Thursday, April 24, 2014



Sir Peter Alexander Ustinov, CBE, born 16 April 21, died 28 March 2004, was an English actor, writer, and dramatist. He was also renowned as a filmmaker, theater and opera director, stage designer, author, screenwriter, comedian, humorist, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and television presenter. A noted wit and raconteur, he was a fixture on television talk shows and lecture circuits for much of his career. He was also a respected intellectual and diplomat who, in addition to his various academic posts, served as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and President of the World Federalist Movement.

Ustinov as Nero, in Quo Vadis, 1951
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, a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as the recipient of governmental honors from, 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 many concert works, dedicated his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 (1950) to Ustinov.

Ustinov had one of the most interesting heritages I've run across in many a moon. He was born Peter Alexander Baron von Ustinow in Swiss Cottage, London. His father, Jona (born Jonah Freiherr von Ustinow), nicknamed “Klop” (Russian: Клоп, “bed-bug”), was of Russian, German, Polish-Jewish and Ethiopian noble descent, and had served as a lieutenant in the Imperial German Luftstreitkräfte (Air Force) in World War I. Jona's father was Russian aristocrat Plato von Ustinov, his mother half-Jewish, half-German-Ethiopian Magdalena Hall. Jona 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 Putiltz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler's intentions before World War II. (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher mentions in his book that Jona was quite possibly the spy known as U35; Ustinov says in his autobiography that his father hosted secret meetings of both senior British and German officials at their London home.) Ustinov's great-grandfather Moritz Hall, a Jewish refugee from Krakow and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family.

Ustinov's mother, Nadezhda Leontievna “Nadia” Benois, was a painter and ballet designer of Russian, French, Italian and German ancestry. Her father, Leon Benois, was an Imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Madonna Benois. His 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 Tsar Paul.

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 Auston” but was counseled 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 from the dismal rat race of school.”

Ustinov as Prince John (not the snake) in Disney's 1973 Robin Hood

It's easy to see why he would espouse the World Federalist Movement. I have seldom read of so many comings and goings, even among the Hapsburgs, Romanovs and the House of Windsor, at its height, prior to World War I. Looking carefully at pictures of Tsar Nicholas II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (who married his first cousin, Queen Victoria and became consort), all three look pretty much alike. Royal houses had taken to inter-marriage to the point that genetic defects (Tsarevich Alexii, son of Nicholas II and Alexandria, had hemophilia B, inherited from his maternal grandmother, Queen Victoria) were becoming manifest. But, as usual, I digress. 

So, it's understandable that Ustinov's parentage, close to the top of the heap in terms of nobility, is somewhat of a scrambled mess when it comes to actual heritage. This was the norm, because, back in the day, it was thought that by establishing alliances in this manner, wars would be prevented. Feel free to laugh at this convoluted piece of logic. Oh, and by the way, although Prince Albert died in 1860, his relatives (Kaiser Wilhelm II, who to be honest, waited a bit before jumping into the fray) and the Hapsburgs themselves, saw nothing wrong with starting a shooting war, by declaring war on Serbia after the assassination of the Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who, had he not been so vain to have himself sewn into his fine suit of clothing, may not have bled to death when he was shot at Sarajevo, in June of 1914, by Gavrilo Princip. The surgeons couldn't get to him soon enough. That's where vanity'll get ya!

Where was I? Oh yes! Peter Ustinov, who by all accounts was the best raconteur going; so good in fact, that he spent the latter half of his career just being on talk shows, giving lectures and going on good will tours. This compilation of his interviews with Michael Parkinson is full of sparkling wit, stories, and Ustinov's zest and optimism for life. 

Michael Parkinson's Interview with Peter Ustinov (7 in total)

I always enjoyed hearing him on talk shows; there was always at least three or four guaranteed howlers, just by his descriptions and observations of people. At heart, he was a complete optimist, and he said, "The point of living and being an optimist, is to be foolish enough to believe that the best is yet to come." I can relate to that. He also said, "If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it cannot be done." That sounds like some of the places I've worked for.

