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Obituary: Peter Ustinov
March 30, 2004
Peter Alexander Ustinov, actor, playwright and film director: born London 16 April 1921; Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef 1969-2004; Rector, Dundee University 1971-73; CBE 1975; Kt 1990; Chancellor, Durham University 1992-2004; married 1940 Isolde Denham (one daughter; marriage dissolved 1950), 1954 Suzanne Cloutier (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1971), 1972 Hélène du Lau d'Allemans; died Genolier, Switzerland 28 March 2004.
Peter Ustinov was one of the 20th century's most revered entertainers, whose versatility was unparalleled. He was an accomplished writer, a director of plays, films and operas, an actor who won two Oscars, a notable wit and a brilliant raconteur whose presence at a dinner party or on a chat show guaranteed sparkling conversation.
A prolific playwright, he wrote novels "to fill in time whilst hanging around on Hollywood film sets" and he also found time to be a tireless goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef). Most of all, the rotund Ustinov championed the cause of humour, stating, "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilised music in the world."
Peter Alexander Ustinov was born in London in 1921. His father Jona von Ustinov was a journalist of Russian descent and his mother, the artist Nadia Benois, was the daughter of Alexandre Benois, who designed the first major Diaghilev ballets. Describing himself as "conceived in St Petersburg, born in London and christened in Germany", he claimed that he never felt particularly British. "I rather think of myself as ethnically filthy - and proud of it."
He went to Westminster School, which he hated and where an early report stated, "He shows great originality which must be curbed at all costs." "At school," said Ustinov, we were asked to name a Russian composer on a general-knowledge paper. The answer was Tchaikovsky, because we had been studying him. I put Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and I was upbraided in front of the whole school for showing off.
At the age of 14 he earned his first fee for a satirical piece in the London Evening Standard about von Ribbentrop's son, who was a fellow pupil. Leaving school at 16 without any particular qualifications, Ustinov studied at the London Theatre Studio, where his skill as both actor and writer was quickly recognised and he made his professional début in a revue, Swinging the Gate (1940).
A prodigy who spoke half a dozen languages, he wrote his first play at the age of 19 and later starred in, produced and directed his own plays in London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Rome. House of Regrets, staged at the Arts Theatre in 1942, was his first produced play and it was quickly followed by Blow Your Own Trumpet (Playhouse Theatre, 1943), The Banbury Nose (Wyndham's, 1944) and The Tragedy of Good Intentions (Old Vic, Liverpool 1945).
During this period he also found time to write, with Eric Ambler, The Way Ahead (1944), a stirring drama about ordinary folk called up for war service and finding within themselves untapped heroism. It was full of felicitous touches of recognisable humour - one recalls Raymond Huntley, a strait-laced conscripted office manager, asking at the station refreshment counter for "a cup of tea - China please".
He made his screen début in a short film, Hullo Fame (1940), co-starring Jean Carr (later known as Jean Kent), and the same year he starred with Herbert Lom and Robert Beatty in Mein Kampf - My Crimes, a reworking of a French semi-documentary reconstruction of Hitler's rise to power. In a dramatised sequence, Ustinov played a German youth who betrays his father to the Gestapo for criticising Hitler. He played a German youth again, but this time for laughs, in the Will Hay comedy The Goose Steps Out (1942). As one of the pupils in a class for spies, he is taught by Hay, masquerading as a German, that a V-sign to Hitler is the finest form of salute.
The same year Ustinov was featured as a priest in Powell and Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft is Missing, which told of a British crew shot down over Holland and their escape back to England. Because the entire crew featured in most scenes, the film was a true ensemble piece in which the actors constantly contrived ways to steal scenes. Ustinov, who played a priest in the film, recounts in his autobiography Dear Me (1977) that he decided to play it very cool, and was approached by the actor Hugh Williams who asked, "Here you, Ustinov. What are you going to do in this scene?"
"Well," he replied, "I thought I would do nothing."
"Oh, no you don't!" said Williams. "I'm the one who's doing nothing in this scene."
Drafted into the Army, Ustinov failed an officer selection board after telling them that he had a preference for tanks "because you can go into battle sitting down". After serving for a time as David Niven's batman, he was released and given access to the Malvern radar establishment to both write and direct School for Secrets (1946), the story of the "boffins" who perfected radar. With a superb cast headed by Ralph Richardson, Richard Attenborough, David Tomlinson and Raymond Huntley, the film was a great success, with Ustinov acclaimed for both his direction and his script, which admirably combined suspense and humour.
The following year he both wrote and directed a screen version of F. Anstey's comic novel Vice Versa, with Roger Livesey (who had starred in Ustinov's play The Banbury Nose) as the pompous Edwardian father who switches places with his cheeky son (Anthony Newley). Though critical reaction was mixed, the public loved it. For the theatre, Ustinov wrote The Indifferent Shepherd (1948), Frenzy (1948), which was based on the Ingmar Bergman film and in which he also starred, and The Man in the Raincoat (1949). Later in 1949, he starred with Moira Lister at Wyndham's Theatre in his greatest theatrical hit, The Love of Four Colonels.
