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Until the Iraqi war broke out, Peter O’Toole provided the biggest guessing game of this Oscar season: Would he show up to receive his honorary statue for lifetime achievement?

He did come, and delivered a graceful and grateful thank-you to the Academy that had long honored him with nominations and adulation, but never with an Oscar.

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride, my foot,” said a regal if subdued O’Toole, brandishing the award. “I have my very own now, and I’m as delighted as I am honored, and I am honored.” Backstage, he said receiving the award was “exhilarating and charming.”

But until the ceremony began there were still questions about whether he indeed would turn up. After the Academy announced its plans, O’Toole sent a letter to prexy Frank Pierson, pleading that the Acad not give him the honorary award just yet, in the hope that at 70, he might still win one the hard way. Though “enchanted” by the offer, he wrote that because he was “still in the game and might win the lovely bugger outright, would the Academy please defer the honor until I am 80?”

It was the sort of slightly mad punctuation to a sterling career that perfectly fit O’Toole’s storied but never simple career, one spent playing dreamers, schemers, drunks, madmen and other rarefied sorts. And he still has a chance, given his latest role, as Priam in next year’s swords-and-sandals epic “Troy.”

Born in Ireland and reared in the north English industrial town of Leeds, O’Toole was already a busy stage performer in England when he burst onto the bigscreen as the title character in 1962’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” His charismatic, intense perf scored the first of his seven Oscar nominations, all for best actor. Other noms came for playing Henry II in both “Becket” and “The Lion in Winter”; a Mephistophelean director (“The Stunt Man”); a love-besotted but timid teacher (“Goodbye, Mr. Chips”); a dissolute actor (“My Favorite Year”); and a mad nobleman (“The Ruling Class”).

On Oscar night, he ladled kudos on actors young and old, and “the United States and the loves and friendships” he has had here over the past 50 years.

“And now,” he said, “at this last, you’ve given me this delightful shock.”

(Jill Feiwell contributed to this report.)

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