Ustinov, a man of pithy wit, dies at 82

Another major role was for UNICEF


March 30, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Peter Ustinov, who died Sunday at his home in Switzerland at age 82, resembled a cross between an English bulldog and a teddy bear - imposing, but adorable; refined, but mischievious. In the annals of great British actors, he'll go down as Shakespearean, with a touch of Monty Python.

"Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious," Ustinov was reported to have once said, offering a wry and typically dexterous summation of his life and career.

The actor, whose movie career spanned more than 60 years, from 1942's One of Our Aircraft Is Missing to 2003's Luther, died of heart failure at a Swiss clinic near his home in Bursins. In recent years, Ustinov had become almost as well known for his advocacy on behalf of the world's children - he had been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations and UNICEF for more than 30 years - as for his acting. So strong was his connection to the United Nations that Secretary-General Kofi Annan once joked that Ustinov should be the man to take over from him.

"He was a great man," close friend Leon Davico, a former UNICEF spokesman, told the Associated Press. "He was a unique person, someone you could really count on."

Born in London on April 16, 1921, the son of an artist mother of French descent and a journalist father of Russian descent, Ustinov began performing early, by his own account at age 2, when he was left alone with a parrot while his nursemaid was otherwise occupied. "It imitated me and I imitated it," he once said.

By age 3, he was mimicking politicians of the day for one of his parents' dinner guests, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. He was educated at the famous Westminster School, but left at age 16 - such a high-class education wasn't for him. He first appeared on the London stage in 1940.

Ustinov may have sounded highbrow - he spoke the king's English the way God doubtless intended - but he never came off as haughty; he seemed as comfortable serving as a panelist on the '60s quiz show What's My Line? as he did sharing the screen with the legendary Charles Laughton in Spartacus. He was an acerbic wit and expert mimic who kept the pomposities and absurdities of his profession in perfect balance.

In fact, it was his reputation as a raconteur and conversationalist that ensured his place in the Hollywood pantheon. A frequent guest on talk shows for more than four decades, he was always likable, often uproariously funny and game for just about anything. His ability to mimic accents and dialects made him a crowd-pleaser of the first order. In the early '60s, his rantings in German (one of six languages he spoke fluently) left audiences in stitches, even when they couldn't understand a word he was saying. And in a day when movie stars often were hesitant to appear on television, he happily took the plunge, winning Emmys for The Life of Samuel Johnson (1952), Barefoot in Athens (1966) and A Storm in Summer (1970).

Although he reveled in playing the cultured clown, anyone who doubted Ustinov's dramatic capabilities had only to watch Summer, in which he played an aging Jewish delicatessen owner who becomes the reluctant guardian for a young African-American boy. Written by Rod Serling, the drama played out against a backdrop of both the civil-rights struggle and the war in Vietnam, and Ustinov's performance was moving in ways that were never maudlin.

His filmography includes Nero in Quo Vadis (1951) and Agatha Christie's eccentric Inspector Hercule Poirot in Death on the Nile (1978). But it was his subversively comic turns in Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964) that brought Ustinov his Oscars and established the persona most fondly remembered by moviegoers.

Ustinov won his first Oscar for playing Lentulus Batiatus, the Roman who purchases the slave Spartacus and trains him to become a gladiator (much to Rome's later regret). Although a serious role, Ustinov played Batiatus with a twinkle that perhaps suggested mischieviousness more than cruelty; when events get away from him and Spartacus starts his slave rebellion, Batiatus looks not so much surprised as found out. Ustinov's scenes with Laughton, as the Roman senator Gracchus, are cinema classics, as the two portly men discuss the advantages of things weighty.

Topkapi, French director Jules Dassin's hilarious send-up of his own Rififi, featured Ustinov as the unwitting courier for a band of robbers intent on stealing a priceless dagger from a Turkish museum. The film was a hit, and Ustinov's performance a comic gem, enough to snatch the Best Supporting Actor Oscar from Stanley Holloway (My Fair Lady) and Edmond O'Brien (Seven Days In May).

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