He also wrote a play called Beethoven's Tenth, which is about how Beethoven would react to the modern world. As someone who has pretty much channeled Beethoven from birth, I wondered how Ustinov would approach him. I read some of the excerpts, but it is more a drawing-room play, focusing on the world of symphonic music and music critics, in particular. It is well-known that in Beethoven's time, from his 7th Symphony onward, and his later string quartets, he took shellackings from critics that would demand pistols at dawn, or a swift beheading, were I being the one criticized. "Sounds like badly-oiled syringes," was one critic's summation of Beethoven's gorgeous 7th Symphony in A minor

               Ludwig would have loved metal, and played keyboards. Mozart    would have worked for Lawrence Welk and played the accordion.

I've seen many of Peter Ustinov's movies and guest appearances on shows like The Muppets and I truly appreciate his story-telling abilities the most. He could mimic nearly anyone and he was fluent in several languages. He was also elected first Rector of the University of Dundee, Scotland in 1968, an honorary post, which became political when he mediated with militant students. He ran and won a second term in that post.  But for Ustinov, it was all about the laughter. He said of it, "I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilized music in the world."



Kathe W. said...

Enjoyed this quite a bit!

Anabel Marsh said...

Second Ustinov post I've read! What a fascinating man - I didn't know most of this. The other post I read said that Indira Gandhi was on her way to be interviewed by him when she was assassinated. I didn't know that either! Very well connected.

Anabel at Anabel's Travel Blog

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Mary - Ustinov was an icon in his time .. we thought he was a great actor, writer and racconteur ...

Great you've highlighted him, especially his background, here and reminded me about him .. cheers Hilary

Rhonda Parrish said...

Sounds like quite an interesting life :)

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on this worthwhile post for readers to engage in. Delighted to learn from you about Ustinov. A lot of research/work went into this. I appreciate your contribution to the blogging world.

Viola Fury said...


I'm so glad you stopped by and so glad you enjoyed this post. I had forgotten how complex a man he was and how truly gifted, but his stories on talk shows used to leave me in stitches! Thanks again! Mary xoxo

Viola Fury said...


Thanks for stopping by! You cannot really pigeon-hole Ustinov in any one category. I do remember that he spent a fair amount of time in Russia and had some Russian blood, but when I looked at his parents and their background, I was astounded! We take so much at face value and the man behind the funny stories and the plays had a rich history, indeed, before he ever stepped foot on a stage! Thanks again! Mary xoxo

Viola Fury said...

Hi Hillary!

He as an original, that's for sure! I remember him on Johnny Carson one night telling some hilarious stories about being an extra in huge operas and all of the pitfalls and mishaps that occur. I really appreciated them, because I spent 12 seasons in a professional opera company, and half the fun, was seeing what kind of mayhem would occur on stage!

It was fun to listen to him talk about his experiences in anything really, because his command of languages was brilliant. An official of UNICEF, caught a show of his in Germany and she thought it was the funniest thing she'd ever heard, yet she spoke no German! Thank you so much for visiting and patience! I'm behind on my visiting and commenting, due to health problems within my family, but am getting caught up! Mary xoxo

Viola Fury said...


Hi! Thanks for stopping by! I think he had a most fascinating life and his ease in traveling from Russia to Western Europe to the United States during the Cold War led him to help found and lead the World Federalist Movement, in which the world would be united under one government.

A lovely idea, but I fear that given the proclivities of man to garner power, money and try to impose one discipline of governance and faith over another, that it would be a hopeless mess. But, Ustinov was a determined optimist and not always the most realistic and we certainly need people like that! Thanks again, Rhonda, for stopping by! Mary xoxo

Viola Fury said...


Thank you so much for you kind words and for stopping by! I really try to bring as much of the truth and facts to a post when I write like this. I really enjoy writing articles like this, but shudder to think if I get something wrong! I guess the days of university theses, disguised as research papers on D. L. Lawrence have stuck with me!

I am also trying to pick people that are known more outside the U. S. than inside. Someone took issue with my Rodney Dangerfield post and while I understand that that sort of humor is not always approachable by people outside the U. S., I thought the criticism unfair. Or maybe, I'm just thin-skinned. Anyway, I'm so glad you stopped by and I hope to continue adding more goodies for people to enjoy! Thanks again! Mary xoxo