Sir Peter Alexander Ustinov CBE 16 April 1921 - 28 March 2004) was an English actor, writer and dramatist. He was also renowned as a filmmaker, theatre and opera director, stage designer, author, screenwriter, comedian, humourist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and television presenter. A noted wit and raconteur, he was a fixture on television talk shows and lecture circuits for much of his career. He was also a respected intellectual and diplomat who, in addition to his various academic posts, served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement.
Ustinov was the winner of numerous awards over his life, including two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards for acting, a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well the recipient of governmental honours from, amongst others, the United Kingdom, France and Germany. He displayed a unique cultural versatility that has frequently earned him the accolade of a Renaissance man. Miklós Rózsa, composer of the music for Quo Vadis and of numerous concert works, dedicated his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 (1950) to Ustinov.
In 2003 Durham University renamed its Graduate Society as Ustinov College in honour of the significant contributions Ustinov had made while serving as Chancellor of the University from 1992 onwards.
Childhood and early life
Ustinov was born Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinow in Swiss Cottage, London. His father, Jona (born Jonah Freiherr von Ustinow), nicknamed "Klop" (Russian: Клоп, "bed-bug"), was of Russian, German, Swiss and Ethiopian noble descent, and had served as a lieutenant in the Imperial German Luftstreitkräfte in World War I. Jona's father was Plato von Ustinov. Jona (or Iona) worked as a press officer at the German Embassy in London in the 1930s, and was a reporter for a German news agency. In 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Iona von Ustinov began working for the British intelligence service MI5 and became a British citizen, thus avoiding internment during the war. He was the controller of Wolfgang zu Putlitz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler's intentions before World War II. (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher that Klop was possibly the spy known as U35; Ustinov says in his autobiography that his father hosted secret meetings of senior British and German officials at their London home.) Ustinov's great-grandfather Moritz Hall, a Jewish refugee from Krakow and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family.
Ustinov's mother, Nadezhda Leontievna "Nadia" Benois, was a painter and ballet designer of Russian, French and Italian ancestry. Her father Leon Benois was an imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Madonna Benois. His brother Alexandre Benois was a stage designer who worked with Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Their paternal ancestor Jules-César Benois was a chef who had left France for St Petersburg during the French Revolution and became a chef to Tsar Paul.
Ustinov was educated at Westminster School and had a difficult childhood because of his parents' constant fighting. One of his schoolmates was Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the eldest son of the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. While at school Ustinov considered anglicising his name to "Peter Austin" but was counselled against it by a fellow pupil who said that he should “Drop the ‘von’ but keep the ‘Ustinov’”. After training as an actor in his late teens, along with early attempts at playwriting, he made his stage début in 1938 at the Players' Theatre, becoming quickly established. He later wrote, "I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape road from the dismal rat race of school."
Ustinov served as a private soldier in the British Army during World War II, including time spent as batman to David Niven while writing a Niven film. In 1939 he appeared in White Cargo at the Aylesbury Rep, where he had a different accent every night. He also appeared in propaganda films, debuting in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), in which he was required to deliver lines in English, Latin and Dutch. After the war he began writing; his first major success was with the play The Love of Four Colonels (1951). He starred with Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray in We're No Angels (1955). His career as a dramatist continued, his best-known play being Romanoff and Juliet (1956). His film roles include Roman emperor Nero in Quo Vadis (1951), Lentulus Batiatus in Spartacus (1960), Captain Vere in Billy Budd (1962), an old man surviving a totalitarian future in Logan's Run (1976), and, in half a dozen films, Hercule Poirot, a part he first played in Death on the Nile (1978). Ustinov voiced the anthropomorphic lion Prince John of the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood. He also worked on several films as writer and occasionally director, including The Way Ahead (1944), School for Secrets (1946), Hot Millions (1968) and Memed, My Hawk (1984).