For the screen, he produced, directed, wrote and starred in the movie Private Angelo (1949), adapted from the novel by Eric Linklater, and the mild result prompted accusations that he was perhaps spreading his talents too thinly. The following year he had a great personal success playing Nero in the epic film Quo Vadis?, winning an Oscar nomination for his striking and often very funny performance as a childish, petulant Emperor.
It started his long period as a successful screen actor, in such films as Odette (1950), Beau Brummell (1954), We're No Angels (1954), in which he, Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray were three escaped convicts who become good Samaritans for a troubled French family, and Lola Montes (1955), the opulent Max Ophuls classic in which he played the ringmaster. He was the proprietor of a school for gladiators in Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960), memorably pointing out to a slave, who is ineffectually trying to shade him from the sun, just from which direction the rays are coming.
The performance won him the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, and he was to win the award again for his role as a wily con man in Jules Dassin's caper comedy Topkapi (1964). Ustinov once revealed that he kept his Oscars, and his numerous other awards, in the bathroom, explaining that it was the only location in his residence where he could think about his exploits without seeming to be egotistical. He continued to have hits on the stage, notably No Sign of the Dove (1953), the cast of which included Ustinov's future wife Suzanne Cloutier.
Ustinov married his first wife, Isolde Denham, whom he met at the London Theatre School, when he was 19 and, after their divorce in 1950, married Cloutier in 1954. Their marriage was dissolved with some acrimony in 1971, with Ustinov gaining custody of their three children. Of his third wife, Hélène du Lau D'Allemans, he said recently, "She has made me into something approaching the man I once hoped to be, privately and secretly."
Ustinov had another theatrical hit with Romanoff and Juliet (1956). He starred in the comedy in New York, and in 1961 he wrote, produced, directed and starred in a film verson, though he was not happy when Universal, who financed the film, said they would do so only if he cast their contract players, John Gavin and Sandra Dee, as the young lovers. In the film's opening sequence Ustinov provided the voices for all the delegates at a United Nations conference, voting "Yes" and "No" in all the myriad dialects he had at his command.
One of Ustinov's most distinguished film projects was Billy Budd (1962), a laudable version of Herman Melville's classic allegorical tale of treachery in the 18th-century British navy. He directed, wrote and starred in the adaptation, which made a star of Terence Stamp in the title role. Ustinov won another film acting award - that of the Variety Club of Great Britain - for his portrayal of Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978), and the following year he realised an ambition (which he later claimed was the only one he ever had) when he played King Lear at Stratford, Ontario.
He was also active on television, winning several Grammy Awards, and he became a noted travel guide on such programmes as the series Peter Ustinov on Russia (1987) and Ustinov Aboard the Orient Express (1992). His programme on Russia won praise from Nelson Mandela, who told him, "I was amazed by your even-handed approach to the Russians at a time when that attitude was not popular and I took great courage from that." Ustinov was always in demand for chat shows, on which he excelled. A delightful raconteur, he was also a splendid mimic. One remembers his assertion that he was often mistaken for Charles Laughton, and his impersonation of an American matron who gushingly told him, "You were just marvellous in that Witness for the Prostitution."
Of his ability to caricature a host of international characters, he stated, "I don't rehearse the faces at all. I just feel like the people." In recent years Ustinov was the voice of Babar the Elephant, played a research professor in Lorenzo's Oil (1992) and played the Walrus to Pete Postlethwaite's Carpenter in a large-budget television version of Alice in Wonderland (1999). He recently acted in a biopic of Martin Luther starring Joseph Fiennes (Luther, 2003).
Ustinov sometimes expressed the view that he felt more appreciated in other countries than Britain ("The British don't like versatility"), and that the country expected him only to be funny ("I had a great triumph directing an opera at the Bolshoi and nobody mentioned it").
Throughout his career, he provoked controversy with his outspoken opinions on world affairs and politics. In the early 1990s he faced criticism for his views on the emergence of Russia from Communist rule, and for his enthusiastic support for Mikhail Gorbachev. He loathed Margaret Thatcher. "Why am I so aggressive about Mrs Thatcher?" he said. "It is simple. I am a feminist and she isn't." Recently he called the war with Iraq "absolute nonsense", and he said of Parliament, "When you look at it on television the atmosphere is such that you expect paper darts and ink bombs to be flying around."
In the late 1960s, he was asked to act as master of ceremonies at a Unicef concert in Paris, knowing at that time little about the organisation. It stimulated an appetite for social and political reform and he was to become the organisation's oldest working goodwill ambassador. His many citations included several honorary doctorates, appointment as Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres (France) and receipt of the German Cultural Award.
For many years he had been living in Switzerland, in a mountain village overlooking Lake Geneva. Ustinov, who once stated that the perfect inscription for his tombstone would be "Keep off the Grass", was described by his agent as "always seeing the bright side of everything". Just 18 months ago, he said that he was happy to work until he dropped "as long as I can be guaranteed that I won't know in advance when it's going to happen".
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