Oscar Profile #512: Peter Ustinov

Born April 16, 1921 in London, England, Peter Alexander Freiherr von Ustinov was the son of a Russian father and German mother. His father was a British spy and his mother a painter and ballet designer. He was educated at Westminster College in London where he excelled at acting, making his stage debut in Surrey in 1938 and his London debut the following year. Having dropped the “von” from his name, Ustinov made his film debut in 1940’s Hullo Fame! , the year he married Isolde Denham, Angela Lansbury’s half-sister.

Ustinov was a private in the British Army during World War II. He served as batman (valet) to fellow actor David Niven, a Lieutenant Colonel while writing the screenplay for 1944’s The Way Ahead. The two became lifelong friends.

The prolific actor-writer-director was divorced from Denham, with whom he had one child, in 1950. He achieved international fame with Oscar nominated performance in 1951’s Quo Vadis. He married second wife, actress Suzanne Clothier, with whom he would have three children, in 1954. That same year he excelled in high profile roles in The Egyptian and Beau Brummel, followed by equally high profile roles in the following year’s We’re No Angels and Lola Montes.

The 1960s were very good to Ustinov. He began the decade with high profile roles in The Sundowners and Spartacus, winning an Oscar for the latter. He wrote, directed, and starred in 1961’s Romanoff and Juliet and 1962’s Billy Budd, directing Terence Stamp to an Oscar nomination for the latter. He would receive a second Oscar for his performance in 1964’s Topkapi and a fourth nomination for co-writing the screenplay for 1968’s Hot Millions in which he starred opposite Maggie Smith.

Ustinov was divorced from Clothier in 1971. He married third wife Hele du Lau d’Allemans in 1972. They would remain married until his death.

The actor came roaring back to major stardom as Albert Finney’s replacement as Hercule Poirot in 1978’s Death on the Nile in which he headed an all-star cast that included lifelong friend David Niven, former co-star Maggie Smith and former sister-in-law Angela Lansbury along with Bette Davis and Mia Farrow among others.

Ustinov played Poirot five more times in the 1980s beginning with 1982’s Evil Under the Sun, followed by TV’s Thirteen at Dinner in 1985 and Dead Man’s Folly in 1986 and the theatrical release, Appointment with Death in 1989. He had his last great role as Professor Nikolais in 1992’s Lorenzo’s Oil. Although he would continue to act, his later years were primarily dedicated to globalism.
Ustinov was the president of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 to his death on March 28, 2004 at 82. WFM is a global nongovernmental organization that promotes the concept of global democratic institutions. WFM lobbies those in powerful positions to establish a unified human government based on democracy and civil society. Under this theory, the United Nations and other world agencies would become the institutions of a World Federation. The UN would be the federal government and nation states would become similar to provinces.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

QUO VADIS (1951), directed by Meryn LeRoy

Ustinov had been seen on screen in minor roles before, but his Nero in this classic biblical epic put him on the map. His performance won him the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and one of the film’s eight Oscar nominations along with castmate Leo Genn as the noble Petronius. Nominated as well for Best Picture, Cinematography, Art Direction and Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing and Scoring, it also starred Robert Taylor as the Roman soldier, Deborah Kerr as the young Christian woman he loves, Patricia Laffan as Nero’s equally evil wife, Poppaea, Finlay Currie as Peter and Abraham Sofaer as Paul.

SPARTACUS (1960), directed by Stanley Kubrick

This tale of an even more ancient Rome won four Oscars out of the six it was nominated for including one for Ustinov for Best Supporting Actor as Batiatus, a broker of gladiators in Julius Caesar’s time. Charles Laughton, an earlier Nero in 1932’s The Sign of the Cross, as Roman nobleman Gracchus, and Ustinov share one of the film’s best scenes in which the screen’s old and new hams try to out-act each other. The film’s famed ending, though, is pure Hollywood conceit. Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) wasn’t crucified, he died in battle. The great cast also included Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, John Gavin and Tony Curtis.

BILLY BUDD (1962), directed by Peter Ustinov

Ustinov was an acclaimed writer and director as well as an actor. This adaptation of Herman Melville’s last novel was the best of the films in which he provided all three disciplines, directing Terence Stamp to a Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Stamp had the title role of the innocent, naïve British seaman at the mercy of a sadistic master-at-arms onboard his ship played to the seething hilt by. Robert Ryan. Usitnov was the ship’s sympathetic if rulebound captain. Th strong supporting cast included Melvyn Douglas, Paul Rogers, John Neville and David McCallum.

DEATH ON THE NILE (1978), directed by John Guillermin

Ustinov inherited the role of Hercule Poirot from Albert Finney who did not want to repat the role he played in 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express because of the heavy makeup he would have to wear. Ustinov, whose appearance is completely different, does not wear a lot of makeup, not does he deepen his voice as Finney did in his Oscar nominated performance. He was effective enough, however, to play the character five more times. Here he heads a superb all-star cast that includes Mia Farrow, Simon MacCorkindale, Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, David Niven, Lois Chiles, Jan Birkin, Jon Finch, Olivia Hussey and Angela Lansbury.

EVIL UNDER THE SUN (1982), directed by Guy Hamilton

Originally planned as the second Christie novel to be filmed by the production team responsible for Murder on the Orient Express, this one was put on hold so the producers could take advantage of the heavy interest in Egypt due to the traveling King Tut museum pieces popular at the time. The long wait lessened interest in the film but it shouldn’t have. Ustinov’s second outing as Poirot was given an equally sumptuous setting n a luxurious island and a lesser, but still vibrant, supporting cast headed by Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Roddy McDowall, Colin Blakely and Dennis Quilley.

PETER USTINOV AND OSCAR

  • Quo Vadis (1951) – nominated – Best Supporting Actress
  • Spartacus (1960) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
  • Topkapi (1964) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
  • Hot Millions (1968) – nominated – Best Original Screenplay

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