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Last Updated: Monday, 29 March, 2004, 09:15 GMT 10:15 UK
Obituary: Sir Peter Ustinov

Ustinov on stage
He was also a versatile stage performer

Oscar-winning actor Sir Peter Ustinov has died aged 82. BBC News Online looks back at his career.

Despite a successful career as journalist, actor, playwright and author, Sir Peter Ustinov was at his best telling his own stories, and revelled in the role of raconteur.

"On no account is this man to be put in charge of others." This was how Private Ustinov was described in his Army report after four and a half years in uniform.

In fact, the young soldier already had a play being staged in the West End, and went on to enjoy a hugely versatile career, spanning many areas of show business and lasting more than six decades.

Peter Ustinov was born in London two months after his mother arrived from St Petersburg to join her husband, a journalist. Made of European stock, young Ustinov nevertheless enjoyed a very English education.

He once said: "It's very difficult for me to feel British."

And on another occasion he observed: "I rather think of myself as ethnically filthy - and proud of it."

He left Westminster School aged 16, heading for the London Theatre Studio.

An early school report on Ustinov said: "He shows great originality which must be curbed at all costs."

Ustinov in Spartacus
He won an Oscar for his role in Spartacus
A professional actor by 18, he wrote his first play, House of Regrets, a year later, and watched it transfer to the West End at the same time as he entered the Army.

He later claimed the highlight of his inauspicious military career to be his spell as batman for David Niven. The two were to become life-long friends.

In fact, he spent most of the World War II with the Army Cinema Unit where, as well as recruitment films, he found time to write more plays and appear in three films, including The Way Ahead, which he also co-wrote.

Ustinov's output following the war was prodigious. He was involved in a string of films as writer, producer, director or actor, including the Hollywood version of Quo Vadis, in which he played Nero.

United Nations ambassador

In the Hollywood epic Spartacus starring Kirk Douglas, Ustinov's portrayal of the slave owner Lentulus brought him the first of two supporting actor Oscars. The other was for the film Topkapi.

In 1978, he used his gift as a mimic to play Agatha Christie's Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot, in a series of films, including Death on the Nile.

As Poirot with David Niven
Death on the Nile reunited Niven with Ustinov
Despite his success in the cinema, Ustinov continued to write for the theatre. His play The Love of Four Colonels was first performed in London in 1951, before enjoying a long run in the United States.

Romanoff and Juliet was another big stage success, and Ustinov later obtained Hollywood backing to transfer it to film. Later plays included Halfway up the Tree and Beethoven's Tenth.

Critic James Agate, once said of him: "Ustinov is whipped by something which must be genius since it cannot be talent, for the first characteristic of talent is the taking of trouble, and I suspect that Ustinov never takes any."

Deeply sensitive to the injustices of the world, Peter Ustinov was a roving ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund, and considered himself an international citizen. He was knighted in 1990.

Always in demand

He also wrote travel books and novels. Part-Russian, German, French, Swiss and Ethiopian, Ustinov enjoyed a lifelong skill with languages, and was regarded in Europe as a man of immense culture.

During the making of his well-received BBC television series, Peter Ustinov's Russia, the ever-curious thespian made a journey of 100,000 miles and visited more than 30 cities.

Ustinov at the U.N.
He was an actor, author, playwright, raconteur and diplomat
But if his academic achievements appealed to those schooled in literature and geography, his way with a good joke ensured his popularity with a less esoteric audience.

His mischievous geniality and ready wit made him a welcome guest on chat shows and a popular speaker on the international dinner circuit.

One critic said: "Nothing he creates is as funny as himself."

It was in the role of raconteur that many found Peter Ustinov at his best.

The BBC's Nick Higham
"In Britain they'll remember him because he made them laugh"


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