Ustinov won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). He could arguably be considered the first man of known Russian descent to have won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He also won one Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for the film Quo Vadis (he set the Oscar and Globe statuettes up on his desk as if playing doubles tennis; the game was also a love of his life, as was ocean yachting). Furthermore, Ustinov was the winner of three Emmys and one Grammy, and was nominated for two Tony Awards.
Between 1952 and 1955, he starred with Peter Jones in the BBC radio comedy In All Directions. The series featured Ustinov and Jones as themselves in a London car journey perpetually searching for Copthorne Avenue. The comedy derived from the characters they met, whom they often also portrayed. The show was unusual for the time as it was improvised rather than scripted. Ustinov and Jones improvised on a tape, which was very difficult then edited for broadcast by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, who also sometimes took part. The favourite characters were Morris and Dudley Grosvenor, two rather stupid East End spivs whose sketches always ended with the phrase "Run for it Morry" (or Dudley as appropriate.)
During the 1960s, with the encouragement of Sir Georg Solti, Ustinov directed several operas including Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, Ravel's L'heure espagnole, Schoenberg's Erwartung and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Further demonstrating his great talent and versatility in the theatre, Ustinov later did set and costume design for Don Giovanni.
His autobiography, Dear Me (1977), was well received and saw him describe his life (ostensibly his childhood) while being interrogated by his own ego, with forays into philosophy, theatre, fame, and self-realization. In concluding, Ustinov muses "We have gone through much together, Dear Me, and yet it suddenly occurs to me we don't know each other at all".
In the later part of his life (from 1969 until his death), his acting and writing tasks took second place to his work on behalf of UNICEF, for which he was a Goodwill Ambassador and fundraiser. In this role he visited some of the neediest children and made use of his ability to make just about anybody laugh, including many of the world's most disadvantaged children. "Sir Peter could make anyone laugh," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy is quoted as saying. "His one-man show in German was the funniest performance I have ever seen – and I don’t speak a word of German."
On 31 October 1984, Ustinov was to meet with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was assassinated on her way to the meeting.
Ustinov also served as President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 until his death. He once said, "World Government is not only possible, it is inevitable; and when it comes, it will appeal to patriotism in its truest, in its only sense, the patriotism of men who love their national heritages so deeply that they wish to preserve them in safety for the common good."
He is best known to many Britons and Americans as a chat-show guest, a role to which he was ideally suited. He was an extremely frequent guest of Jack Paar's Tonight Show in the early 1960s and was a guest on the famous "upside down" episode of the American talk show Late Night, during which the camera, mounted on a slowly revolving wheel, gradually rotated the picture 360 degrees during the course of an hour; Ustinov appeared midway through and was photographed upside down in close-up as he spoke while his host only appeared in long shots. Toward the end of Ustinov's life he undertook some one-man stage shows in which he let loose his raconteur streak – he told the story of his life, including some moments of tension with the national society he was born into (as just one example, he took a test as a child which asked him to name a Russian composer; he wrote Rimsky-Korsakov but was marked down, told the correct answer was Tchaikovsky since they had been studying him in class, and told to stop showing off).
A car enthusiast since the age of four, he owned a succession of interesting machines ranging from a Fiat Topolino, several Lancias, a Hispano-Suiza, a pre-selector Delage and a special-bodied Jowett Jupiter. He made records like Phoney Folklore which included the song of the Russian peasant "whose tractor had betrayed him" and his "Grand Prix of Gibraltar" was a vehicle for his creative wit and ability at car engine sound-effects and voices.
He spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and Russian fluently, as well as some Turkish and modern Greek. He was proficient in accents and dialects in all his languages.
In the late 1960s, he became a Swiss citizen to avoid the British tax system of the time, which heavily taxed the earnings of the wealthy. However, he was knighted in 1990, and was appointed Chancellor of Durham University in 1992, having previously been elected as the first Rector of the University of Dundee in 1968 (a role in which he moved from being merely a figurehead to taking on a political role, negotiating with militant students). Ustinov was re-elected to the post for a second term three year term in 1971 narrowly beating Michael Parkinson after a disputed recount.
