Come Oscar night, there will be no mystery about the winner of 2003's Honorary award. It's Peter O'Toole. What will keep us on the edge of our seats is whether he'll be on hand to accept it. The mercurial star, now 70, who's been nominated seven times but never won, sent an open letter to the Academy expressing his ''enchantment,'' but asked that since he's ''still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?''
It's just another surprise from an actor who's made a career of surprises, starting with his breakthrough role in 1962's Lawrence of Arabia. He was a virtual unknown when he was chosen by director David Lean. But O'Toole's turn as T.E. Lawrence is still an astonishingly assured performance by any standard. The role won him critical kudos -- here was a blue-eyed dreamboat who could act -- international stardom, and his first Oscar nod. Over the next few years he would earn two more nominations, oddly for playing the same character: King Henry II in 1964's Becket, with Richard Burton, and 1968's The Lion in Winter, with Katharine Hepburn (of whom O'Toole once said, ''I've never enjoyed working with anyone so much, not even Burton'').
Period epics aside, O'Toole also proved his versatility. His shy professor in the 1969 musical Goodbye, Mr. Chips was subtle, charming work. And as the schizophrenic heir who's convinced he's Jesus Christ in 1972's The Ruling Class, the actor whirled Peter Barnes' wickedly funny script like a delectably mad dervish. The result: two more nods, two more losses.
Then came hard times in the mid-'70s when O'Toole dropped out, retreating to his native Ireland, to nurse a body ravaged by too much booze and a debilitating illness. ''The 40s are a tough time,'' he said afterward. ''You either come to terms with your age or you don't. I just turned it inward.''
And then outward. In the '80s O'Toole reemerged like a phoenix -- gaunt, but sober, and with a new vulnerability that permeated his performances, most notably his steely director in 1980's The Stunt Man and his Barrymore-esque star in 1982's My Favorite Year. In the latter he teases laughs from seemingly benign lines (''Double the lad's bet for me, you toad''), does splendid pratfalls, and is so unguarded at times that the film's comic surface is shattered by moments of sudden poignancy. For both films, the actor was again noticed by the Academy. And again, he didn't win.
With O'Toole we've come to expect the unexpected. That's part of his great gift. Maybe he will walk up to the podium someday to win the ''lovely bugger.'' But in the meantime, come Oscar night, the question remains: Will he or won't he?