Milk Wood

The start of their friendship was inauspicious, to say the least. O’Toole was relieving himself in the sink of his theatre dressing-room when he heard an unmistakable voice at the door: ‘Hello, my name is Katharine Hepburn.’

Swiftly zipping himself up, he invited the Hollywood icon inside.

The year was 1958. Kate happened to be in London working on a film, and had heard that young O’Toole was a talent to watch.

Nothing came of their first meeting. But nine years later, when he was offered the role of Henry II in The Lion In Winter, he persuaded the producers to ask the much older Kate Hepburn to play his wife.

Scribbling a quick note to her, O’Toole, then 35, sent the script to Martha’s Vineyard, where the 60-year-old actress was grieving the recent loss of her beloved Spencer Tracy. A week later, the phone rang, and she said without preamble: ‘I might as well do it before I die.’

On set, it was clear to their fellow actors that they were crazy about each other — though it was at times a love-hate relationship.

Kate’s nickname for her young co-star was Pig — ‘Hello, Pig,’ she’d cry out each morning as she arrived at the studio.

O' Toole and Hepburn in Lion in Winter

O' Toole and Hepburn in Lion in Winter

Often she’d berate him in front of his fellow actors and the crew — saying, for instance: ‘Peter, stop towering over me. Come and sit down and try to look respectable.’

She’d also lecture him about his drinking, telling him he was in danger of throwing his talent away. Concerned about his health, she bought him a bike and ordered him to cycle to and from the studios.

In return, O’Toole christened her ‘Nags’ and once deposited a large number of empty spirit bottles in her car.

At one time, after he’d kept her waiting on set because he was still in his caravan playing cards, she stormed in, shouting: ‘You’re a real nut, and I’ve met some nuts in my day.’ She then punched him, rather hard.

A couple of hours later, he meekly knocked on the door of her dressing-room and apologised. ‘Don’t worry, Pig,’ she said. ‘I only hit the people I love.’

On another occasion, actress Jane Merrow recalls being with O’Toole in his trailer going through some lines when Kate suddenly stormed in, red with rage.

‘She walked up to Peter, whacked him round the head and screamed, “You son of a bitch, don’t you ever keep the make-up and hair people from me again — ever!”

‘There was a deadly silence. Peter sat there with his mouth open and then she stormed out again. I thought: oh bloody hell, now all hell’s going to break loose. Well, Peter just burst out laughing.’

In fact, O’Toole was quite innocent — the make-up and hair people had simply been delayed on their way to the set. Would Kate apologise? The crew held their breath.

As for O’Toole, he got the first-aid man to fix him up with a sling, a crutch and a bandage round his head, and went back on to the set.

Hepburn took one look — and burst into uproarious laughter.

A two-day bender with Burton

When O’Toole and Richard Burton agreed to star together in the 1964 film, Becket, the crew braced themselves for trouble.

But the two hell-raisers seemed unusually subdued, quietly sipping tea and doing crosswords between takes.

Elizabeth Taylor replaced a naked actress under a blanket on the set of  the 1964 film, Becket

Elizabeth Taylor replaced a naked actress under a blanket on the set of  the 1964 film, Becket

After ten days, however, Burton turned to his co-star and said in his best Irish accent: ‘Peter, me boy. I think we deserve a little snifter.’

They drank solidly for two nights and a day. After that, they sometimes turned up intoxicated on set.

In the scene where King Henry (O’Toole) places a ring upon the finger of Thomas Becket (Burton), O’Toole could barely focus. ‘It was rather like trying to thread a needle wearing boxing gloves,’ Burton recalled.

Both men indulged in wild lunches lasting hours, in which they drank and lobbed Shakespeare soliloquies at each other.

One morning O’Toole arrived in Burton’s dressing-room with an open bottle of whiskey, drained it in ten swigs and fell flat on his back. Shooting resumed 24 hours later.

