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Peter Ustinov: The Storyteller

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Peter Ustinov: The Storyteller

Peter Ustinov loved to make people laugh, using his quick wit, natural storytelling ability and gift for mimicry to good effect during his 60-year career. As he wrote in his 1977 autobiography, Dear Me, "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world."

"He was the most consistently funny raconteur of his time, recognized as a peer by virtually all other humorists," Britain's Guardian wrote when Ustinov died March, 28 2004, at 82.

Among his best-known comic roles were Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot in a number of film adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels, and a small-time hustler who falls in with big-time thieves in 1964's Topkapi, a role that earned him his second Academy Award for best supporting actor.

Ustinov, born April 16, 1921, was about more than laughs. He also was a serious actor, winning his first Academy Award for his role in 1960's Spartacus. The BBC called him "one of Britain's most respected actors." He was a talented writer, creating dozens of stage plays, screenplays and works of fiction and nonfiction. He was fluent in French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish, and conversational in Greek and Turkish. Ustinov served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and as president of the World Federalist Movement.

Ustinov was born in Britain to parents who had settled there from Russia. As a child he mimicked his parents' friends at parties, drawing laughter and praise. At private school, he told one TV interviewer, he found that making people laugh kept him out of trouble.

Ustinov served in the British army from 1942 to 1946 and recalled telling the officer selection board that he had a preference for tanks, "because you can go into battle sitting down," according to newspaper accounts. The board later issued a warning: "On no account must this man be put in charge of others."

Talk show hosts considered him the perfect guest, easily telling stories on any topic.

"There was no specimen of humanity whom Ustinov could not turn to glorious comic effect: Italian opera divas, German professors, American officials and disdainful British diplomats were all grist to his mill," Britain's Telegraph said in his obituary. "And if he tired of human kind, he was equally brilliant at reproducing musical instruments, or perhaps a car's cold start."

Former Los Angeles Times movie critic Charles Champlin, who considered Ustinov a friend, said the actor picked up voices "like blue serge picks up lint. … He was a wonderful storyteller, and he could take a little thing and, by the time he got through embellishing it with his accents, you got, really, a short story. He was one of the most amusing men I ever met."

In 1976, Ustinov appeared on The Muppet Show. In a sketch, Kermit tells Ustinov he's jealous of the actor's poise and fame. Ustinov replies, "I'm jealous of you. I've always wanted to be a frog."

Asked before his death how he wanted to be remembered, Ustinov was widely reported to have said he had decided on an appropriate saying for his tombstone: "Keep off the grass."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."