British Stage and Film Star Peter Ustinov Is Dead at 82

Obituaries   British Stage and Film Star Peter Ustinov Is Dead at 82
Peter Ustinov, the portly, bearded Renaissance man of British theatre, who carried on simultaneous careers as actor, director, playwright and all-around wit for half a century, died in Switzerland on March 28. He was 82.
Sir Peter Ustinov
Sir Peter Ustinov

Mr. Ustinov, who was born in London, seemed to go through life with a devilish twinkle in his eye. He saw humor in every aspect of his career and life and expressed his thoughts imcomparably well in countless talk show appearances. "Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious," he once said.

He won an Oscar for his performance as a cowardly Roman slave trader in "Spartacus." He injected a needed bit of levity into that heavy epic, and it was a measure of his inate wit that many of his lines were improvised, including a moment in which he corrected the angle of a slave-held umbrella meant to shade him, with a comment about how hard it was to find good help.

He also won an Oscar for 1964's "Topkapi."

He was a dedicated man on the theatre and served it on several fronts. Aside from his many stage appearances, he was an accomplished playwright and director. His best known work was perhaps Romanoff and Juliet, for which he also wrote songs and acted in a leading role. The show was produced in London and on Broadway, where it was a hit in the late '50s. George S. Kaufman directed the play, which was produced by David Merrick.

For Romanoff, he was nominated for a Tony Award in both the Best Actor and Best Play categories. In London, it won the Evening Standard Best New Play Award. His first play, House of Regrets, was produced in 1942, when he was barely out of his teens. Another play, The Love of Four Colonels, ran for two years in London's West End, with him acting one of the roles. It transferred to Broadway in 1953, where Rex Harrison starred and directed. There, it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.

Other works from his pen include Photo Finish, The Unknown Soldier and His Wife, Halfway Up the Tree, Who's Who in Hell and Beethoven's Tenth, which lasted only 25 performances in 1984. In almost all of them, he either acted or directed. None were as successful as Four Colonels or Romanoff and Juliet.

Mr. Ustinov's many accomplishments included a fluency in several languages (French, German, English, Italian, Russian and Spanish), the authorship of novels ("The Loser," "Krumnagel"), a book of cartoons ("We Were Only Human") and a memoir ("Dear Me"), as well as work as a good will ambassador for the U.N. Children's Fund. Critic Kenneth Tynan called him a "Protean polyglot."

For the movies, he wrote screenplays, directed and produced, often adapting his own plays. He sold his first screenplay at age 24, and director his first film at 25. For these achievements, critic Leonard Maltin called him "the U.K.'s Wellsian boy wonder." He certainly resembled Welles in his rotund Falstaffian figure, which was topped off at the five-foot-eleven mark by a mop of thick, rumpled hair.

He was his best as loquacious characters possessed of a droll, sometimes dangerous outlook on life. He earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in "Quo Vadis?" as emperor Nero, and wrote, produced, directed, and acted in 1962's "Billy Budd." Mr. Ustinov also won an Emmy Award for his portrayal of Dr. Samuel Johnson in a 1957 television film—a role that likely fit him like a glove. He won another for his Socrates in "Barefoot in Athens." His narration of Tchaikovsky's "Peter and the Wolf" netted him a Grammy, according to Newsday. He was knighted in 1990.

Peter Ustinov was born on April 16, 1921, to a journalist father and an artist mother, both partly of Russian descent. His grandfather was an officer in the Czar's Army and was exiled abroad after refusing to take an oath to the Eastern Orthodox Church, because he was Protestant, according to the Internet Movie Database. Other relatives were also prominent in Czarist Russia, among them an owner of a large cavier fishery and the Czar's court architect, reported the New York Times. He claimed to have Swiss, Ethiopian, Italian and French blood racing through his veins.

The influence of his mixed ethnicity and globe-trotting upbringing showed in his writing. His plays boasted all sorts of settings, and features characters from every part of the planet. As Tynan put it, "When Greek meets Greek, Mr. Ustinov is bored; but let Greek meet Dane (or Turk or Finn), and at once he is alert, ready to explode into the furry, compassionate chuckle which is his unfailing response to the bewildering legacy of Babel."

He trained as an actor at the London Theatre Studio. He served in World War II at batman to Lt. Col. David Niven. (He would later direct his former superior in the film "Lady L.")

His first London stage appearance was, typically, in a 1939 sketch of his own devising. Early credits included White Cargo, First Night, Swinging the Gate, Fishing for Shadows, Diversion and Diversion II. The latter two were revues featuring his own material. He played Petrovich in Crime and Punishment in 1946; Caligula in his own adaptation of Frenzy in 1948; and Love in Albania in 1949, which he also directed. From the late '50s, he primarily appeared in his own plays.

He was married three times, to Isolde Denham (1940-45), Suzanne Cloutier (1954-71) and Helene du Lau d'Allemans. He had one child with Denham and three with Cloutier.

His efforts in later years received less acclaim than had his efforts of the '50s and '60s. At one point, he made a commercial for American Express, explaining he did it "to pay for my American Express bill." In 1997, pop star Lauren Christy released a song called "The Night I Save Peter Ustinov," in which the actor, despondent, it getting ready to throw himself in the river, lamenting "I used to be Peter Ustinov/But used to's not good enough for me." The narrator offers some flattery to dissuade him:

"What about `Billy Budd'
The innocent no one could save
So tell me what you're dying for
Have you been so disrespected?"
He winked at me and said, "`Billy Budd,'
I wrote, starred and directed."
Then he bowed and kiss my hand
And said, "What was I thinking of?"

"I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter," Mr. Ustinov once said of his career, "the sound of which has always seemed to me the most civilized music in the world."

Peter Ustinov (left), with Elizabeth Allen and Michael Tolan in <i>Romanoff and Juliet</i>
Peter Ustinov (left), with Elizabeth Allen and Michael Tolan in Romanoff and Juliet
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