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Lawrence of Ablaze-ia: Rare pics of Peter O’Toole sparking up on the ‘Caligula’ set

February 5, 2020
Not a tobacco cigarette: Forbidden the taste of booze, Peter O'Toole turned to cannabis in a big way during the 1976 filming of Caligula.(Courtesy of Penthouse Global Licensing and Caligula: The Mario Tursi Photographs)

Somewhere in the volumes of lore on Peter O’Toole’s alcohol consumption and love of cocaine, there’s an overlooked weed chapter in the lauded, flawed, Shakespearean actor’s life.

A true lover of a good buzz, O’Toole’s green period recently came to light in a series of photographs unearthed by an L.A. art gallery curator. They were taken on the set of Caligula, the notorious 1980 erotic epic, and if the evidence is any indication, O’Toole was blazing his way through the entire shoot.

'Peter O’Toole was high as a kite during the entire filming.'
Thomas Negovan, art historian and author

Century Guild founder, art historian, and author Thomas Negovan discovered the photographs of O’Toole when he dug into the film’s history. As the producer of Caligulas 40th anniversary release, Negovan had access to the dusty physical archives that sat mostly unopened for most of four decades. They will be on public display for the first time at the LA Art Show, which runs Feb. 5-9 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

“One of the things that kept popping up in my research,” Negovan told Leafly, “is that Peter O’Toole was high as a kite during the entire filming. I’m going through a pile of behind-the-scenes photos no one has ever seen before, and there are a ton of photos of Peter smoking—with many looking like he’s at various degrees of concentration from intense to toasted.”

An English lad from Leeds

Plucking truth from apocrypha is a Hollywood scholar’s chore, and it’s doubly difficult when it comes to O’Toole. His biographers can’t even agree on where he was born.

For the uninitiated and the young: Peter O’Toole was a British actor who (probably) was born in Leeds, England, in 1932. He made his name as a stage actor before breaking into film and landing one of the greatest roles in cinema history—the title character in David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence of Arabia.

A famously charming alcoholic

O’Toole played Tiberius Caesar, a deranged and decrepit ruler. (Courtesy of Penthouse Global Licensing and Caligula: The Mario Tursi Photographs)

Throughout his career, O’Toole publicly suffered alcoholism with legendary panache. A talk-show favorite, an Old Hollywood prince and storyteller, he (probably) talked a lot of shit. Photos have surfaced to tell this story, though—it’s verified—so here’s the scene.

'Just before the Caligula shoot, surgeons took his pancreas out. Doctors said his next drink would kill him.'
R.J. Buffalo, film historian

It’s 1976. O’Toole, 44 years old, is in Rome to begin filming Caligula, one of the most notorious spectacles in 20th century cinema. Produced by Penthouse magazine founder Bob Guccione, scripted by Gore Vidal, and directed by the Italian filmmaker Tinto Brass, Caligula aimed to blend epic history, softcore porn, and an all-star cast that included O’Toole, Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, and John Gielgud.

O’Toole played Tiberius Caesar, a deranged and decrepit ruler with a penchant for torture and group sex displays. But he was in no shape to perform.

“O’Toole had previously been a drunk, and a notorious one at that,” recalled Caligula expert R.J. Buffalo, a film writer who maintains Caligula.org, the world’s most extensive website devoted to the film. “The reason was that he was perpetually in pain, and the booze numbed him somewhat. It turned out that the cause of his discomfort was pancreatitis, and just before the Caligula shoot, the surgeons took his pancreas out, which is why he looked so wiry at the time. The doc explained to him that one more sip would kill him, and so he switched to joints, which I feel sure was just another form of self-medication.”

Natural ability that couldn’t be suppressed

No one is outing the deceased actor here. In a 2007 commentary, co-star Helen Mirren spoke about O’Toole’s cannabis intake during filming.

'I was taken into his trailer and he was sitting in there, chain-smoking dope and flying in his own world.'
Helen Mirren, Caligula co-star

“He was off the booze because he’d been told that he would die if he drank,” Mirren recalled. “But he was smoking dope. He smoked a lot of dope … I’d never met Peter O’Toole and obviously he was a huge star to me, and I was quite intimidated and nervous at the thought of meeting him at all. And I was taken into his trailer and he was sitting in there, chain-smoking dope and flying in his own world. And he’s a very, very, bright, smart man so it doesn’t matter how much dope he smokes—he can’t suppress his natural abilities to talk and chat and tell jokes.”

 Harm reduction before the term existed

Self-medication: In 1976, O’Toole was taking intuitive harm reductive measures at a time when the concept didn’t yet exist.

1976 wasn’t a proud moment in the history of American drug policy. Those were the paraquat days—a reprehensible project wherein the U.S. government funded the poisoning of Mexican cannabis crops, which resulted in toxic weed making it across the border to American consumers. Later studies would indicate that smokers of paraquat-tainted cannabis could develop fibrosis, an irreversible lung disease.

O'Toole turned in booze for blunts—and possibly saved his own life.

Meanwhile, insurance companies and doctors had—in only the previous decade—discovered that addiction was a profitable disease. The abstinence model pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous dominated the theory and practice of treatment for other substances. The idea of reducing harm by substituting cannabis for alcohol (or opiates, as is now happening) wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

Harm reduction worked its way into public health discourse in the 1980’s, during the AIDS crisis. In that context—probably still its best-known occurrence—harm reduction manifested as needle exchange programs and methadone clinics. Its foundational principle of reducing harm applies to all forms of addiction to all substances, though, and this millennium has seen cannabis enter the conversation increasingly.

It worked for O’Toole

O’Toole’s doctor told him his next drink would kill him. So he smoked marijuana instead—practicing harm reduction years before the term was invented. (Courtesy of Penthouse Global Licensing and Caligula: The Mario Tursi Photographs)

In a 2005 study on the endocannabinoid system’s role in successful harm reduction through cannabis use, Dr. Robert Melamede called it  “the idea that society benefits most when drug policy is designed to help people with drug problems to live better lives rather than to punish them,” and went on to state, “[The] recent global trend towards harm reduction has resulted from the acknowledgement that drug use has been a part of all societies throughout history and the realization that repressive policies are expensive, ineffective, and often harmful.”

Humans have always been seeking relief, euphoria, intoxication—call it what you will, we’ve been getting high pretty much forever. Some of us have a hard time keeping it moderate, and prohibition creates even more problems.

In 1976, Peter O’Toole—world-renowned Shakespearean actor, Old Hollywood partier, and addict—(temporarily) traded in booze for blunts to save his life, and he didn’t even try to hide it. He would live for another 37 years.

Angela Denk's Bio Image

Angela Denk

Angela Denk is a freelance writer and lifelong cannabis enthusiast. She writes about mental illness, mental health, cannabis, and music. You can find her on IG @coffee.or.suicide and Twitter @ATDenk.

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