Another time, he replaced a nude actress under a blanket with a compliant Elizabeth Taylor — visiting the set that day — just before the cameras rolled. But when O’Toole pulled back the sheet to reveal Elizabeth, Burton didn’t find it quite as amusing as the rest of the crew.

She also joined them eight years later in the filming of Under Milk Wood, in which all three had parts. Unfortunately, Elizabeth was suffering from back problems: after filming her scene as the sailor’s tart, Rosie Probert, she point-blank refused to come back to do some crucial dubbing.

O’Toole popped his head round the door of the director, Andrew Sinclair, to tell him: ‘You’ve lost your filum, Andrew — Liz isn’t appearing after lunch.’

Then he added: ‘But for what I’m about to do for you, I deserve the Victoria Cross and bloody Bar.’

That afternoon, O’Toole, Burton and Taylor drank six bottles of wine between them.

Then the two men carried Elizabeth, dead drunk, back to the studio — where they held her up as she read out her dialogue.

By their selfless act, the film was saved.

Doing a runner with Richard Harris

Their friendship began — where else? — in a pub. O’Toole and Richard Harris were both young drama students, and the connection between them was instant.

‘Richard recognised in Peter that spark, that quest for life and appetite for life, because they really wanted to live it to the full,’ recalls Harris’s then girlfriend Elizabeth Rees-Williams, who later married him.

Both hard drinkers with Irish backgrounds, they took immense delight in outraging Fifties sensibilities — once even committing a crime together.

One day, while still in their early 20s, they’d driven to Brighton for the weekend to see a production of Hamlet. Arriving at a grand hotel, they booked the presidential suite and proceeded to order whatever caught their fancy from room service.

After the second day of this, Harris finally came to his senses. ‘We’ve got to leave now, Peter — how much money have you got?’

Nothing, it turned out. Harris was likewise skint. And outside a violent storm had started lashing the windows and whipping up giant waves.

Peter O'Toole in the starring role in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. He was assigned a minder during filming to ensure he was fit for work

Peter O'Toole in the starring role in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia. He was assigned a minder during filming to ensure he was fit for work

Harris suddenly had a brainwave. ‘Take your clothes off Peter — all of them.’ Then he tossed both his own clothes and O’Toole’s out of the window into a side street.

‘Come on, let’s pretend we’re going for a swim.’

Covering their private parts with towels, the pair casually walked through the lobby towards the main doors. The manageress, a stern-faced woman, looked up from her work: ‘Where are you going?’ she demanded to know.

Harris smiled. ‘We’re going for a swim.’

The woman looked incredulous. ‘A swim, in this! The waves are 10 ft tall out there, the currents . . .’

‘We’re Irish; we’re tough. We can handle it,’ countered Harris. Once out of sight, they sneaked up the street, changed and made a bolt for it.

But the story didn’t end there. About ten years later, in the late Sixties, Harris arrived in Brighton to give a concert. To his dismay, he found that the concert-tour promoter had booked him into the same swanky hotel.

‘I recognised the lobby. Oh, my God. I signed my name and it was the same woman behind the desk. I hurriedly finished and made my way to the lift when she said: “Oh, Mr Harris.” ’


‘We thought you and Mr O’Toole had drowned,’ she said.

Another laddish jape came about because they were competing for the affections of the same woman — not an unusual occurrence. As ever, they were more than a little under the influence.

After a night in the pub, O’Toole and Harris had said good night to one another, only to bump into each other later outside a block of flats. Here, on an upper storey, lived the woman with whom each fancied his chances.

There was no answer when they rang her bell, so O’Toole nimbly scrambled up the drainpipe and knocked on her window. She let him in.

Before getting on with the matter in hand, O’Toole noticed that Harris was trying to climb up the drainpipe, and making heavy work of it. Then the pipe suddenly broke away from the wall, leaving him dangling in mid-air.

Helpfully, O’Toole called the police. When they arrived, he waited until they’d rescued his friend before shouting from the window: ‘Officers, arrest that drunken Irishman. He was trying to break into our home!’

