Oscar-winner Peter Ustinov dies

Ustinov worked for Unicef for many years Keystone

Sir Peter Ustinov, an Oscar-winner who later earned a reputation for his humanitarian work, has died aged 82.

This content was published on March 29, 2004 - 13:32

Ustinov died of heart failure in a Swiss clinic near his home overlooking Lake Geneva, where the British-born actor had lived for decades.

"I shall remember him for always seeing the bright side of life," said his London agent Steve Kenis.

In a career lasting some 60 years, Ustinov appeared in roles ranging from Emperor Nero to Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

He won Academy Awards for supporting actor in the films “Spartacus” and “Topkapi” in the 1960s.

More recently he was the voice of “Babar the Elephant”, played the role of a doctor in the film “Lorenzo's Oil”, and in 1999 appeared as the Walrus to Pete Postlethwaite's Carpenter in a multimillion-dollar TV movie version of “Alice in Wonderland”.

He starred in, produced and directed his own plays in London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Rome. Ustinov also wrote novels to pass the time while hanging around on Hollywood film sets.

He interviewed a string of world leaders, was garlanded with international honours and ranked as one of the finest mimics in the business.

Ustinov was the first to admit that laughter had been a life-long drug.

"I was irrevocably betrothed to laughter, the sound of which has always seemed to me to be the most civilised music in the world," he said.

Multi-talented

Born in London on April 16, 1921, the only son of a Russian artist mother and a journalist father, Ustinov also claimed to have Swiss, Ethiopian, Italian and French blood - everything except English.

Ustinov was performing by the age of three, mimicking politicians of the day when his parents invited Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi for dinner.

He was educated at Britain’s prestigious Westminster School, but hated it and left at 16.

He appeared in his first revue and had his first stage play presented in London in 1940, when he was 19.

Ustinov turned producer at 21 when he presented "Squaring the Circle" shortly before he entered the British army in 1942.

If his plays had a continuing theme, it was a celebration of the little man bucking the system.

One of his most successful was "The Love of Four Colonels" which ran for two years in London's West End.

Humanitarian work

Close friend Leon Davico, who worked for the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef), asked Ustinov to join the agency as a goodwill ambassdor after seeing the play.

"He was not just a writer and actor. He was someone who really tried to help," said Davico.

"He was not only the funniest person person I've ever met, but the most intelligent. He was an attentive citizen of the world."

Ustinov later became a staunch advocate for Unesco, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

"He never said no to anything Unicef or the rest of United Nations asked him to do," added Davico.

Davico said Ustinov recently attended a Unicef event despite being confined to a wheelchair - sciatica gave him trouble walking, and diabetes left him with 30 per cent vision and foot problems.

Ustinov faced criticism in the early 1990s for his controversial views on the emergence of Russia from Communist rule, and for his unstinting support for Mikhail Gorbachev.

But his long service as a goodwill ambassador for Unicef led UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to joke that Ustinov was the man to take over from him.

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Ustinov

Peter Ustinov won Oscars for his roles in "Spartacus" (1960) and "Topkapi" (1964).

Apart from his Oscars, highlights include his role as the Emperor Nero in "Quo Vadis" (1951) and Herod in "Jesus of Nazareth" (1977).

His portrayal of Hercule Poirot began in 1978 with "Death on the Nile", followed by "Evil Under the Sun" (1982), "Dead Man's Folly" (1986) and "Appointment with Death" (1988).

Aside from being an actor, he led a richly varied life as a playwright, novelist, film director and goodwill ambassador for Unicef.

He wrote his first play at 19 and made his first feature film at 25.

A memorial service will be held at Geneva's St Peter's cathedral on Saturday for Ustinov.

The actor will be buried later in a private ceremony in the Bursins cemetery, the village overlooking Lake Geneva where he lived for decades.

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