The crazy drinking stories about Peter O’Toole that’ll make you want to buy his watches The crazy drinking stories about Peter O’Toole that’ll make you want to buy his watches

The crazy drinking stories about Peter O’Toole that’ll make you want to buy his watches

Luke Benedictus

As a boy, Peter O’Toole jotted down a promise in his notebook: “I will not be a common man. I will stir the smooth sands of monotony.”  Dude certainly delivered on that one.  As an actor, he was best known for his 1962 performance in Lawrence of Arabia that brought him overnight fame. Yet beyond the screen, O’Toole was also renowned for enjoying the life of a swashbuckling retrobate – a hell-raiser, legendary drinker and ladies’ man, who purportedly slept with 1,033 women.

Peter O’Toole

We’ll get onto some of those colourful tales in a moment, because they are what’ll ultimately crank up the price of O’Toole’s watches (not tool watches, sadly) that’ll go under the hammer on November 17 with Dawsons Auctioneers in the UK.

The first is an Audemars Piguet 18ct yellow-gold Quantieme Perpetual Calendar (reference 5548) that was gifted to O’Toole by the Sheikh of Saudi Arabia for his performance in Lawrence of Arabia.  An ultra-thin perpetual calendar with a movement just 3.95mm high, this was, in fact, a significant watch for the industry at large. AP released it during the quartz crisis at a time when hardly anyone else was making any sort of traditional, complicated timepiece. The watch was a massive success that rescued AP’s fortunes at an extremely vulnerable time while demonstrating that high complications could still command a dedicated audience. (Read our interview about it with AP’s Heritage and Museum Director here.) But all that aside, this 36mm Perpetual Calendar is an absolute stunner in its own rights. I suspect that Dawsons’ estimate of £20,000 – £30,000 may be slightly undercooked.

The other watch up for sale is a Baume & Mercier Riviera from the 1970s. First released just a year after the Royal Oak, the Riviera is one of the first integrated bracelet watches. Featuring a steel case with 12 sides that measures 35.5mm across, it’s perched on a bi-metal steel and gold bracelet that gives it a certain louche swagger consistent with O’Toole’s devil-may-care lifestyle. This vintage incarnation of the Riviera finally makes me understand the raffish charm of this model in a way that I must confess I’ve never fully grasped with the recent versions. This watch could prove a relative steal, too, with the estimated price £2,000 – £3,000.  Admittedly, the centre of the dial does seem a tiny bit discoloured, but you can always tells yourself it was the result of some of O’Toole’s disreputable hi-jinks.

That the actor had an eye for a decent watch or two isn’t a surprise – O’Toole had a weakness for pretty knick-knacks full stop. While filming Lawrence of Arabia, his love for exotic antiquities even prompted him to smuggle a pair of precious Greek earrings through customs by hiding them in his foreskin. As Robert Sellers writes in Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography, this apparently resulted “in some minor discomfort that lasted weeks”. (Note to self: remember never to insert precious Greek earrings into foreskin.)

The true appeal of O’Toole’s watches lies in exactly these types of slightly questionable escapades. This, after all, was a man who in his ’60s heyday slept with Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Margaret, Ava Gardner and Audrey Hepburn. All of which is relevant here, too, because much of the reason that people spend vast sums on watches owned by famous folk isn’t just rarity value but a sort of celebrity vampirism. “It’s like that Seinfeld episode about the golf clubs owned by JFK,” says  Dr Richard Moulding a clinical psychologist and senior lecturer at Deakin University. “For the collector of the watch, it’s as though there’s almost a form of contagion. It’s as though the essence of the previous owner has been imbued into it.”

Peter O’Toole

The person who buys these watches will surely hope to acquire some residual trace of O’Toole’s dangerous magnetism and hedonistic charm. For there’s no denying the actor was quite partial to the occasional gargle. While shooting The Lion in Winter, O’Toole somehow managed to cut off the top of his finger in a drunken boating accident. Rather than go to hospital, he simply dropped the finger in some brandy to disinfect it before shoving it back into place and wrapping it all up with a bandage. Removing the bandage some weeks later, O’Toole found he’d put his fingertip back on the wrong way round.

Peter O’Toole

Another legendary drinking tale came on the set of Lawrence of Arabia. For one scene, O’Toole and co-star Omar Sharif had to mount camels and lead 400 extras in a furious charge that had to be sustained over a mile-and-a-half of sandy terrain. Needless to say this was a daunting challenge for actors still familiarising themselves with the finer points of camel riding. Feeling the pressure, Sharif became terrified he’d fall off and considered tying himself to the camel.

“What are you going to do?” he asked O’Toole.

“Well, I’m going to get drunk,” was the response.

The pair promptly began knocking glasses of brandy mixed with milk. When the movie came out, Time magazine paid tribute to O’Toole’s ability in the scene to project a sense of “messianic fury”. Asked about it by an interviewer, O’Toole replied, “ ‘Messianic fury’? I was pissed as a pillow!”

Peter O’Toole
“Pissed as a pillow”

Suffice to say, whoever acquires O’Toole’s watches at auction will be getting watches that have lived an eventful life. As the actor says in another of Sellers’ book Hellraisers: The Life and Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed. “I loved the drinking, and waking up in the morning to find I was in Mexico. It was part and parcel of being an idiot.”

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