He achieved international recognition playing T. E. Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) for which he received his first nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor. He was nominated for this award another seven times – for Becket (1964), The Lion in Winter (1968), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969), The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), My Favorite Year (1982), and Venus (2006) – and holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations for acting without a win. In 2002, O'Toole was awarded the Academy Honorary Award for his career achievements. He was additionally the recipient of four Golden Globe Awards, one British Academy Film Award and one Primetime Emmy Award.
O'Toole was born in 1932. Some sources give his birthplace as Connemara, County Galway, Ireland, while others cite St James University Hospital, Leeds, England. O'Toole claimed he was not certain of his birthplace or date, noting in his autobiography that, while he accepted 2 August as his birthdate, said he had a birth certificate from each country, with the Irish one giving a June 1932 birth date. Peter had an elder sister, Patricia.
He grew up in Hunslet, south Leeds, son of Constance Jane Eliot (née Ferguson), a Scottish nurse, and Patrick Joseph "Spats" O'Toole, an Irish metal plater, football player and racecourse bookmaker. When O'Toole was one year old, his family began a five-year tour of major racecourse towns in Northern England. He and his sister were brought up in the Roman Catholic faith of their father.
O'Toole was evacuated from Leeds early in the Second World War and went to a Catholic school for seven or eight years, St Joseph's Secondary School at Joseph Street, Hunslet, where he was "implored" to become right-handed. "I used to be scared stiff of the nuns: their whole denial of womanhood – the black dresses and the shaving of the hair – was so horrible, so terrifying ... Of course, that's all been stopped. They're sipping gin and tonic in the Dublin pubs now, and a couple of them flashed their pretty ankles at me just the other day", he said.
Upon leaving school O'Toole obtained employment as a trainee journalist and photographer on the Yorkshire Evening Post, until he was called up for national service as a signaller in the Royal Navy. As reported in a radio interview in 2006 on NPR, he was asked by an officer whether he had something he had always wanted to do. His reply was that he had always wanted to try being either a poet or an actor. O'Toole attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) from 1952 to 1954 on a scholarship after being rejected by the Abbey Theatre's drama school in Dublin by the director Ernest Blythe, because he couldn't speak the Irish language. At RADA, he was in the same class as Albert Finney, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford. O'Toole described this as "the most remarkable class the academy ever had, though we weren't reckoned for much at the time. We were all considered dotty."