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, and a Grammy Award for best recording for children, as well as the recipient of governmental honours from, amongst others, 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 numerous concert works, dedicated his String Quartet No. 1, Op. 22 (1950) to Ustinov.
In 2003, Durham University changed the name of its Graduate Society to Ustinov College in honour of the significant contributions Ustinov had made as chancellor of the university from 1992 until his death.
Ustinov was born Peter Alexander von Ustinov in London, England. His father, Jona von Ustinov, was of Russian, Polish Jewish, German, and Ethiopian descent. Peter's paternal grandfather was Plato von Ustinov, a Russian nobleman, and his grandmother was Magdalena Hall, of mixed Ethiopian-German-Jewish origin. Peter's paternal great-great-grandparents (through Magdalena's mother) were the German painter Eduard Zander and the Ethiopian aristocrat Court-Lady Isette-Werq in Gondar.
Ustinov's mother, Nadezhda Leontievna Benois, known as Nadia, was a painter and ballet designer of French, German, Italian, and Russian descent. Her father, Leon Benois, was an Imperial Russian architect and owner of Leonardo da Vinci's painting Madonna Benois. Leon's 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 the Emperor Paul.
Jona (or Iona) 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 Putlitz, an MI5 spy in the German embassy in London who furnished information on Hitler's intentions before the Second World War. (Peter Wright mentions in his book Spycatcher that Jona was possibly the spy known as U35; Ustinov says in his autobiography that his father hosted secret meetings of senior British and German officials at their London home.) Ustinov's great-grandfather Moritz Hall, a Jewish refugee from Kraków and later a Christian convert and collaborator of Swiss and German missionaries in Ethiopia, married into a German-Ethiopian family.
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 Austin", but was counselled 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 road from the dismal rat race of school."
In 1939, he appeared in White Cargo at the Aylesbury Rep, where he performed in a different accent every night.
Ustinov served as a private in the British Army during World War II, including time spent as batman to David Niven while writing the Niven film The Way Ahead. The difference in their ranks—Niven was a lieutenant-colonel and Ustinov a private—made their regular association militarily impossible; to solve the problem, Ustinov was appointed as Niven's batman. He also appeared in propaganda films, debuting in One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942), in which he was required to deliver lines in English, Latin, and Dutch. In 1944 under the auspices of ENSA, he presented and performed the role of Sir Anthony Absolute, in Sheridan's The Rivals, with Dame Edith Evans, at the Larkhill Camp theater.
After the war, he began writing; his first major success was with the play The Love of Four Colonels (1951). He starred with Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray in We're No Angels (1955). His career as a dramatist continued, his best-known play being Romanoff and Juliet (1956). His film roles include Roman emperor Nero in Quo Vadis (1951), Lentulus Batiatus in Spartacus (1960), Captain Vere in Billy Budd (1962), and an old man surviving a totalitarian future in Logan's Run (1976). Ustinov voiced the anthropomorphic lions Prince John and King Richard in the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood. He also worked on several films as writer and occasionally director, including The Way Ahead (1944), School for Secrets (1946), Hot Millions (1968), and Memed, My Hawk (1984).
In half a dozen films, he played Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot, first in Death on the Nile (1978) and then in 1982's Evil Under the Sun, 1985's Thirteen at Dinner (TV movie), 1986's Dead Man's Folly (TV movie), 1986's Murder in Three Acts (TV movie), and 1988's Appointment with Death.
Ustinov won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for his roles in Spartacus (1960) and Topkapi (1964). He also won one Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actor for the film Quo Vadis (he set the Oscar and Globe statuettes up on his desk as if playing doubles tennis; the game was a love of his life, as was ocean yachting). Ustinov was also the winner of three Emmys and one Grammy, and was nominated for two Tony Awards.
Between 1952 and 1955, he starred with Peter Jones in the BBC radio comedy In All Directions. The series featured Ustinov and Jones as themselves in a London car journey perpetually searching for Copthorne Avenue. The comedy derived from the characters they met, whom they often also portrayed. The show was unusual for the time, as it was improvised rather than scripted. Ustinov and Jones improvised on a tape, which was difficult, and then edited for broadcast by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, who also sometimes took part.
During the 1960s, with the encouragement of Sir Georg Solti, Ustinov directed several operas, including Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, Ravel's L'heure espagnole, Schoenberg's Erwartung, and Mozart's The Magic Flute. Further demonstrating his great talent and versatility in the theatre, Ustinov later undertook set and costume design for Don Giovanni.
