Nationality: British. Born: Peter Alexander Ustinov in London, England, 16 April 1921. Education: Attended Westminster School, London, 1934–37; studied for the stage under Michel St. Denis at the London Theatre Studio, 1937–39. Military Service: British Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Sussex Regiment, 1942–46; Army film unit, 1943. Family: Married 1) Isolde Denham, 1940 (divorced 1950), daughter: Tamara; 2) Suzanne Cloutier, 1954 (divorced 1971), son: Igor, daughters: Pavla and Andrea; 3) Hélène du Lau d'Allemans, 1972. Career: 1938—stage debut in a theater in Shere, Surrey; 1939—London stage debut in revue sketch; acted with Aylesbury Repertory Company; 1941—film debut in Hullo Fame ; 1946—directed first film, School for Secrets ; playwright and director: appeared in his own plays The Love of Three Oranges , 1951, Romanoff and Juliet , 1956 (and in film version, 1961), Photo Finish , 1962, The Unknown Soldier and His Wife , 1968, and Beethoven's Tenth , 1983; 1962—directed an opera triple bill at Covent Garden, London; also directed operas in Hamburg and Berlin; 1968–73—Rector, Dundee University; in TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth , 1977, Around the World in 80 Days , 1989, The Old Curiosity Shop , 1995, and Planet Ustinov , 1998; also made recordings of monologues and sketches. Awards: Emmy Award, for The Life of Samuel Johnson , 1957; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for Spartacus , 1960; Best Supporting Actor Academy Award, for Topkapi , 1964; Emmy Award, for Barefoot in Athens , 1966; Emmy Award, for A Storm in Summer , 1970; Special Prize, Berlin Festival, 1972; Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1975; knighted, 1990; several
Hullo Fame (Buchanan); Mein Kampf—My Crimes (Lee)
Let My People Sing (Baxter); The Goose Steps Out (Dearden and Hay) (as Krauss); One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (Powell and Pressburger) (as priest)
The New Lot (Reed—doc)
The Immortal Battalion ( The Way Ahead ) (Reed) (as Rispoli, + co-sc)
The True Glory (Reed and Kanin)
Odette (Wilcox) (as Arnaud)
Quo Vadis (LeRoy) (as Nero); Hotel Sahara (Annakin) (as Emad); The Magic Box (John Boulting) (as film distributor); "The Mask," "The Model," and "The House of Madame Tellier" eps. of Le Plaisir ( House of Pleasure ) (Max Ophüls) (as narrator of English-language version)
Beau Brummel (Bernhardt) (as Prince of Wales); The Egyptian (Curtiz) (as Kaptah)
We're No Angels (Curtiz) (as Jules); Lola Montès ( The Sins of Lola Montès ; The Fall of Lola Montès ) (Max Ophüls) (as ringmaster)
I girovaghi ( The Wanderers ) (Fregonese) (as Don Alfonso)
Un angel pasò por Brooklyn ( An Angel over Brooklyn ; The Man Who Wagged His Tail ) (Vajda) (as Mr. Bossi); Les Espions ( The Spies ) (Clouzot) (as Michael Kiminsky)
The Adventures of Mr. Wonderful (Grimault) (as voice)
Spartacus (Kubrick) (as Lentulus Batiatus); The Sundowners (Zinnemann) (as Rupert Venneker)
La donna del mondo ( Women of the World ) (Jacopetti) (as narrator); Alleman ( Everyman ; The Human Dutch ) (Haanstra—doc) (as English-language narrator)
The Peaches (Gill—short) (as narrator); Topkapi (Dassin) (as Arthur Simpson); John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (Lee Thompson) (as King Fawz)
The Comedians (Glenville) (as Ambassador Pineda)
Blackbeard's Ghost (Stevenson) (as Capt. Blackbeard); Hot Millions (Till) (as Marcus Pendleton, + co-sc)
