From the Archives: Peter Ustinov, 82; Oscar-Winning Actor, Playwright
Peter Ustinov, the two-time Academy Award-winning British character actor whose film roles ranged from Emperor Nero to Agatha Christie’s Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot, has died. He was 82.
Ustinov, a longtime international goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, died of heart failure Sunday night in a clinic in Genolier, Switzerland, near his longtime home in Bursins overlooking Lake Geneva.
In a stage and film career spanning more than 60 years, the versatile Ustinov earned international recognition as an actor, director, producer, playwright and novelist.
On screen, the portly actor was known for his genius in assuming different ethnic accents and personalities in many of the nearly 70 films in which he appeared. He won his supporting actor Oscars for the role of the gladiator-school owner in “Spartacus” (1960) and the part of a small-time British black marketeer in Turkey in “Topkapi” (1964).
James Agate, the London drama critic, once observed: “Ustinov is whipped by something which must be genius since it cannot be talent, for the first characteristic of talent is the taking of trouble, and I suspect that Ustinov never takes any.”
Ustinov won three Emmys for his television roles, as well as a Grammy — for best recording for children for “Peter and the Wolf” (1959), which he narrated.
He also wrote the screenplay for, produced, directed and acted in the 1962 British seagoing allegory “Billy Budd.”
Off screen, Ustinov was well known for his volunteer work with UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund.
His travels on behalf of UNICEF — which appointed him goodwill ambassador in 1968 — took him to China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt, Thailand and other countries. He also hosted scores of international television specials and benefit concerts for the agency.
“The children of the world have lost a true friend,” UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said in a statement Monday. “Sir Peter had a magical way with children and an inimitable way of making their problems matter to people all over the world. He was one of UNICEF’s most effective and beloved partners, a man who exemplified the idea that one person can make a world of difference.”
A witty raconteur, the cosmopolitan actor had a seemingly endless supply of stories that were enlivened by his fluency in more than half a dozen languages and his uncanny gift of mimicry.
“He picked up voices like blue serge picks up lint,” former Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin said Monday. “He was a wonderful storyteller, and he could take a little thing and, by the time he got through embellishing it with his accents, you got, really, a short story. He was one of the most amusing men I ever met.”
Champlin recalled driving in a convertible with Ustinov in extremely slow traffic headed to the Cannes Film Festival, when the actor leaned out and voiced his complaint in a low-class Cockney accent to the startled British tourists in the car in the next lane.
“His voice was a great instrument of fun and frolic,” said Champlin.
Although Ustinov excelled as a long-form storyteller, the puckish actor also had a quick wit, as illustrated during his tour of mainland China for UNICEF in 1986.
In honor of the start of the tour, Chinese television ran “Death on the Nile,” the 1978 film that marked Ustinov’s debut as Hercule Poirot, and he was interviewed as if he were the pompous detective. When asked what his impression of China was, Ustinov unhesitatingly replied: “So many suspects.”
Ustinov was seemingly born to amuse. As he once observed, “I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world.”
The only son of an artist mother and a journalist father, who were of Russian heritage, Ustinov was born in London, where he grew up.
“It’s very difficult for me to feel British,” he once said, listing his Russian, Swiss, Ethiopian, Italian and French blood. On another occasion, he observed: “I rather think of myself as ethnically filthy — and proud of it.”
Ustinov displayed his gift of mimicry at an early age, imitating the speech and mannerisms of his parents’ friends and guests. He also copied what he heard on the radio.
“My father was rather proud of my ability, and he’d have me stand behind a curtain and ‘do radio,’ ” he recalled in a 1991 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “I was always slightly embarrassed, although it did amuse me to do it. I was very good at Hitler and motorcar races.”
He attended Westminster School, an exclusive private school, where he earned his first fee as a writer at 14. It was a sarcastic piece for the London Evening Standard about a fellow student’s art exhibit.
The fellow student was the son of Germany’s powerful ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop and, Ustinov later recalled, his piece “almost caused an international incident.” One early school report said of young Ustinov: “He shows great originality, which must be curbed at all costs.”
At 16, he dropped out of Westminster School before taking his final exams and spent two years at the London Theatre Studio, where he quickly made a name for himself. At 18, he made his London acting debut at the Players Theatre Club in a sketch he had written. By 19, he had written his first play, “House of Regrets,” which was produced two years later.
Ustinov’s budding career in the theater was interrupted by service in the British Army from 1942 to 1946, during which he was assigned to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Kinematograph Service and the Directorate of Army Psychiatry.
As he recalled, he told an officer selection board that he had a preference for tanks “because you can go into battle sitting down.” The board later issued a warning: “On no account must this man be put in charge of others.”
After the war, Ustinov resumed writing, directing and acting on the stage — and in films. He made his U.S. film debut in 1951 in “Quo Vadis?” His role as Nero earned him his first Oscar nomination.
After his 1978 debut as Poirot in the star-studded “Death on the Nile,” he played the immaculately dressed detective in “Evil Under the Sun” (1982) and “Appointment With Death” (1988), as well as in three TV movies.
“I feel slightly possessive about Poirot now,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “He’s not a character I would necessarily like to play at the expense of anything else, but I wouldn’t much care for anyone else to play him. When Rosalind Hicks, Agatha Christie’s daughter, first saw me, she said, ‘That’s not Poirot.’ I said, ‘It is now, my dear.’ ”
The twice-divorced Ustinov, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his artistic and humanitarian efforts in 1990, is survived by his wife, Helene, whom he married in 1972; and his four children.
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