Ustinov, Peter (Alexander) 1921-2004

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USTINOV, Peter (Alexander) 1921-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born April 16, 1921, in London, England; died of heart failure March 28, 2004, in Bursins, Switzerland. Actor, director, producer, and author. The versatile Ustinov was an award-winning novelist, playwright, and actor who was a regular feature of stage and screen for more than five decades. A descendant of a prominent czarist Russia family, he was born and raised in London, where he quickly demonstrated his love and talent in the theater. After attending private school, he studied acting with Michel Saint-Denis at the London Theater Studio from 1937 to 1939. By 1941, he was appearing on stage and writing plays, and his The Bishop of Limpopoland was produced in London in 1939; the first play he ever wrote, House of Regrets, which he penned while still in his teens, was produced in 1942 to positive reviews. During World War II, Ustinov served as a private in the Sussex Regiment and was assigned to the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Kinematograph Service, and the Directorate of Army Psychiatry; he was not promoted due to his superiors' fears of putting such a puckish man, who once said he liked being in a tank because he could engage in battle while sitting down, in charge of troops. After the war, he returned to play writing and the stage, and he began making film appearances, developing a reputation as a character actor. In the 1960s he won two Academy Awards, one in 1960 for a role in Spartacus, and one in 1964 for his part as a jewel thief in Topkapi; as an actor on television, Ustinov earned Emmy Awards for The Life of Samuel Johnson in 1958, Barefoot in Athens in 1966, and Storm in Summer in 1970. Other memorable roles came in We're No Angels (1955), Billy Budd (1962), for which he wrote the screenplay, produced, and directed, Viva Max! (1969), The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977), and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981); many fans especially remember Ustinov's portrayal of Agatha Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in the films Death on the Nile (1978), Evil under the Sun (1982), and Appointment with Death (1988). His original plays, too, were winning awards, such as a 1953 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for The Love of Four Colonels and the 1956 British Critics' Best Play for Romanoff and Juliet, which was also earned the Evening Standard Drama Award and was nominated for a Tony. In no way a snob about his acting work, Ustinov narrated the children's album Peter and the Wolf, receiving a Grammy for it in 1959, and he even voiced the character of Prince John in Disney's animated feature Robin Hood. Among his artistic pursuits, though, Ustinov numbered his favorite as writing novels, short stories, and plays, which he found to be the most satisfying creatively, while he found his work as a director and producer the least satisfying. He was the author of novels such as The Loser (1960), Krumnagel (1971), and The Old Man and Mr. Smith (1990), essays and articles collected in works like My Russia (1983) and The Quotable Ustinov (1995), and the autobiography Dear Me (1977). In more recent years, Ustinov's health was plagued by diabetes and heart trouble, which made it difficult for him to stand; he nevertheless remained as active as possible, appearing in 1990s movies such as Lorenzo's Oil (1992) and a 1999 version of Alice in Wonderland, in which he played the Walrus. Perhaps because he was so prolific and involved in all types of art forms, some critics of Ustinov's work felt that he spread himself too thin and could not realize his full potential in any single field; more often, however, critics and audiences appreciated his wit, humor, talent, and literate and intelligent style. Furthermore, Ustinov was a humanitarian, establishing the Peter Ustinov Foundation, which fought against prejudice and disease around the world, and working as a pro bono ambassador for the United Nation's Children's Fund. For his many humanitarian and artistic contributions, Ustinov was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1975 and knighted in 1990; he also received numerous honorary degrees and other honors.



Contemporary Dramatists, sixth edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.

Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 28, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2000.


Chicago Tribune, March 30, 2004, Section 3, p. 11.

Los Angeles Times, March 30, 2004, p. B10.

New York Times, March 30, 2004, p. C14.

Times (London, England), March 30, 2004, p. 29.

Washington Post, March 30, 2004, p. B7.