Peter Ustinov

Sir Peter Ustinov

Ustinov in 1973
Born Peter Alexander von Ustinov
(1921-04-16)16 April 1921
London, England, UK
Died 28 March 2004(2004-03-28) (aged 82)
Genolier, Vaud, Switzerland
Cause of death Heart attack
Resting place

Bursins Cemetery, Nyon District de Nyon

Vaud, Switzerland
Residence Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland
Nationality British
Alma mater Westminster School
Occupation Actor, writer, filmmaker
Years active 1940–2004
  • Isolde Denham (m. 1940; div. 1950)
  • Suzanne Cloutier (m. 1954; div. 1971)
  • Helene du Lau d'Allemans (m. 1972)
Children 4
Parent(s) Jonah Freiherr von Ustinow (later Jona von Ustinov) and Nadezhda Benois
Awards See Awards

Peter Ustinov CBE FRSA (/ˈjuːstɪnɒf/ or /ˈstɪnɒf/;[1] 16 April 1921  28 March 2004), born Peter Alexander von Ustinov, was an English actor, writer, dramatist, filmmaker, theatre and opera director, stage designer, screenwriter, comedian, humorist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster, and television presenter. He was a fixture on television talk shows and lecture circuits for much of his career. A respected intellectual and diplomat, he held various academic posts and served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement.

Ustinov was the winner of numerous awards over his life, including two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Emmy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards for acting, and a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as the recipient of governmental honours from, amongst others, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. He displayed a unique cultural versatility that has frequently earned him the accolade of a Renaissance man. Miklós Rózsa, composer of the music for Quo Vadis and of numerous concert works, dedicated his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 (1950) to Ustinov.

In 2003, Durham University changed the name of its Graduate Society to Ustinov College in honour of the significant contributions Ustinov had made as chancellor of the university from 1992 until his death.

Family background and early life

Ustinov was born Peter Alexander von Ustinov[2] in London, England. His father, Jona von Ustinov, was of Russian, Polish Jewish, German, and Ethiopian descent. Peter's paternal grandfather was Plato von Ustinov, a Russian nobleman, and his grandmother was Magdalena Hall, of mixed Ethiopian-German-Jewish origin. Peter's paternal great-great-grandparents (through Magdalena's mother) were the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian aristocrat Court-Lady Isette-Werq in Gondar.[3]

Ustinov's mother, Nadezhda Leontievna Benois, known as Nadia, was a painter and ballet designer of French, German, Italian, and Russian descent.[4][5] Her father, Leon Benois, was an Imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Madonna Benois. Leon's brother Alexandre Benois was a stage designer who worked with Stravinsky and Diaghilev. Their paternal ancestor Jules-César Benois was a chef who had left France for St. Petersburg during the French Revolution and became a chef to the Emperor Paul.

Jona (or Iona) worked as a press officer at the German Embassy in London in the 1930s, and was a reporter for a German news agency. In 1935, two years after Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Jona von Ustinov began working for the British intelligence service MI5 and became a British citizen, thus avoiding internment during the war. He was the controller of Wolfgang Gans zu Putlitz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler's intentions before the Second World War.[6] (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher that Jona was possibly the spy known as U35; Ustinov says in his autobiography that his father hosted secret meetings of senior British and German officials at their London home.) Ustinov's great-grandfather Moritz Hall,[7] a Jewish refugee from Kraków and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family.

Ustinov was educated at Westminster School and had a difficult childhood because of his parents' constant fighting. One of his schoolmates was Rudolf von Ribbentrop, the eldest son of the Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. While at school, Ustinov considered anglicising his name to "Peter Austin", but was counselled against it by a fellow pupil who said that he should "Drop the ‘von’ but keep the ‘Ustinov’". After training as an actor in his late teens, along with early attempts at playwriting, he made his stage début in 1938 at the Players' Theatre, becoming quickly established. He later wrote, "I was not irresistibly drawn to the drama. It was an escape road from the dismal rat race of school."[8]

Career highlights

Ustinov as Nero in Quo Vadis (1951)

In 1939, he appeared in White Cargo at the Aylesbury Rep, where he performed in a different accent every night.[9]

Ustinov served as a private in the British Army during World War II, including time spent as batman to David Niven while writing the Niven film The Way Ahead. The difference in their ranksNiven was a lieutenant-colonel and Ustinov a privatemade their regular association militarily impossible; to solve the problem, Ustinov was appointed as Niven's batman.[10] He also appeared in propaganda films, debuting in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), in which he was required to deliver lines in English, Latin, and Dutch. In 1944 under the auspices of ENSA, he presented and performed the role of Sir Anthony Absolute, in Sheridan's The Rivals, with Dame Edith Evans, at the Larkhill Camp theater.