He received an honorary doctorate from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium).
Ustinov was a frequent defender of the Chinese government, stating in an address to Durham University in 2000, "People are annoyed with the Chinese for not respecting more human rights. But with a population that size it's very difficult to have the same attitude to human rights." In 2003, Durham's postgraduate college (previously known as the Graduate Society) was renamed Ustinov College.
Ustinov came to Berlin on a UNICEF mission in 2002 to visit the circle of United Buddy Bears that promote a more peaceful world between nations, cultures and religions for the first time. He was determined to ensure that Iraq would also be represented in this circle of about 140 countries. In 2003, he sponsored and opened the second exhibition of the United Buddy Bears in Berlin.
Amongst his lesser known works, Ustinov presented and narrated the official video review of the 1987 Formula One season. His commentary proved highly entertaining. Ustinov also narrated the documentary series Wings of the Red Star.
Ustinov gave his name to the Foundation of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award, given annually to a young television screenwriter. Ustinov appeared as a guest star during the first season of The Muppet Show in 1976. The theme of the show had Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Hilda "The Wardrobe Lady" and Scooter openly saying to Kermit the Frog how much they admired and wanted to be like Peter Ustinov. Kermit was under the impression that they harboured these feeling towards him but hastily altered them when Ustinov was on the show, and so to cheer himself up Kermit goes off and sings "It's Not Easy Bein' Green". At the end of the episode Kermit admits to Ustinov that he feels a bit jealous and Ustinov responds by saying "...I'm jealous of you. I've always wanted to be a frog". One of the highlights of the episode is when Ustinov becomes "The Robot Politician", which was Bunsen Honeydew's latest invention. In the sketch when "The Robot Politician" inevitably breaks down, Ustinov accidentally punches Dr. Bunsen Honeydew in the face before blowing up. In a later interview about his time with Jim Henson's creations he said "...you took the characters absolutely seriously and paid no attention to the manipulator..." adding "...there's an old theatrical saying...'never work with children or animals'...I would add puppets to that list because they always steal the limelight."
Ustinov was married three times – first to Isolde Denham, daughter of Reginald Denham and Moyna MacGill. The marriage lasted from 1940 to their divorce in 1950, and they had one child, daughter Tamara Ustinov. Isolde was the half-sister of Angela Lansbury. His second marriage was to Suzanne Cloutier, which lasted from 1954 to their divorce in 1971. They had three children, two daughters, Pavla Ustinov and Andrea Ustinov, and a son, Igor Ustinov.
His third and final marriage was to Helene du Lau d' Allemans, which lasted from 1972 to his death. Ustinov suffered from diabetes and a weakened heart in his last years.
He died on 28 March 2004 of heart failure in a clinic in Genolier, near his home in Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland. He was so well regarded as a goodwill ambassador that UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy spoke at his funeral and represented United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Ustinov was the President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 to 2004, the time of his death. WFM is a global NGO that promotes the concept of global democratic institutions. WFM lobbies those in powerful positions to establish a unified human government based on democracy and civil society. The United Nations and other world agencies would become the institutions of a World Federation. The UN would be the federal government and nation states would become like provinces.
He was also unintentionally a part witness to the assassination of India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was on her way to be interviewed by him for a documentary for Irish television, at her residence, when two of her bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, opened fire and riddled her with bullets.
