Peter Ustinov

Peter Ustinov

Peter Ustinov was a two-time Academy Award-winning film actor, director, writer, journalist and raconteur. He wrote and directed many acclaimed stage plays and led numerous international theatrical productions.

He was born Peter Alexander Freiherr von Ustinow on April 16, 1921 in Swiss Cottage, London, the son of Nadezhda Leontievna (née Benois) and Jona Freiherr von Ustinow. His father was of one-quarter Polish Jewish, one-half Russian, one-eighth Ethiopian, and one-eighth German descent, while his mother was of one-half Russian, one-quarter Italian, one-eighth French, and one-eighth German ancestry. Ustinov had ancestral connections to Russian nobility as well as to the Ethiopian Royal Family. His father, also known as “Klop Ustinov”, was a pilot in the German Air Force during World War I. In 1919, Jona Freiherr von Ustinow joined his own mother and sister in St Petersburg, Russia, where he met his future wife, artist Nadia Benois, who worked for the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet and Opera House in St Petersburg.

In 1920, in a modest and discreet ceremony at a Russian-German church in St Petersburg, Ustinov’s father married Nadia. In February 1921, when she was seven months pregnant with Peter, the couple emigrated from Russia in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution. Young Peter was brought up in a multilingual family. He was fluent in Russian, French, Italian and German, as well as English. He attended Westminster College (1934-37), took the drama and acting class under Michel St Denis at the London Theatre Studio (1937-39), and made his stage debut in 1938 at the Stage Theatre Club in Surrey. He wrote his first play at the age of 19. In 1939, he made his London stage debut in a revue sketch, then had regular performances with the Aylesbury Repertory Company. The following year, he made his film debut in Hullo, Fame! (1940).

From 1942-46, Ustinov served with the British Army’s Royal Sussex Regiment. He was batman for David Niven, and the two became lifelong friends. Ustinov spent most of his service working with the Army Cinema Unit, where he was involved in making recruitment films, wrote plays and appeared in three films as an actor. At that time he co-wrote and acted in The Way Ahead (1944) (aka “The Immortal Battalion”).

Ustinov had a stellar film career as actor, director, and writer. Among his numerous screen acting gems were his unparalleled, Academy Award-nominated interpretation of Nero in Quo Vadis (1951) and roles in Max Ophüls’s masterpiece Lola Montès (1955), Barefoot in Athens (1966), The Comedians (1967), Robin Hood (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976). He also wrote and directed such brilliant films as Billy Budd (1962), Lady L (1965) and Memed My Hawk (1984). He was awarded two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, one for his role in Spartacus (1960) and one for his role in Topkapi (1964), and received two more Oscar nominations as an actor and writer. His career slowed down a bit in the 1970s, but made a comeback as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978) by director John Guillermin. In the 1980s, Ustinov recreated Poirot in several subsequent television movies and theatrical films, including Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Appointment with Death (1988), while his cinema work in the 1990s also includes his superb performance as Professor Gus Nikolais in George Miller’s excellent dramatic film, Lorenzo’s Oil (1992), a character partially inspired by Hugo Wolfgang Moser, a research scientist who had been director of the Neurogenetics Research Center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University.

His expertise in dialectic and physical comedy made him a regular guest of talk show hosts and late-night comedians. His witty and multidimensional humor was legendary, and he later published a collection of his jokes and quotations summarizing his wide popularity as a raconteur. He was also an internationally acclaimed TV journalist. Ustinov covered over 100,000 miles and visited more than 30 Russian cities during the making of his well-received BBC television series Russia (1986).

In his autobiographies, “Dear Me” (1977) and “My Russia” (1996), Ustinov revealed his observations on his life, career, and his multicultural and multi-ethnic background. He wrote and directed numerous stage plays, successfully presenting them in several countries. His drama, “Photo Finish”, was staged in New York, London and St. Petersburg, Russia, where Ustinov directed the acclaimed production, starring Elena Solovey and Pyotr Shelokhonov. Ustinov also served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and a president of WFM, a global citizens movement. Ustinov served as Rector of Dundee University for six years. He was awarded the Benjamin Franklin Medal from the Royal Society of Arts in 1957 and was knighted in 1990.

From 1971 until his death in 2004, Ustinov’s permanent residence was a château in Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland. He died of heart failure on March 28, 2004, in a clinic in Genolier, also in Vaud. His funeral service was held at Geneva’s historic Cathedral of St. Pierre, and he was laid to rest in the village cemetery of Bursins. He was survived by three daughters (Tamara, Pavla, and Andrea) and one son (Igor). His epitaph may be gleaned from his comment, “I am an international citizen conceived in Russia, born in England, working in Hollywood, living in Switzerland, and touring the World”.

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