What actor had the most Academy Award nominations without ever winning an Oscar?
Peter O’Toole (1932-2013), born 84 years ago today.
O’Toole had eight best actor nods. He’s best known for his first, 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” His second and third, for “Becket” (1964) and “The Lion in Winter” (1964), were both for playing English King Henry II.
The name Peter has a well-known origin: In Matthew’s gospel, after Simon proclaims, “You are the Messiah,” Jesus says, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”
The Greek Petros, or “rock,” became Petrus in Latin, and St. Peter became the first pope. There were 1,129 English churches called St. Peter’s; 283 more were jointly dedicated to Peter and Paul.
William Langland’s poem “Piers Plowman,” written about 1380, shows how medieval Englishmen said the name. Families called Pierce, Pearson, Perris, Perrin, Perkins, and Parrot had ancestors baptized “Petrus” in Latin. “Peters” is mostly Welsh, since hereditary surnames weren’t adopted in Wales until after 1500, when the modern pronunciation developed.
Peter ranked 15th in medieval England. After the Reformation, it became less common there than in the rest of Europe — even Scotland. In the 1851 British census, 42 percent of the 77,263 Peters lived in Scotland, which had only 16 percent of Britain’s population.
The 1850 United States Census found 96,708 Peters. Of those, 11.3 percent were born in Germany, compared with only 2.5 percent of all Americans.
Immigration kept Peter common. The 1920 Census included 323,962 Peters — 3.2 percent born in Russia, 4.4 percent in Poland and 6.3 percent in Italy. Pyotr, Piotr and Pietro had become “Peter.”
Meanwhile, Peter revived in England because of two children’s stories.
In 1902, Beatrix Potter published “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” The story of naughty Peter, who loses his jacket and shoes after raiding Mr. McGregor’s garden, is still a popular picture book.
In December 1904, J.M. Barrie’s play “Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” premiered in London. Peter Pan quickly became one of the most beloved figures in children’s literature.
In England, his name soared like Peter flying over Neverland. Between 1935 and 1955, Peter was among England’s top five names. It was even more popular in Australia, ranking No. 1 there in 1950.
The effect in America was less dramatic. Peter had bottomed out at 62nd on Social Security’s name lists in 1932 but was back among the top 40 in 1942.
Walt Disney’s animated “Peter Pan” was the highest-grossing film of 1953. The Broadway musical “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin, had 65 million viewers for its television showing in March 1955, then the biggest audience ever for a single program. Peter peaked at 35th that year.
Though Peter stayed among the top 50 until 1975, it never was as popular in the United States as in England and Australia. Did slang meanings of “peter” put parents off? Did the fact that adult women such as Martin played Peter Pan on Broadway make it seem less masculine? Or was it just that so many Americans of the 1950s had immigrant grandfathers called Pete that the name didn’t sound fresh?
Many famous men have gone by Pete — like tennis star Pete Sampras, Petros on his birth certificate. Baseball player Rose (born 1941), basketball star Maravich (1947-1988), clarinetist Fountain (1930), folk singer Seeger (1919-2014) and rock star Townshend (1945) are all official Peters.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (1964) was born “John Peter.” Omaha City Councilman Pete Festersen told me by email that his full name, Peter Frederick, is from his family’s Danish immigrant heritage. He also wrote: “The only people that used to call me Peter were my parents and mostly only if I was in trouble.”
Famous Peters using the full form include “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Jackson (1961), singers Frampton (1950) and Gabriel (1950), and actors Boyle (1935-2006), Coyote (1941), Dinklage (1969), Fonda (1940), Horton (1953), Krause (1965), Lawford (1923-1984), Lorre (1904-1964), Reckell (1955) and Sellers (1925-1980).
Fictional characters Peter Parker (Spider-Man’s alter ego) and “Family Guy” Peter Griffin expand Peter’s image beyond Peter Pan’s. And on Aug. 12, Disney will release “Pete’s Dragon,” a remake of its 1977 film about an orphan who finds a friendly dragon in the woods.
Peter’s rank of 206th in 2015 was its lowest ever. Kids born in 2016 may see Peter as elderly rather than as a boy who’ll never grow up. Someday, though, Peter will build on its rock-solid history to become a popular name again.
Cleveland Evans is a Bellevue University psychology professor and author of “The Great Big Book of Baby Names.”