Peter Ustinov Remembered

I could never put my finger on what kind of actor to call Peter Ustinov. He was certainly a dramatic actor. He played many comedic roles too. And then he played roles with a touch of each. He was a man with so much talent that labels were too narrow.

He was president of a university, leader of a world movement, author, UNICEF ambassador, lecturer, actor, writer, film director and opera composer. He was fluent in many languages and received many awards for his career and charitable work. He was knighted by the Queen.

His life would take a book to adequately capture and I’m not his biographer, so I’ll only point out what I remember, and what I find fascinating in his life.  The man did have a very interesting life.

The word, raconteur, is often associated with Mr. Ustinov.  This might explain why he was so popular on talk shows and on tour where he could entertain audiences with his decades of stories.  Watching him in old interview clips, you get a glimmer of his appeal. His ability to voice many characters and skill with dialects, enhanced his storytelling, and made him in-demand for narration and animated film work.

Most of us know him from his many film and television roles.  Ustinov undertook some unusual characters in his more than 100 credited acting roles.  Many of his roles were small, but critical to the production, and he took advantage of his limited screen time.  How many scenes did he steal?

From 1978 to 1988, Ustinov played Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot six times.  For me, his was the best Poirot, akin to Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple, a lightness to the fastidious of the character.  He was careful to chart a new path for Poirot, less strident than Albert Finney’s portrayal in Murder On the Orient Express.

As a writer, Ustinov penned a number of screenplays, an autobiography, novels, short short stories and plays.  He directed opera as well as a handful of feature films.

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His somewhat quirky approach to characters earned him a variety of offbeat roles, including Blackbeard in Disney’s Blackbeard’s Ghost, small-time hustler Arthur Simon Simpson in Topkapi, Roman emperor Nero in Quo Vadis, Batiatus in Spartacus, the old man in Logan’s Run,  and Jules in We’re No Angels.

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Even when he played a character fairly straight, with minimal mannerisms and without shading the character’s voice, you noticed the silence and measured actions.  He conveyed much by withholding and you waited for his reaction, and you knew it would be something to behold.

At Durham University, where he was associated for many years, they changed the name of one of their schools to Ustinov College.

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Besides his knighthood, he was the recipient of two Academy Awards for supporting film roles, a Grammy for his 1960 recording, Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf, a Golden Globe and three television Emmy Awards.  He was nominated for several Tony Awards for his stage work. Later in life, he devoted himself to UNICEF, the United Nations organization focused on children, for which he was recognized by numerous countries and organizations for his volunteer work over thirty-five years.  He traveled to China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt and Thailand, among other countries on behalf of his work for children.

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The International Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, whose mission is supporting excellence in television around the world, established the annual Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award.

In his autobiography, Dear Me, he wrote, “And that was that I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me the most civilized music in the universe.”

Many, including Ustinov himself, felt that after 1960, his work declined, because the offers were for uninteresting projects that only sought to mine his ability to mimic and be the “dancing bear” that he felt audiences wanted from him.  I would offer after 1960, he did some of his best received work, maybe he gave people what they loved about him, rather than what may have fulfilled him. I am one of people who is glad he gave what we wanted. Thank you Sir Peter, Blackbeard, Nero and your other personas.


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