Peter Ustinov was a two-time Academy Award-winning film actor, a 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 Ustinov on April 16, 1921, in Swiss Cottage, London, England, the son of Nadezhda Leontievna (Benois) and Iona von Ustinov. His father was of one quarter Polish Jewish, one half Russian, one eighth African 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”, was a pilot in the German Air Force during World War I. In 1919, Peter’s father joined his own mother and sister in St. Petersburg, Russia. There he met Peter’s mother, artist Nadia Benois, who worked for the Imperial Mariinsky Ballet and Opera House in St. Petersburg. In 1920, in a modest and discrete ceremony at a Russian-German Church in St. Petersburg, Ustinov’s father married Nadia. Later, when she was seven months pregnant with Peter, the couple emigrated from Russia, in 1921, in the aftermath of the Communist Revolution.
Young Peter was brought up in a multi-lingual family–he was fluent in Russian, French, Italian and German, and also was a native English speaker. He attended Westminster College in 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 in a theatre in Surrey. In 1939 he made his London stage debut in a revue sketch, then had regular performances with Aylesbury Repertory Company. In 1940 he made his film debut in Hullo, Fame! (1940).
From 1942-46 Ustinov served as a private soldier 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, appearing in more than 100 film and television productions such as the Academy Award nominated interpretation of his unparalleled Nero in Quo Vadis (1951), Max Ophüls’ masterpiece Lola Montès (1955), Barefoot in Athens (1966), The Comedians (1967), Robin Hood (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976) included in his numerous screen acting gems as well as in brilliant films he also wrote and directed such 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 he made a comeback as Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978) by director John Guillermin. In the 1980s Ustinov recreated brilliantly Poirot in several subsequent television movies and theatrical films, such as 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.
Ustinov’s effortless style and his expertise in dialectic and physical comedy made him a regular guest of talk shows and late night comedians. His witty and multi-dimensional 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 autobiographical books, such as “Dear Me” (1977) and “My Russia” (1996), Ustinov revealed a wealth of thoughtful and deep observations about how his life and career was formed by his rich multi-cultural and multi-ethnic background. He wrote and directed numerous stage plays, having success presenting his plays in several countries. His excellent play “Photo Finish” was staged in New York, London and St. Petersburg, Russia, where Ustinov directed the acclaimed production starring Elena Solovey and Petr Shelokhonov.
Outside of his acting and writing professions, Ustinov served as a Goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and president of WFM, a global citizens movement. He was knighted Sir Peter Ustinov in 1990. From 1971 to his death in 2004, Ustinov lived in a château in the village of Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland, He died of heart failure on March 28, 2004, in a clinic in Genolier, Vaud, Switzerland. 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, Switzerland. He was survived by three daughters, Tamara, Pavla, and Andrea, and son, Igor Ustinov.
“I am an international citizen conceived in Russia, born in England, working in Hollywood, living in Switzerland, and touring the World” said Peter Ustinov.
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