After the war, he began writing; his first major success was with the play The Love of Four Colonels (1951). He starred with Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray in We're No Angels (1955). His career as a dramatist continued, his best-known play being Romanoff and Juliet (1956). His film roles include Roman emperor Nero in Quo Vadis (1951), Lentulus Batiatus in Spartacus (1960), Captain Vere in Billy Budd (1962), and an old man surviving a totalitarian future in Logan's Run (1976). Ustinov voiced the anthropomorphic lions Prince John and King Richard in the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood. He also worked on several films as writer and occasionally director, including The Way Ahead (1944), School for Secrets (1946), Hot Millions (1968), and Memed, My Hawk (1984).

Ustinov (left) as Hercule Poirot with John Gielgud in Appointment with Death (1988)

In half a dozen films, he played Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot, first in Death on the Nile (1978) and then in 1982's Evil Under the Sun, 1985's Thirteen at Dinner (TV movie), 1986's Dead Man's Folly (TV movie), 1986's Murder In Three Acts (TV movie), and 1988's Appointment with Death.

Ustinov in The Sundowners (1960)

Ustinov won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). He also won one Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for the film Quo Vadis (he set the Oscar and Globe statuettes up on his desk as if playing doubles tennis; the game was a love of his life, as was ocean yachting). Ustinov was also the winner of three Emmys and one Grammy, and was nominated for two Tony Awards.

Between 1952 and 1955, he starred with Peter Jones in the BBC radio comedy In All Directions. The series featured Ustinov and Jones as themselves in a London car journey perpetually searching for Copthorne Avenue. The comedy derived from the characters they met, whom they often also portrayed. The show was unusual for the time, as it was improvised rather than scripted. Ustinov and Jones improvised on a tape, which was very difficult, and then edited for broadcast by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, who also sometimes took part. The favourite characters were Morris and Dudley Grosvenor, two rather stupid East End spivs whose sketches always ended with the phrase "Run for it, Morry" (or Dudley as appropriate.)

During the 1960s, with the encouragement of Sir Georg Solti, Ustinov directed several operas, including Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, Ravel's L'heure espagnole, Schoenberg's Erwartung, and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Further demonstrating his great talent and versatility in the theatre, Ustinov later undertook set and costume design for Don Giovanni.

His autobiography, Dear Me (1977), was well received and had him describe his life (ostensibly his childhood) while being interrogated by his own ego, with forays into philosophy, theatre, fame, and self-realisation.

In the later part of his life (from 1969 until his death), his acting and writing tasks took second place to his work on behalf of UNICEF, for which he was a Goodwill Ambassador and fundraiser. In this role, he visited some of the neediest children and made use of his ability to make just about anybody laugh, including many of the world's most disadvantaged children. "Sir Peter could make anyone laugh," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy is quoted as saying. "His one-man show in German was the funniest performance I have ever seen – and I don't speak a word of German."

On 31 October 1984, Ustinov was due to interview Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi for Irish television. She was assassinated on her way to the meeting.[11]

Ustinov in 1986

Ustinov also served as President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 until his death. He once said, "World government is not only possible, it is inevitable, and when it comes, it will appeal to patriotism in its truest, in its only sense, the patriotism of men who love their national heritages so deeply that they wish to preserve them in safety for the common good."[12]

He is best known to many Britons and Americans as a chat-show guest, a role to which he was ideally suited. He was an extremely frequent guest of Jack Paar's Tonight Show in the early 1960s and was a guest on the famous "upside down" episode of the American talk show Late Night, during which the camera, mounted on a slowly revolving wheel, gradually rotated the picture 360° during the course of an hour; Ustinov appeared midway through and was photographed upside down in close-up as he spoke while his host appeared only in long shots. Towards the end of Ustinov's life, he undertook some one-man stage shows in which he let loose his raconteur streak: he told the story of his life, including some moments of tension with the society into which he was born. For example, he took a test as a child, asking him to name a Russian composer; he wrote Rimsky-Korsakov, but was marked down. He then told the correct answer, Tchaikovsky, since he had been studying him in class, and was told to stop showing off.

He was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions: in November 1977 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Pinewood Studios on the set of Death on the Nile, and a week before, he was surprised at a book signing at book printers Butler and Tanner in Frome, Somerset. This footage was not used, as Ustinov flatly refused to take part and swore at Andrews. His wife persuaded him to change his mind. He was surprised again in December 1994, when Michael Aspel approached him at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

A car enthusiast since the age of four, he owned a succession of interesting machines ranging from a Fiat Topolino, several Lancias, a Hispano-Suiza, a preselector gearbox Delage, and a special-bodied Jowett Jupiter. He made records like Phoney Folklore that included the song of the Russian peasant "whose tractor had betrayed him" and his "Grand Prix of Gibraltar" was a vehicle for his creative wit and ability at car-engine sound effects and voices.

He spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian fluently, as well as some Turkish and modern Greek. He was proficient in accents and dialects in all his languages. Ustinov provided his own German and French dubbing for some of his roles, both for Lorenzo's Oil. As Hercule Poirot, he provided his own voice for the French versions of Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man's Folly, Murder in Three Acts, Appointment with Death and Evil under the Sun but, unlike Jane Birkin, who had dubbed herself in French for both this film and Death on the Nile, Ustinov did not provide his voice for the latter (his French voice being provided by Roger Carel, who had already dubbed him in Spartacus and other films). He dubbed himself in German as Poirot only in Evil under the Sun (his other Poirot roles being undertaken by no less than three different actors). On the other hand, he provided only his German voice for Disney's Robin Hood and NBC's Alice in Wonderland.[13]

Ustinov in 1992 by Erling Mandelmann

In the 1960s, he became a Swiss resident to avoid the British tax system of the time, which heavily taxed the earnings of the wealthy. However, he was knighted in 1990 and was appointed chancellor of Durham University in 1992, having previously been elected as the first rector of the University of Dundee in 1968[14] (a role in which he moved from being merely a figurehead to taking on a political role, negotiating with militant students). Ustinov was re-elected to the post for a second three-year term in 1971, narrowly beating Michael Parkinson after a disputed recount.[15][16]

He received an honorary doctorate from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium).

Ustinov was a frequent defender of the Chinese government, stating in an address to Durham University in 2000, "People are annoyed with the Chinese for not respecting more human rights. But with a population that size it's very difficult to have the same attitude to human rights." In 2003, Durham's postgraduate college (previously known as the Graduate Society) was renamed Ustinov College.

Ustinov went to Berlin on a UNICEF mission in 2002 to visit the circle of United Buddy Bears that promote a more peaceful world between nations, cultures, and religions for the first time. He was determined to ensure that Iraq would also be represented in this circle of about 140 countries. In 2003, he sponsored and opened the second exhibition of the United Buddy Bears in Berlin.[17]

Amongst his lesser-known works, Ustinov presented and narrated the official video review of the 1987 Formula One season. His commentary proved highly entertaining. Ustinov also narrated the documentary series Wings of the Red Star. In 1988, he hosted a live television broadcast entitled The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper.

Ustinov gave his name to the Foundation of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award, given annually to a young television screenwriter.

Ustinov appeared as a guest star during the first season of The Muppet Show in 1976.

Personal life

Ustinov with Suzanne Cloutier and daughter in the 1950s

Ustinov was married three times—first to Isolde Denham (1920-1987), daughter of Reginald Denham and Moyna Macgill. The marriage lasted from 1940 to their divorce in 1950, and they had one child, daughter Tamara Ustinov. Isolde was the half-sister of Angela Lansbury, who appeared with Ustinov in Death on the Nile. His second marriage was to Suzanne Cloutier, which lasted from 1954 to their divorce in 1971. They had three children, two daughters, Pavla Ustinov and Andrea Ustinov, and a son, Igor Ustinov. His third marriage was to Helene du Lau d'Allemans, which lasted from 1972 to his death in 2004.[18]

Ustinov was a secular humanist. He was listed as a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association, and had once served on their advisory council.[19][20]

Ustinov suffered from diabetes and a weakened heart in his last years.[21]


Ustinov died on 28 March 2004 of heart failure in a clinic in Genolier, near his home in Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland.[22] He was so well regarded as a goodwill ambassador that UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy spoke at his funeral and represented United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

World politics

Ustinov was the President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 to 2004, the time of his death.[23] WFM is a global NGO 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. 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.

Novels, novellas, short stories, and plays





Academy Award


Berlin International Film Festival

Emmy Award

Golden Globe Award

Grammy Award

Tony Award

Evening Standard British Film Award



State honours and awards

Honorary Degrees

Ustinov received many Honorary Degrees in honour of his work.