His autobiography, Dear Me (1977), was well received and had him describe his life (ostensibly his childhood) while being interrogated by his own ego, with forays into philosophy, theatre, fame, and self-realisation.
In the later part of his life (from 1969 until his death), his acting and writing tasks took second place to his work on behalf of UNICEF, for which he was a Goodwill Ambassador and fundraiser. In this role, he visited some of the neediest children and made use of his ability to make people laugh, including many of the world's most disadvantaged children. "Sir Peter could make anyone laugh," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy is quoted as saying.
On 31 October 1984, Ustinov was due to interview Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi for Irish television. She was assassinated on her way to the meeting.
Ustinov also served as President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 until his death. He once said, "World government is not only possible, it is inevitable, and when it comes, it will appeal to patriotism in its truest, in its only sense, the patriotism of men who love their national heritages so deeply that they wish to preserve them in safety for the common good."
He is best known to many Britons and Americans as a chat-show guest, a role to which he was ideally suited. He was an extremely frequent guest of Jack Paar's Tonight Show in the early 1960s and was a guest on the famous "upside down" episode of the American talk show Late Night, during which the camera, mounted on a slowly revolving wheel, gradually rotated the picture 360° during the course of an hour; Ustinov appeared midway through and was photographed upside down in close-up as he spoke while his host appeared only in long shots. Towards the end of Ustinov's life, he undertook some one-man stage shows in which he let loose his raconteur streak: he told the story of his life, including some moments of tension with the society into which he was born. For example, he took a test as a child, asking him to name a Russian composer; he wrote Rimsky-Korsakov, but was marked down. He then told the correct answer, Tchaikovsky, since he had been studying him in class, and was told to stop showing off.
He was the subject of This Is Your Life on two occasions: in November 1977 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews at Pinewood Studios on the set of Death on the Nile, and a week before, he was surprised at a book signing at book printers Butler and Tanner in Frome, Somerset. This footage was not used, as Ustinov flatly refused to take part and swore at Andrews. His wife persuaded him to change his mind. He was surprised again in December 1994, when Michael Aspel approached him at the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.
A car enthusiast since the age of four, he owned a succession of interesting machines ranging from a Fiat Topolino, several Lancias, a Hispano-Suiza, a preselector gearbox Delage, and a special-bodied Jowett Jupiter. He made records like Phoney Folklore that included the song of the Russian peasant "whose tractor had betrayed him" and his "Grand Prix of Gibraltar" was a vehicle for his creative wit and ability at car-engine sound effects and voices.
He spoke English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian fluently, as well as some Turkish and modern Greek. He was proficient in accents and dialects in all his languages. Ustinov provided his own German and French dubbing for some of his roles, both for Lorenzo's Oil. As Hercule Poirot, he provided his own voice for the French versions of Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man's Folly, Murder in Three Acts, Appointment with Death and Evil under the Sun but, unlike Jane Birkin, who had dubbed herself in French for both this film and Death on the Nile, Ustinov did not provide his voice for the latter (his French voice being provided by Roger Carel, who had already dubbed him in Spartacus and other films). He dubbed himself in German as Poirot only in Evil under the Sun (his other Poirot roles being undertaken by no less than three different actors). On the other hand, he provided only his German voice for Disney's Robin Hood and NBC's Alice in Wonderland.
In the 1960s, he became a Swiss resident to avoid the British tax system of the time, which heavily taxed the earnings of the wealthy. However, he was knighted in 1990 and was appointed chancellor of Durham University in 1992, having previously been elected as the first rector of the University of Dundee in 1968 (a role in which he moved from being merely a figurehead to taking on a political role, negotiating with militant students). Ustinov was re-elected to the post for a second three-year term in 1971, narrowly beating Michael Parkinson after a disputed recount.
He received an honorary doctorate from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium).
Ustinov was a frequent defender of the Chinese government, stating in an address to Durham University in 2000, "People are annoyed with the Chinese for not respecting more human rights. But with a population that size it's very difficult to have the same attitude to human rights." In 2003, Durham's postgraduate college (previously known as the Graduate Society) was renamed Ustinov College.
Ustinov went to Berlin on a UNICEF mission in 2002 to visit the circle of United Buddy Bears that promote a more peaceful world between nations, cultures, and religions for the first time. He was determined to ensure that Iraq would also be represented in this circle of about 140 countries.
