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Ustinov, Peter (1921-2004)

Actor, Director, Presenter, Author

Main image of Ustinov, Peter (1921-2004)

If English-born Peter Ustinov, of Russian parentage, seems to have been around forever, this is only because he has.

He was only 17 when he made his stage debut, 19 when he appeared in his first films, and in his early 20s when Private Ustinov was legendarily meeting with Captain Carol Reed, Colonel David Niven and Lieut. Eric Ambler at the Ritz to prepare the screenplay for The Way Ahead (d. David Lean, 1944), in which he also played the North African café owner (he didn't look English enough for anything else).

Postwar he directed three quirkily likeable films: School for Secrets (1946), Vice-Versa (1947) and Private Angelo (1949). He then did some notable acting turns, including his protean hotelier in Hotel Sahara (d. Ken Annakin, 1951), the Prince of Wales ("Who's your fat friend?") in Beau Brummell (d. Curtis Bernhardt, 1954), several Hollywood roles including Nero (Oscar nominated) in Quo Vadis? (US, d. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), and the circus master in Max Ophuls's glorious Lola Montès (France, 1955).

He directed, produced, co-wrote and starred in a cleanly intelligent version of Melville's Billy Budd (1962), making one wish he'd persevered as director, but, if there is something of the Renaissance man about Ustinov (he is also a playwright, autobiographer, raconteur of one-man show proportions), there may also be something of the dilettante, as if he can't quite settle to anything because of all the conflicting claims on his darting imagination. The problem is that he does them all well.

Film is probably lucky to have had as much of his attention as it has had: he was a memorably pompous Poirot in Death on the Nile (d. John Guillermin, 1978) and Evil Under the Sun (d. Guy Hamilton, 1981) and the Oscars twice rewarded his personality displays: in 1960 for Spartacus (US, d. Stanley Kubrick) and 1964 for Topkapi (US, d. Jules Dassin).

He was awarded a CBE in 1975 and knighted in 1990. His second wife is Suzanne Cloutier; their daughter is Pavla Ustinov (b.Santa Monica, California, 1954), who has appeared in several films, including The Thief of Baghdad (d. Clive Donner, 1978), with her father.

Autobiography: Dear Me (1977).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Cinema

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Selected credits

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Inspiring propaganda film following the making of an Army unit

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Bernard Braden interviews the actor, writer, director and raconteur

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