Honorary Degrees
Country Date School Degree
 Ohio 1968 Cleveland Institute of Music Doctor of Music (D.Mus) [32]
 Scotland 1969 University of Dundee Doctor of Laws (LL.D)
 Pennsylvania 1971 La Salle University Doctor of Laws (LL.D)
 England 1972 Lancaster University Doctor of Letters (D.Litt) [33]
 Alberta 1981 University of Lethbridge Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [34]
 Ontario June 1984 University of Toronto Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [35]
 District of Columbia 1988 Georgetown University
 Ontario 1991 Carleton University Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [36]
 England 1992 Durham University Doctor of Humanities
 Ontario 1995 St. Michael's College
 Ontario 1995 Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies
 Belgium 1995 Free University of Brussels
 Republic of Ireland 1999 National University of Ireland Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [37]
  Switzerland 2001 International University in Geneva
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

In 1997 singer/songwriter Lauren Christy released a song entitled "The Night I Saved Peter Ustinov", on her Polygram Records album Breed. In it Christy recounts a story in which she saves Ustinov from a suicide attempt.


  1. The pronunciations accepted by Sir Peter himself according to Miller, Gertrude M. Miller (Editor). BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names. Oxford University Press, 1971. ISBN 0-19-431125-2.
  2. "". Retrieved 23 July 2014.
  3. McEwan, Dorothea (2013). The Story of Däräsge Maryam. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 45. ISBN 3643904088. Retrieved 2 June 2014.
  4. Distinguished Guest in the Visitation Parish | Gemeinde Mariae-Heimsuchung St. Petersburg Archived 24 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. (17 March 2011).
  5. Peter Ustinov Archived 29 October 2013 at the Wayback Machine..
  6. MI5 monitored union and CND leaders with ministers' backing, book reveals Archived 22 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine. Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, 5 October 2009.
  7. For his biography, with references to archival documentation and publications on him and his family, see Holtz: "Hall, Moritz", in: Siegbert Uhlig (ed.): Encyclopaedia Aethiopica, vol. 2, Wiesbaden 2005. Also, a family photo shows Ustinov's grandmother with her husband and their children, including Ustinov's father Jona.
  8. Ustinov, Peter (1977). Dear Me (1st ed.). Boston: Little, Brown. p. 95. ISBN 0-316-89051-0. OCLC 3071948.
  9. Exit Through the Fireplace by Kate Dunn, 1998
  10. "Obituary: Sir Peter Ustinov (BBC)". Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  11. Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. University of California Press; 2003.
  12. World Federalist Movement: President at the Wayback Machine (archived 29 October 2008).
  13. For French dubbings, see the corresponding article for each film on French Wikipedia. For German dubbings,
  14. Shafe, Michael; et al. (1982). University Education in Dundee 1881–1981 A Pictorial History. Dundee: University of Dundee. p. 205.
  15. "Rectorial Elections". Archives, Records and Artefacts at the University of Dundee. University of Dundee. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  16. Baxter, Kenneth; et al. (2007). A Dundee Celebration. Dundee: University of Dundee. p. 32.
  17. peter ustinov Archived 21 April 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. (28 March 2004).
  18. "Our people - Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)". British Humanist Association. Retrieved November 16, 2015.
  19. Humanist. Rationalist Press Association Limited. 1963.
  20. Peter Ustinov, 82 Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine.. Chicago Tribune (30 March 2004).
  21. Sir Peter Ustinov, President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 to 2004, Dies at Age 82 at the Wayback Machine (archived 7 February 2005), World Federalist Movement, 29 March 2004.
  22. "Peter Ustinov, a friend of global federalism has died". Union of European Federalists. 3 March 2004. Retrieved 29 October 2015.
  23. Ustinov, Peter (May 1991). "The Old Man and Mr. Smith: A Fable" (1st ed.). Arcade Publishing. ISBN 978-1559701341. Retrieved 7 October 2014.
  24. Profile of Omni: The New Frontier Archived 10 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine.;; accessed 29 July 2014.
  25. Via le monde: Le défi mondial Archived 29 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  26. "Awards for Romanoff and Juliet". Retrieved 24 January 2010.
  27. "Berlinale 1972: Prize Winners". Retrieved 16 March 2010.
  28. 1 2 "Sir Peter Ustinov, Oscar-winning actor, dies at 82," Archived 2 November 2015 at the Wayback Machine. The New York Times, 30 March 2004. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
  29. ""University of Toronto Honorary Degree Recipients 1850 - 2016 Sorted Alphabetically by Name of Recipient"" (PDF). p. 35 of 38. 1984 Ustinov, Peter Doctor of Laws Arts - Theatre June, 1984
  30. "Reply to a parliamentary question" (PDF) (in German). p. 1444. Retrieved 12 December 2012.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Peter Ustinov.
Wikiquote has quotations related to: Peter Ustinov

Critical viewpoints

Academic offices
Preceded by
Sir Learie Constantine
as Rector of the University of St Andrews
Rector of the University of Dundee
Succeeded by
Sir Clement Freud
Preceded by
Dame Margot Fonteyn
Chancellor of the University of Durham
Succeeded by
Bill Bryson
This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 11/30/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.