Novels and plays
- Doctor Snuggles
- Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)
- Omni: The New Frontier
- Death on the Nile (1978)
- Evil Under the Sun (1982)
- Thirteen at Dinner (1985)
- Dead Man's Folly (1986)
- Murder in Three Acts (1986)
- Appointment with Death (1988)
- 1952 nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Quo Vadis)
- 1961 won: Best Supporting Actor (Spartacus)
- 1965 won: Best Supporting Actor (Topkapi)
- 1969 nominated: Best Original Screenplay (Hot Millions)
- 1962 nominated: Best British Screenplay (Billy Budd)
- 1978 nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Death on the Nile)
- 1992 won: Britannia Award
- 1995 nominated: Best Light Entertainment Performance (An Evening with Sir Peter Ustinov)
Berlin International Film Festival
- 1961 nominated: Golden Bear (Romanoff and Juliet)
- 1972 won: Silver Bear for an outstanding artistic contribution (Hammersmith Is Out)
- 1958 won: Best Single Performance by a Leading or Supporting Actor (Omnibus: The Life of Samuel Johnson)
- 1967 won: Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Barefoot in Athens)
- 1970 won: Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (A Storm in Summer)
- 1982 nominated: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Informational Programming (Omni: The New Frontier)
- 1985 nominated: Outstanding Classical Program in the Performing Arts (The Well-Tempered Bach with Peter Ustinov)
Golden Globe Award
- 1952 won: Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Quo Vadis)
- 1961 nominated: Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Spartacus)
- 1965 nominated: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (Topkapi)
- 1960 won: Best Recording for Children (Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf) with the Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan
- 1958 nominated: Best Play (Romanoff and Juliet)
- 1958 nominated: Best Actor in a Play (Romanoff and Juliet)
Evening Standard British Film Award
- 1980 won Best Actor (Death on the Nile)
- 1992: Britannia Award
- 1993: London Critics' Award
- 1994: Bambi
- 1997: German Video Prize of the DIVA Award
- 1998: Bavarian Television Award
- 2001: Golden Camera (Goldene Kamera, Berlin)
- 2002: Planetary Consciousness Award of the Club of Budapest
- 2004: Bavarian Film Award (Bayerischer Filmpreis)
- 2004: Rose d'Or Charity Award with UNICEF (posthumously)
- 1974: Golden Camera Award for Best Actor for the Exchange of Notes
- 1978: Prix de la Butte for Oh my goodness! Messy memoirs
- 1981: Karl-Valentin-Orden (Munich)
- 1987: Golden Rascal (Goldenes Schlitzohr)
State honours and awards
- 1957: Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (London)
- 21 September 1974: Order of the Smile (Poland)
- 1975: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) (United Kingdom)
- 1978: UNICEF International Prize for outstanding services
- 1985: Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
- 1986: Istiqlal Order (Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan)
- 1987: Order of the Yugoslav Flag
- 1990: Gold Medal of the City of Athens
- 1990: Medal of the Hellenic Red Cross
- 1990: Knight Bachelor (United Kingdom)
- 1991: Medal of Charles University in Prague
- 1994: Knight of the National Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil)
- 1994: German Culture Prize (Deutscher Kulturpreis)
- 1995: International UNICEF Prize for Outstanding Services
- 1998: Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz)
- 2001: Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class
- 2004: Hanseatic Bremen Prize for International Understanding (Bremer Hansepreis für Völkerverständigung)
- 1967: Cleveland Institute of Music (Honorary Doctor of Music)
- 1969: Dundee University (Honorary Doctor of Laws)
- 1971: La Salle University, Philadelphia (Honorary Doctor of Laws)
- 1972: Lancaster University (Honorary Doctor of Humanities)
- 1973: University of Lethbridge (Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts)
- 1984: University of Toronto
- 1988: Georgetown University (Honorary Doctor of Humanities)
- 1991: University of Ottawa (Honorary Doctor of Laws)
- 1992: University of Durham (Honorary Doctor of Humanities)
- 1995: St. Michael's College, Toronto
- 1995: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Toronto)
- 1995: University of Brussels
- 2000: National University of Ireland
- 2001: International University of Geneva
In popular culture
In 1997 singer/songwriter Lauren Christy released a song entitled The Night I Saved Peter Ustinov off of her Polygram Records album Breed. In it Christy recounts a story in which she saves Ustinov from a suicide attempt.