Viva Max! (Paris) (as Gen. Maximilian Rodrigues de Santos)
Robin Hood (Reitherman—animation) (as voice of Prince John)
One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (Stevenson) (as Hnup Wan)
Treasure of Matecumbe (McEveety) (as Dr. Ewing T. Snodgrass); Logan's Run (Michael Anderson) (as Old Man)
Un Taxi mauve ( The Purple Taxi ) (Boisset) (as Taubelman); The Last Remake of Beau Geste (Feldman) (as Sgt. Markov); The Mouse and His Child (Wolf and Swenson—animation) (as voice of Manny the Rat)
Doppio delitto ( Double Murders ) (Steno) (as Harry Hellman); Death on the Nile (Guillermin) (as Hercule Poirot); Tarka the Otter (Cobham) (as narrator); Winds of Change (Tokashi) (as narrator); The Thief of Bagdad (Clive Donner—for TV) (as the Caliph)
Ashanti (Fleischer) (as Suleiman); Nous maigrirons ensemble ( We'll Grow Thin Together ) (Vocoret) (as Victor)
Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (Clive Donner) (as Charlie Chan); The Great Muppet Caper (Henson) (cameo as truck driver); Grendel, Grendel, Grendel (Stitt—animation) (as voice of Grendel)
Evil under the Sun (Hamilton) (as Hercule Poirot)
Abgehört (Rolf Von Sydow—for TV)
Thirteen at Dinner (Antonio—for TV) (as Hercule Poirot)
Dead Man's Folly (Clive Donner—for TV) (as Hercule Poirot); Ferdinand (Behle) (as narrator)
Three Act Tragedy ( Murder in Three Acts ) (Gary Nelson—for TV) (as Hercule Poirot)
Appointment with Death (Winner) (as Hercule Poirot); Peep and Big Wide World (short); Kinderen van Ghana (Haanstra—doc, short) (as narrator)
La Revolution Française ( The French Revolution ) (Enrico) (as Mirabeau); Grandpa (Jackson) (as voice)
C'era un Castello con 40 Cani
Lorenzo's Oil (George Miller) (as Professor Nikolais)
Stiff Upper Lips (Sinyor) (as Horace)
Alice in Wonderland (Willing—for TV) (as Walrus); Animal Farm (John Stephenson) (as voice of Old Major); The Bachelor (Keaton and Sinyor) (as Grandfather)
School for Secrets ( Secret Flight ) (d only, + co-pr)
Vice Versa (+ ro, co-pr)
Private Angelo (co-d with Michael Anderson, co-sc, + title role, pr)
Romanoff and Juliet ( Dig That Juliet ) (+ ro as the general, pr)
Billy Budd (co-sc, + ro as Capt. Edward Fairfax Vere, pr)
Lady L (+ ro as Prince Otto of Bavaria)
Hammersmith Is Out (d only, + ro as the doctor)
Memed My Hawk ( The Lion and the Hawk ) (+ ro)
House of Regrets (play), London, 1943.
Beyond (play), London, 1944.
The Banbury Nose (play), London, 1945.
Plays about People , London, 1950.
The Love of Four Colonels (play), London, 1951.
The Moment of Truth (play), London, 1953.
Romanoff and Juliet (play), London, 1957.
Add a Dash of Pity (stories), London, 1959.
The Loser (novel), London, 1961.
Ustinov's Diplomats: A Book of Photographs , New York, 1961.
We Were Only Humans (caricatures), London, 1961.
Photo Finish (play), London, 1962.
Five Plays , London, 1965.
The Frontiers of the Sea (stories), London, 1966.
The Unknown Soldier and His Wife (play), New York, 1967.
Halfway Up the Tree (play), New York, 1968.
The Wit of Peter Ustinov , edited by Dick Richards, London, 1969.
Krumnagel (novel), London, 1971.
Dear Me (autobiography), London, 1977.
My Russia , London, 1983.
Beethovan's Tenth: A Comedy in Two Acts (play), New York, 1985.
Ustinov in Russia , London, 1987.
The Disinformer (stories), London, 1989.
The Old Man and Mr. Smith: A Fable (novel), New York, 1991.
