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Indelible mark

Sir Peter Ustinov was more than just a film star. RANDOR GUY remembers this multi-faceted personality.

Ustinov (at right) in the crime caper "Topkapi".

A SCINTILLATING synthesis of amazing talents. Brilliant actor, movie and television star, best-selling author and playwright, filmmaker, a writer of operas, two-time Oscar Award winner. A warm-hearted human being with concern for the underdog and, above all, a person of effervescent sense of humour and wit. Such an incredible personality was Peter Ustinov who died recently at the age of 83.

An iconoclast with a penchant for anecdote, and outrageous stories, his autobiography Dear Me is a perennial seller.

His pedigree and family tree are interesting, and even mind-boggling. He was half-Russian, half-German on his paternal side, and half-Russian, one quarter French and one quarter Italian on his mother's side! As a writer remarked, "he is a profoundly international product of mixed nationalities."

Peter Ustinov was born on April 16, 1921 in London and he weighed 12 pounds at birth. As one of his friends wisecracked, "he came into the world big and remained big, and getting bigger right through his life!" He never felt self-conscious about his bulk and, in characteristic style, once said, "I welcome people being funny at my expanse!"

Ustinov was only 17 when he took his bow in theatre and a year later he faced a movie camera in a film, prophetically titled "Hullo Fame" (1940). During the early years of World War II (1939-1945), he moved closely with movie land figures (all were in the army) like famed British filmmaker Carol Reed (later Sir Carol), noted writer Eric Ambler, and the charismatic actor David Niven. Expectedly, he began to learn the ropes of movies and worked on screenplays. The friendship led to a role in the movie maestro David Lean's "The Way Ahead" (1944, again a prophetic title!) in which he had a minor role.

Though he continued to play mostly supportive roles in British movies, he attracted attention of critics and crowds in "Hotel Sahara" (1951) a British film about a hotel in North Africa during the World War II, which changed loyalties to suit its occupants. Ustinov splashed on the international movie horizon in the colossal Hollywood movie, and major hit "Quo Vadis?" (1951). Directed by the successful filmmaker Mervyn Le Roy, it was set in Rome during the reign of the sadistic Emperor Nero. Based on a best-selling novel by Henryk Sienkiswicz, it had been filmed earlier but this version proved to be a celluloid extravaganza with major Hollywood stars Robert Taylor, Deborah Carr, along with Leo Genn, the noted boxer Buddy Baer, and Peter Ustinov as Nero.


With his Oscar for "Spartacus".

One incident Ustinov never tired of telling his friends was of a scene in the Roman arena. A raging bull was to charge the condemned captive Christians and gore them to death, and Buddy Baer was to kill it. As the bull proved too dangerous to be let loose, a cow, dosed with chloroform, was brought to step into the hooves of the bull! Buddy twisted its neck so hard that the poor cow regained its senses and mooed in pain shaking its head, and udders — duly "caught" by the camera! After this sequence, "Bull's Udders" became an idiom in Hollywood, obviously coined by Ustinov to suggest that anything could happen in a Hollywood movie!

He was nominated at the Oscar Awards for "Best Supporting Actor" but missed it. However he bagged two such Oscars for his roles in "Spartacus" (1960), the powerful story of ancient Roman slaves who rise in revolt, based on a novel by Howard Fast. The second was '' "Topkapi" (1964), a delightful "heist" movie about an international gang trying to rob the Istanbul Museum, which set a trend in international cinema. Ustinov's other movies include "The Egyptian" (1954'), "We Are No Angels" (1955), "The Sundowners" (1960), "Romanoff and Juliet" (1961). Ustinov also wrote and directed the movie based on his own play. "Billy Budd" (1962) was also written and directed by him. He also created history in television playing the role of the famous Belgian fictional detective Hercule Poirot created by the Queen of Crime, Agatha Christie.

Ustinov was also a prolific writer. Apart from his autobiography Dear Me, he also wrote 22 plays, eight books, and nine film scripts. He also directed eight films and eight operas. He made seven best selling records, written and starred in his own radio and television shows and has appeared in dozens of top television shows in many parts of the world. And he acted in many plays.

UNICEF made him its Goodwill Ambassador and he travelled around the world to propagate its aims and objectives thus fulfilling his social awareness and aspirations. In appreciation of his services to arts, society and the nation the British Government gave him a Knighthood and he became Sir Peter Ustinov.

Whatever he touched in the world of arts he left his characteristic wit and humour-drenched indelible footprints. He married thrice and his third wife Helene survives him.

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