Born Peter Alexander Ustinov, April 16, 1921, in London, England; died of heart failure, March 28, 2004, in Genolier, Switzerland. Actor and writer. Cosmopolitan, erudite, and in possession of seemingly boundless stores of wit, actor Peter Ustinov had a prolific, and prolifically diverse, career. Ustinov was a veteran of stage and film whose screen appearances included the slave-revolt drama Spartacus, but he was also an accomplished playwright, director, author, and even goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He continued taking new roles even in his early eighties, and with characteristic wit reportedly told his agent in that he hoped to keep working until the day he died, "as long as I can be guaranteed that I won't know in advance when it's going to happen," the Independent's Tom Vallance quoted him as saying.
Born in 1921 to parents who were both of half-Russian heritage, Ustinov was descended from true White Russian stock, including an ancestor had owned Imperial Russia's largest caviar fishery. Ustinov's parents, however, lived a more modest existence: his father worked as a journalist in London, and his mother was a painter. A precocious child, Ustinov discovered his talent for voices and accents when he began mimicking his parents' friends at an early age. He was sent to an elite prep school in London, but disliked the stuffy British atmosphere. One of the teachers delivered an early review on a report card, noting that the boy "shows great originality which must be curbed at all costs," according to the Independent's Vallance.
After dropping out of school at the age of 16, Ustinov took acting classes at the London Theater Studio and began writing plays. His first work was produced on the London stage in 1942, when he was just 21. He made his film debut in some wartime comedies that poked fun at Nazi Germany, Britain's arch-enemy at the time, and enlisted in the British Army in 1942. He was bypassed for officers' school, and later made light of another one of his official assessments: "On no account must this man be put in charge of others," a report stated, according to the New York Times.
After the war, Ustinov made a better impression as the Roman Emperor Nero in the 1951 epic Quo Vadis, which earned him an Oscar nomination. Still an active playwright, his 1953 comedy The Love of Four Colonels was named the best play of the year in the New York Drama Critics Circle awards. He continued to divide his time between acting and writing, and won his first Academy Award as best supporting actor for his role as a lovestruck slave dealer in the 1961 Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus. He was more proud of his next achievement, however: a 1962 film adaptation of the Herman Melville classic Billy Budd, for which he wrote the screenplay, directed, and appeared in as well. A second Oscar statue came in 1965 for his portrayal of a bumbling jewel thief in the heist caper Topkapi.
The plays Ustinov wrote were produced in London, New York, Paris, and Berlin, and he sometimes directed them as well as various operas. He also authored such novels as 1960's The Loser, as well as short stories that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. He had a long-running newspaper column, and penned a 1977 memoir, Dear Me. Later screen roles included a turn as famed fictional Detective Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile, a 1978 film, and Appointment With Death a decade later.
Deeply interested in his Russian heritage, Ustinov traveled to the Soviet Union, and filmed two travel specials for television, Peter Ustinov on Russia in 1987 and Ustinov Aboard the Orient Express five years later. Still a talented mimic, he did voice work for animated features, and was most notably the voice of Babar the Elephant for many years.
Since the late 1960s he had served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF, and used his position as an advocate for impoverished children around the world. He continued working well into what were, ostensibly, his retirement years, with a supporting role in a 2003 film about religious leader Martin Luther as one of his last roles. Of that experience, he told one interviewer it helped him to understand why life expectancy in the sixteenth century was so short. It was, the New York Times quoted him as saying, "because having to dress up in curtains, which press the human body in all sorts of places where it's not usually pressed, was real agony."
Though Ustinov had mixed feelings about his British citizenship, and liked to poke fun at the still somewhat stuffy national character, he was knighted in 1991. He spent much of his time on the Continent, however, either at his estate in Switzerland with a vineyard that produced some 4,000 bottles annually, or on a boat he moored off the coast of Spain. Tending to be on the portly side, he suffered from diabetes and heart problems in his later years, and died of heart failure on March 28, 2004, at a clinic near Lake Geneva, Switzerland; he was 82. Perhaps not unsurprisingly, the witty bon vivant and father of four had been married three times, lastly to Helen du Lau d'Allemans in 1972, of whom he told one interviewer, "she has made me into something approaching the man I once hoped to be, privately and secretly," according to Vallance's tribute in the Independent. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Daily Variety, March 30, 2004, p. 2.
Guardian (London), March 30, 2004, p. 3.
Independent (London), March 30, 2004, p. 34.
New York Times, March 30, 2004, p. C14.