‘They were wild, naughty characters, but they weren’t vicious,’ says Elizabeth. ‘The side-effects would be accidental, and half the time they wouldn’t remember them.

‘And when they were told about their exploits, they’d be very contrite — but then the next day, they’d go off and do exactly the same thing.’

Denied a drink, so he bought the pub!

O’Toole’s film debut in 1960 came about purely by accident. Walt Disney were bringing Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel Kidnapped to the screen, and Peter Finch had been chosen to play the Scottish hero.

In one scene, he was expected to have a bagpipe contest with a fearsome Highlander.

‘There’s only one actor I know who can play the part and the f***ing bagpipes,’ said Finch — and O’Toole was duly hired.

The role itself wasn’t much cop, but when O’Toole viewed the rushes of his scene with Finch, he thought to himself: ‘I can do this.’ The other lasting legacy from the film was his friendship with Finch, who’d already carved out a fearsome reputation as a drinker.

They remained raucous drinking partners until Finch’s untimely death in 1977 at the age of 60.

O' Toole was a notorious womaniser and drinker

O' Toole was a notorious womaniser and drinker

Once, O’Toole visited Finch while he was temporarily living in Dublin. They went out drinking, and before going home, dropped into a small bar for a final snifter.

After they’d each had a couple of drinks, the landlord said: ‘Boys, you’ve had enough. You’re having no more.’ This was not what O’Toole and Finch wanted to hear. ‘Oh no, no, no, we’re having much more.’

The landlord was adamant: ‘You’re out.’

So they bought the pub. Out came their chequebooks and two cheques were duly signed.

The next morning, the full horror of what the two men had done came into sharp focus. They immediately called their banks to cancel the cheques — discovering to their relief that they hadn’t yet been cashed.

Racing to the scene of the crime, they found the landlord holding up both cheques, which he returned to the actors. ‘You two boys have got to behave yourselves,’ he said.

After that, the bar became their favourite haunt. And when the landlord died a year later, both O’Toole and Finch were invited to the funeral.

Arriving at the cemetery, they gathered around the open grave with the other sobbing mourners. Suddenly, a woman tapped O’Toole on the shoulder.

‘You’re at the wrong grave,’ she told him gently.

Getting Audrey sozzled on set

Perhaps it was inevitable that the rumour-mill began to buzz when O’Toole starred in a movie with Audrey Hepburn.

While his wife was in London and her husband was in Switzerland, they were in Paris — and clearly having a great time.

The truth, however, is that the romance on the set of How To Steal A Million (1966) never spilled into real life. But Audrey — who always had a good sense of humour — was enthralled by the zany antics of her blue-eyed co-star and he in turn adored her.

The British-Irish stage and screen actor alongside Audrey Hepburn in the 1966 film How to Steal a Million

The British-Irish stage and screen actor alongside Audrey Hepburn in the 1966 film How to Steal a Million

It was thanks to O’Toole that she got plastered on set for the first and only time in her career.

One cold morning, she was being filmed in a scene that required her to do nothing more strenuous than drive down a street. O’Toole suggested a shot of brandy to stave off the chill, but one glass became two glasses, which became three . . .

Finally, Audrey bounded out of her trailer, waddled towards the car and then drove straight into five huge arc lights, totally demolishing them. Luckily, nobody was injured.

For another scene, O’Toole and Audrey had to hide in a tight broom cupboard. ‘This must be what death feels like when you’re in your coffin,’ he whispered to her as the director set up the shot.

‘Are you afraid of dying?’ asked Audrey. O’Toole said that it petrified him.

‘Why, Peter?’

‘Sure, there’s no future in it.’

Audrey exploded into a fit of giggles. There was no longer any question of continuing with the scene: she had to retire to her dressing-room to lie down and compose herself.

  • ADAPTED by Corinna Honan from Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, by Robert Sellers, to be published by Sidgwick & Jackson on Thursday at £20. © Peter O’Toole 2015. To pre-order a copy for £15 visit or call 0808 272 0808. Offer valid until September 12, free p&p.


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