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Peter Ustinov

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Multitalented, urbane Peter Ustinov dies at 82

By ELEANOR RINGEL GILLESPIE

Peter Ustinov was urbanity incarnate.

A droll, witty, rotund Englishman with perfect comic timing, he managed to steal scenes from the great Laurence Olivier in "Spartacus" and won his first best supporting actor Oscar in 1960 for his role as an unctuous and cunning gladiator broker. He won again in 1964 for "Topkapi," a gem of a jewel-heist film.

The 82-year-old star, who died Sunday of heart failure in Switzerland, where he was being treated at a clinic near his home overlooking Lake Geneva, considered himself a citizen of the world. And he proved it with more than 30 years of dedicated work as an ambassador-at-large for UNICEF and a volunteer for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). He was knighted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II.

Still, Ustinov was first and foremost an actor. Born in London, the son of a Russian artist and a journalist father, he began performing at age 3, mimicking politicians of the time. A Welles-ian boy wonder (as in Orson), he first appeared on the London stage at age 19, sold his first screenplay ("The True Glory") at 24 and directed his first film at 25 ("School for Secrets").

His career spanned six decades and more than 90 movies. Along with his pair of Oscars, he was nominated twice more --- for his blase and peckish Nero in 1951's "Quo Vadis?" and in the best original screenplay category for the 1968 film "Hot Millions."

Ustinov also dabbled successfully in television, winning Emmys for "Dr. Johnson," "Barefoot in Athens" and "A Storm in Summer." He wrote short stories and plays, the best known being the comedy "Romanov and Juliet," which was adapted for film in 1961.

Though he often played pretentious or callow characters --- a one-eyed slave in "The Egyptian" (1954), a foolish ambassador married to a cheating Elizabeth Taylor in "The Comedians" (1967) --- he was also extremely versatile.

His Inspector Hercule Poirot, whom he played in three films in the '70s and '80s, was a model of cleverness, irony and savoir-faire. His ringmaster in the classic "Lola Montez" (1955) was alternately heartless and tender, an acerbic showman with moments of vulnerability.

Ustinov was the sort of worldly Englishman that we don't see much anymore --- who always knew the best wines and the best restaurants. The sort of raconteur that made him seem the ideal dinner guest. The sort of humanitarian who gave his time to helping others.

Yet for all his gifts, he never took himself too seriously. Once asked what he'd like to see on his tombstone, he replied, "Keep off the grass."



© 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Mar. 30, 2004
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