What Becomes of a Playboy Past His Prime?

Peter O'Toole is nominated for a best actor Academy Award for his 54th film.

In "Venus," O'Toole plays Maurice, an actor in decay, a natural leading man resigned to playing the occasional corpse.

In the film, Maurice finds a new reason for living in the form of a friend's grandniece, a young woman more than 50 years his junior.

Maurice finds the young girl working as a nude model for an art class, and eventually she warms up to him, without knowing who he once was. The audience is reminded by Vanessa Redgrave, playing Valerie, the wife he abandoned but still visits.

"Maurice! You're on the telly!" Valerie says. "Look how gorgeous you were."

The film's director doesn't show the audience what the characters see on the television, but any fan of Peter O'Toole can imagine a host of iconic images: O'Toole as a young Lawrence on the windswept dunes of Arabia, perhaps, or opposite Katharine Hepburn in "The Lion in Winter," two of the roles that also earned him Oscar nominations.

This year, the nomination for "Venus" brings the total to eight, but victory has eluded him -- after four decades, no statue. Even for a legend like O'Toole, the prospect of an elusive Oscar remains the holy grail.

Always a Bridesmaid

O'Toole's nomination dry spell goes back to 1982, when he earned the nod for his role as Alan Swann in "My Favorite Year." In the 25 years since, good scripts have become harder to find.

"A few years back I was asked if I would go and meet a director and his various acolytes, and it occurred to me halfway through the meeting that what I was doing was auditioning," O'Toole said. "And I thought, 'Well, hang on buddy. I've done half a century of this.' And I just felt, 'Oh f--k you.' I beg your pardon."

His language was cleaner, but the sentiment was the same, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered to present him with an honorary Oscar four years ago. Thanks anyway, he told the academy, but "I'm still in the game, and may win the lovely bugger outright."

O'Toole said he regretted that abrasive stance -- in the end, he humbly accepted the honorary award -- but he's still holding out "to do something specific and earn the d--n thing."

Despite a career built on being as cool as a cucumber, O'Toole doesn't deny that he would like the one honor he has failed to achieve.

"An Oscar is a symbol that is known in every corner of the world. … Any actor who is in the movies would love to have one," he said. "I'm not too fussy about all the various awards that are thrown here, there, everywhere, but this is a big 'un."

Still, O'Toole is less than sanguine about his chances. "Yeah, yes, I'll go and become an eighth-time loser," he said.

The Playboy's Playboy

The charm to glibly accept a failure, like losing an Oscar, is a big part of the O'Toole legend. That, of course, and his baby blues.

"If you were any prettier," Noel Coward famously told him, "it would've been 'Florence of Arabia.'"

There was shock from Hollywood to London when the 26-year-old Irishman was cast to play a British icon.

Sure, he'd attended the Royal Academy and had a few film and stage roles under his belt, but he was still a struggling actor. When the epic hit the screen, the struggle lessoned considerably. That famous charm helped O'Toole earn a reputation as a playboy as dashing as the character that earned him his first Oscar nomination.

"You know we were in Arabia -- we were in the middle of the desert and we lived in tents," O'Toole said. "We'd stick up the tents, wake up in the morning, and go off and do a scene. … Then Omar Shariff and I would go off to Beirut."

And, O'Toole recalled, he and Shariff had their share of adventure in the "Paris of the Middle East."

"There was everything that two young men could have wanted," O'Toole said. "There was a big casino and night life. There was gambling. There was all sorts of things. Lovely girls kicking their heels up in the air. It was smashing."

At one moment in "Venus," the audience sees a picture of O'Toole from an earlier era. Looking back on his former self, the screen legend says he has no regrets.

"I look at this young man and remember I wasn't a bad kid. A bit wild, a bit anarchic," O'Toole said. "I can remember him. Yes, he was a bit noisy and drank far too much and could be a pain in the ass, I suppose, but he wasn't a bad fellow. Whatever else he was, that young man, he was a very serious actor and I like that."

On the Razor's Edge

O'Toole said he knew that the May-December romance in "Venus" was touchy subject matter, but he praised the deft way in which it was handled.

"It's a razor's edge, a romance with an old man and a young woman," O'Toole said. "I can't bear them, some of them. I think, 'Oh, stop it. It's rubbish.' … But Hanif Kureishi, the author [of the novel on which 'Venus' is based] had taken this razor's edge and written it like a three-lane highway."

"It's a very tricky subject," O'Toole said, "but to see it handled with such enormous humanity and fun, it was great fun."

Despite the actions of his character in the film, O'Toole confessed to a different stance in his personal life.

"[If] my daughters brought back anybody, the poor anybody was in terrible trouble," he said. "If I sense they were messing my child around at all, I'll break his neck."