Peter Ustinov Dies at 82
29 March 2004
A prolific and popular figure in the world of arts and letters is dead at the age of 82. Sir Peter Ustinov won recognition worldwide as an actor, producer, director, novelist and playwright.
Depending on which reference book you consult, Sir Peter Ustinov worked in 50 to 60 movies and many plays, serving as actor, writer, director or all of the above. He also wrote books, essays and travel articles.
Sir Peter -- he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990 -- was part Russian, German, French, Italian and Ethiopian. He spoke fluent English, French and German, got along in Italian and Russian and knew a little Spanish, Greek and Turkish.
Peter Ustinov was born in London in 1921, the son of a journalist and an artist. His genius for humor and satire showed itself early in his life in witty - to him and his classmates -- impersonations of his teachers. This talent was not appreciated by all. A teacher at his first school in England reportedly wrote: "This boy shows a highly original turn of mind. It should be curbed at once."
Peter Ustinov dropped out of school at the age of 16 to study acting at the London Theatre School. He began his stage career within two years, at the age of 19 wrote his first produced play, House of Regrets, and a year later became a stage producer. The army interrupted his career from 1942 to 1946. He requested tank duty, explaining that it allowed you to go into battle sitting down. The draft board assessment of his military potential read: "On no account must this man be put in charge of others." Instead of tank duty, he was assigned to write a propaganda film for the army.
After the war, Mr. Ustinov resumed writing, directing and acting. He appeared in his first American film, Quo Vadis, in 1951, earning an Academy Award nomination as the emperor Nero. A decade later, he won his first Academy Award or "Oscar" (for best supporting actor), for playing a slave dealer in the 1960 film Spartacus. He displayed a dark sense of humor in this scene, in which his character addressed gladiator slaves in training:
Approximately half our graduates live for five, ten - ten years! Some of them even attain freedom and become trainers themselves - Marcellus. I congratulate you, and may fortune smile on … most of you.
Ustinov would win a second Oscar for his supporting performance in the 1964 crime comedy Topkapi. He considered spontaneity an important element of a film or stage performance:
"There are some very good actors around who give you exactly what they rehearsed. But those actors could be even better if they gave you the impression that what they're doing is actually happening at that moment," said Mr. Ustinov. "And that's something that many actors, I think, both in the theater and in the movies, forget: that it is -- what makes it a living thing and an unpredictable thing is that it is actually occurring at that moment."
Mr. Ustinov believed it was curiosity that kept people alive. He thought of himself as an eternally inquisitive person who was always anxious to see what would happen next. Asked, at the age of 70, to name his favorite role, Peter Ustinov said, "My favorite role is always the next one. And I have not really found out what it is going to be yet. All roles are fascinating so long as they are not tailored for you. If they are tailored for you, you have got the wrong tailor, nearly always, because there is no challenge there."
While he was eager for the challenge of a new role or a new turn in his career, some critics believe that Peter Ustinov occasionally slipped into throwaway (mediocre) projects. Examples of his less memorable work include One of our Dinosaurs is Missing and Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen.
Asked if he would like to do any roles over again, Sir Peter replied, "I don't want to remake anything because life is far too short. For which I am tremendously grateful. It would really be dreadful if it was far too long."
Peter Ustinov spent several decades working for and promoting the United Nations Children's Fund, for which he became an ambassador-at-large. He told an interviewer that he felt his charity work was an obligation that came with his own good fortune.
"I find it extremely rewarding, because I have four children myself who are relatively pleasant to look at, relatively intelligent to talk to. And the time to repay that kind of privilege is when everything is going well," he said. "And we're all very conscious that in many parts of the world it is going much less than well."
Despite the difficulties of the world's children - children he tried to serve through UNICEF -- Mr. Ustinov tried to remain upbeat. "I am extremely optimistic simply because I believe that an optimist is a man who knows exactly how sad and how difficult a place the world can be," he said. "A pessimist is a man who finds it out anew every morning."
Appearing at the National Press Club in Washington in 1991, Sir Peter Ustinov was asked to sum up his various lifetime accomplishments. When a journalist asked him how he would like his epitaph to read, his reply was characteristically unpredictable.
"I have given this matter an enormous amount of thought," he said. "And I think my epitaph would be "Please keep off the grass.""