Ustinov's Roles Run the International Gamut


Peter Ustinov, an Englishman of Russian ancestry, rarely gets to portray either Britons or Russians.

Other than those two exceptions, he is regularly cast in a veritable United Nations of characters, thanks in no small part to his marvelous ability with dialects and a face that makes him everyone's Dutch uncle.

But then, what can he expect? Ustinov lives in Switzerland and works all over the world.

He most recently played a nobleman in "The French Revolution," a monumental six-hour motion picture celebrating the 200th anniversary of France's guillotine gala.

"I portray the Count of Mirabeau," Ustinov said, "who unfortunately dies before he can be beheaded, thereby robbing me of a longer part in the picture. He was a paradox. His emotional life was erratic and scabrous, but his political stance was unusual for the times. He was a militant and aggressive middle-of-the-roader who sought to establish a constitutional monarchy.

"I also recently finished an Italian film in which I play a drunken veterinarian who gave up practicing medicine on humans. He drinks because he thinks it will help him get on the canine wavelength.

"He manages to teach 40 dogs to sing the chorus from 'Nobucco' by Verdi. I don't know the title of the film because the Italian producers keep changing it. Originally it was 'Dogs Paradise.'

"It's in Italian and my dialogue was dubbed.

"I am destined to play foreigners, it seems. I did play Englishmen in 'Around the World in 80 Days,' 'The Sundowners' and 'Hot Millions' a long time ago. Occasionally I play Americans--the old Jewish delicatessen man in 'A Storm in Summer.'

"I don't look particularly like an Englishman, but then I'm rarely asked to play a Russian. I do remember the Chinese became upset when I was asked to play Charlie Chan.' I also played a Chinese in 'One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing.' "

Ustinov sat back expansively in his chair in an office in Hollywood. He was atrociously dressed in a blue-green corduroy suit, brown brogans, a black-and white hound's-tooth dress shirt and a Day-Glo lavender necktie.

"You have to be eye-catching these days," he said, denying being color blind.

Ustinov said he can manage the appearance of being foreign in any culture in which he finds himself.

"I play a Belgian in the Hercule Poirot detective films," he said. "At one point I played nothing but ancient Romans. I even played an old American in 'Logan's Run.' It was depressing because he was 100 years old and the makeup man said it would take only 20 minutes to apply greasepaint to make me look that old.

"They gave me an Emmy for playing a Greek--Socrates. In 'Viva Max' I was a Mexican general. Then I was an Italian-American in 'An Angel Flew Over Brooklyn.'

"I can speak Dutch, which makes it easy for me to play Dutchmen. They speak deeper in their throats than any race, which makes them sound as if they're speaking from a great distance.

"Germans? Of course. Many. I played Beethoven in my own play in Berlin--in German. It was a great success.

"I was a Nazi in an English farce titled 'The Goose Stepped Out' in 1941. And I was the crown prince of Bavaria in 'Lady L.' I was cast as a German psychiatrist in 'Hammersmith is Out.'

"I was not overlooked by Scandinavia. I played the Norwegian 'Peer Gynt.' However, I've never played an Indian, which I regret. I was a Polish spy in one film, but I've forgotten the title.

"I began my career in school playing a pig in a children's play. I wore a pig mask and the mistress wrote in her report that I was 'adequate' in the part. Not really an inspiration for an actor."

Ustinov is the author of two novels, an autobiography titled "Dear Me," two collections of short stories, two books about Russia and currently a pair of novellas.

"Writing and acting are different disciplines," he said. "Acting, to my mind, is a sport. It makes you feel rather better than jogging does. Writing is more difficult. Not a sport at all."

Next on his agenda, hopefully, is "The Man Who Loved Hitchcock," in which Ustinov would play the famed director involved with a criminal who commits crimes based on Hitchcock movies.

"Everybody loves the script, but nobody wants to put money into it," he sighed. "I would dearly love to play Hitchcock."

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