Sir Peter Alexander Ustinov, CBE, FRSA 16 April 1921 – 28 March 2004), was a British actor, voice actor, writer, dramatist, filmmaker, theatre and opera director, stage designer, screenwriter, comedian, humourist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and television presenter. He was a fixture on television talk shows and lecture circuits for much of his career. An intellectual and diplomat, he held various academic posts and served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement.
Usinov’s parents lived in Eastleach, at no.49, fondly known as the Ustinov house to the locals.
Family background and early life
Peter Alexander Freiherr von Ustinov was born in London, England. His father, Jona Freiherr von Ustinov, was of Russian, Polish Jewish, German and Ethiopian descent. Peter’s paternal grandfather was Baron Plato von Ustinov, a Russian noble, and his grandmother was Magdalena Hall, of mixed German-Ethiopian-Jewish origin. Ustinov’s great-grandfather Moritz Hall, a Jewish refugee from Kraków and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family. Peter’s paternal great-great-grandparents (through Magdalena’s mother) were the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian aristocrat Court-Lady Isette-Werq in Gondar.
Ustinov’s mother, Nadezhda Leontievna Benois, known as Nadia, was a painter and ballet designer of French, German, Italian and Russian descent. Her father, Leon Benois, was an Imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Madonna Benois. Leon’s 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 Emperor Paul I of Russia.
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, Jona von Ustinov began working for the British intelligence service MI5 and became a British citizen, thus avoiding internment during the war. The statutory notice of his application for citizenship was published in a Welsh newspaper so as not to alert the Germans. He was the controller of Wolfgang Gans zu Putlitz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler’s intentions before the Second World War. (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher that Jona 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 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 and a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as 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 changed the name of its Graduate Society to Ustinov College in honour of the significant contributions Ustinov had made as chancellor of the university from 1992 until his death.
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”.
In 1939, he appeared in White Cargo at the Rep, where he performed in a different accent every night. Ustinov served as a private in the British Army during the Second World War, including time spent as batman to David Niven while writing the Niven film The Way Ahead. The difference in their ranks—Niven was a lieutenant-colonel and Ustinov a private—made their regular association militarily impossible; to solve the problem, Ustinov was appointed as Niven’s batman. 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. In 1944, under the auspices of ENSA, he presented and performed the role of Sir Anthony Absolute, in Sheridan’s The Rivals, with Dame Edith Evans, at the Larkhill Camp theater.
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[clarification needed] 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) and an old man surviving a totalitarian future in Logan’s Run (1976). Ustinov voiced the anthropomorphic lions Prince John and King Richard in 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).
In half a dozen films, he played Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot, first in Death on the Nile (1978) and then in 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, 1985’s Thirteen at Dinner (TV movie), 1986’s Dead Man’s Folly (TV movie), 1986’s Murder in Three Acts (TV movie) and 1988’s Appointment with Death.
Ustinov won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). He also won a 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 a love of his life, as was ocean yachting). Ustinov was also 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 difficult and then edited for broadcast by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, who also sometimes took part.
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 undertook set and costume design for Don Giovanni.
In 1968 he was elected the first Rector of the University of Dundee and served two consecutive 3-year terms.
His autobiography, Dear Me (1977), was well received and had him describe his life (ostensibly his childhood) while being interrogated by his own ego, with forays into philosophy, theatre, fame and self-realisation. From 1969 until his death, his acting and writing 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 people 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. On 31 October 1984, Ustinov was due to interview Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi for Irish television. 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 was a frequent guest of Jack Paar’s Tonight Show in the early 1960s and was a guest on the “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° during the course of an hour; Ustinov appeared midway through and was photographed upside down in close-up as he spoke while his host appeared only in long shots. Towards 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 society into which he was born. For example, he took a test as a child, asking him to name a Russian composer; he wrote Rimsky-Korsakov but was marked down. He was then told the correct answer, Tchaikovsky, since he had been studying him in class and was told to stop showing off.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions: in November 1977 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Pinewood Studios on the set of Death on the Nile and a week before, he was surprised at a book signing at book printers Butler and Tanner in Frome, Somerset. This footage was not used, as Ustinov flatly refused to take part and swore at Andrews. His wife persuaded him to change his mind.He was surprised again in December 1994, when Michael Aspel approached him at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.
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 preselector gearbox Delage and a special-bodied Jowett Jupiter. He made records like Phoney Folklore that 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. Ustinov provided his own German and French dubbing for some of his roles, both for Lorenzo’s Oil. As Hercule Poirot, he provided his own voice for the French versions of Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, Murder in Three Acts, Appointment with Death and Evil under the Sun but unlike Jane Birkin, who had dubbed herself in French for this film and Death on the Nile, Ustinov did not provide his voice for the latter (his French voice being provided by Roger Carel, who had already dubbed him in Spartacus and other films). He dubbed himself in German as Poirot only in Evil under the Sun (his other Poirot roles being undertaken by three actors). On the other hand, he provided only his English and German voice for Disney’s Robin Hood and NBC’s Alice in Wonderland.
In the 1960s, he became a Swiss resident to avoid the British tax system, which heavily taxed the earnings of the wealthy. 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 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 went 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. Ustinov also presented and narrated the official video review of the 1987 Formula One season and narrated the documentary series Wings of the Red Star. In 1988, he hosted a live television broadcast entitled The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper. Ustinov gave his name to the Foundation of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award, given annually to a young television screenwriter.
Ustinov was married three times—first to Isolde Denham (1920–1987), 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, who appeared with Ustinov in Death on the Nile. 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 marriage was to Helene du Lau d’Allemans, which lasted from 1972 to his death in 2004.
Ustinov was a secular humanist. He was listed as a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association, and had once served on their advisory council.
Ustinov suffered from diabetes and a weakened heart in his last years.
Ustinov 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.