Ustinov at Large , London, 1991.
Ustinov Still at Large , London, 1993.
Quotable Ustinov , London, 1995.
Life Is an Operetta; And Other Short Stories , Amherst, 1997.
Generation in Jeopardy: Children in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union , with UNICEF and Alexandre Zouev.
"Max Ophüls," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1957.
"Doing It All at Once," in Films and Filming (London), May 1960.
Interview with Gideon Bachmann, in Film (London), Winter 1961.
Interview with D. N. Mount, in Publishers Weekly (New York), 25 October 1971.
Interview with Brian McFarlane, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), April 1982.
Interview with Allan Hunter, in Films and Filming (London), September 1983.
Interview with V. Lacombe, in Cinéma (Paris), 27 April 1988.
Willans, Geoffrey, Peter Ustinov , London, 1957.
Thomas, Tony, Ustinov in Focus , London, 1971.
Stewart, V. Lorne, Peter Ustinov and His World: An Authorized Biographical Sketch , Nashville, Tennessee, 1988.
Warwick, Christopher, The Universal Ustinov , London, 1990.
Current Biography 1955 , New York, 1955.
"Peter the Great," in Variety (New York), 27 July 1992.
Coali, G., and I. Jachini, "Ustinov in Vaticano," in Rivista del Cinematografo (Rome), May 1993.
"The Greatest Living Raconteur," in Forbes (New York), 22 November 1993.
Brandlmeier, Thomas, "Peter Ustinov. Schräger Vogel aus Berufung," in EPD Film (Frankfurt), August 1997.
* * *
Juggling as many careers as the multitalented Peter Ustinov does—screen and stage actor, film and stage director, playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and raconteur—he has never had the inclination to channel his enormous creative energies into screen acting. Nor does he possess the pure acting ability to warrant such a career decision. Still, despite a casualness about his acting that makes him seem a begrudging on-screen performer (a stance happily appropriate to the playing of comedy), he has nevertheless accomplished much as a movie actor with a predisposition toward the humorous.
Born in London, of French and Russian descent, Ustinov attended the London Theatre Studio as an aspiring actor, debuted on stage at age 17, and appeared in his first film— Hullo Fame —three years later. The film that first brought him substantial recognition was Mervyn LeRoy's spectacle, Quo Vadis , in which he portrays ancient Rome's reigning Emperor Nero. His prominent roles thereafter include: Michael Curtiz's We're No Angels as a fellow convict who has escaped Devil's Island with Humphrey Bogart; Max Ophüls' Lola Montès as the circus ringmaster exhibiting Martine Carol's titular courtesan; Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus as an avaricious slave dealer, a performance that won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar; Romanoff and Juliet , which he also wrote and directed, as the ruler of a mythical country; his own film version of Herman Melville's Billy Budd as Captain Vere; Jules Dassin's Topkapi as a comic con man (and his second Oscar); Eric Till's Hot Millions as a computer-aided embezzler; and Jerry Paris's Viva Max! as a contemporary Mexican general reclaiming the Alamo.
After a quiet decade or so, during which time his film career remained a virtual afterthought, the character actor was cast in 1978 as the idiosyncratic, indomitable Belgian supersleuth, Hercule Poirot, in John Guillermin's Death on the Nile , an Agatha Christie mystery with a star-studded cast. In this bit of fluff, Ustinov's effortless expertise at dialectal and physical comedy is smoothly integrated and brightly highlighted, a reminder of how winning this one-man creative conglomerate's acting franchise can be in the right comic role.
In the 1980s, he reprised the Poirot role in several subsequent television movies and two additional theatrical films, Evil under the Sun and Appointment with Death . After playing a rather soft-pedaled version of Mirabeau in the somewhat disappointing big-budget international co-production The French Revolution in 1989, Ustinov entered another period of scant screen appearances in the 1990s. He had a nice turn, however, in the disease thriller Lorenzo's Oil as a sympathetic yet cautious doctor representative of a risk-averse medical profession.
—Bill Wine, updated by David E. Salamie