Amongst his lesser-known works, Ustinov presented and narrated the official video review of the 1987 Formula One season. Ustinov also narrated the documentary series Wings of the Red Star. In 1988, he hosted a live television broadcast entitled The Secret Identity of Jack the Ripper.
Ustinov gave his name to the Foundation of the International Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for their prestigious Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award, given annually to a young television screenwriter.
Ustinov was married three times—first to Isolde Denham (1920-1987), daughter of Reginald Denham and Moyna Macgill. The marriage lasted from 1940 to their divorce in 1950, and they had one child, daughter Tamara Ustinov. Isolde was the half-sister of Angela Lansbury, who appeared with Ustinov in Death on the Nile. His second marriage was to Suzanne Cloutier, which lasted from 1954 to their divorce in 1971. They had three children, two daughters, Pavla Ustinov and Andrea Ustinov, and a son, Igor Ustinov. His third marriage was to Helene du Lau d'Allemans, which lasted from 1972 to his death in 2004.
Ustinov was a secular humanist. He was listed as a distinguished supporter of the British Humanist Association, and had once served on their advisory council.
Ustinov suffered from diabetes and a weakened heart in his last years.
Ustinov died on 28 March 2004 of heart failure in a clinic in Genolier, near his home in Bursins, Vaud, Switzerland. He was so well regarded as a goodwill ambassador that UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy spoke at his funeral and represented United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
Ustinov was the President of the World Federalist Movement from 1991 to 2004, the time of his death. WFM is a global NGO that promotes the concept of global democratic institutions. WFM lobbies those in powerful positions to establish a unified human government based on democracy and civil society. The United Nations and other world agencies would become the institutions of a World Federation. The UN would be the federal government and nation states would become similar to provinces.
Until his death, Ustinov was a member of English PEN, part of the PEN International network that campaigns for freedom of expression.Abelard and Heloise
Add a Dash of Pity and Other Short Stories
Brewer's Theatre (with Isaacs, et al.)
The Comedy Collection
Disinformer: Two Novellas
Frontiers of the Sea
Generation at Jeopardy: Children in Central and Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union (with the United Nations Children's Fund)
God and the State Railways
Halfway Up the Tree
The Indifferent Shepherd
James Thurber with Thurber
Klop and the Ustinov Family (with Nadia B. Ustinov)
The Laughter Omnibus
Life is an Operetta: And Other Short Stories
The Love of Four Colonels
The Methuen Book of Theatre Verse (with Jonathan and Moira Field)
The Moment of Truth
Niven's Hollywood with Tom Hutchinson
The Old Man and Mr. Smith: A Fable
Romanoff and Juliet
Still at Large
The 13 Clocks with James Thurber
The Unicorn in the Garden and Other Fables for Our Time (with James Thurber)
The Unknown Soldier and His Wife
Ustinov at Eighty
Ustinov at Large
Ustinov in Russia
Ustinov Still at Large
Jesus of Nazareth (miniseries)
Peter Ustinov on the Orient Express
Omni: The New Frontier
Wings of the Red Star (as narrator)
Le défi mondial
Grand Prix of Gibraltar (1960) (spoken word comedy)
1952 nominated: Best Supporting Actor (Quo Vadis)
1961 won: Best Supporting Actor (Spartacus)
1965 won: Best Supporting Actor (Topkapi)
1969 nominated: Best Original Screenplay (Hot Millions, with Ira Wallach)
1962 nominated: Best British Screenplay (Billy Budd)
1978 nominated: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Death on the Nile)
1992 won: Britannia Award for Lifetime Achievement
1995 nominated: Best Light Entertainment Performance (An Evening with Sir Peter Ustinov)
1961 nominated: Golden Bear (Romanoff and Juliet)
1972 won: Silver Bear for an outstanding artistic contribution (Hammersmith Is Out)
1972 nominated: Golden Bear (Hammersmith Is Out)
1958 won: Best Single Performance by a Leading or Supporting Actor (Omnibus: The Life of Samuel Johnson)
1967 won: Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Barefoot in Athens)
1970 won: Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (A Storm in Summer)
1982 nominated: Outstanding Individual Achievement in Informational Programming (Omni: The New Frontier)
1985 nominated: Outstanding Classical Program in the Performing Arts (The Well-Tempered Bach with Peter Ustinov)
1952 won: Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Quo Vadis)
1961 nominated: Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture (Spartacus)
1965 nominated: Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (Topkapi)
1960 won: Best Recording for Children (Prokofiev: Peter and the Wolf) with the Philharmonia Orchestra directed by Herbert von Karajan
1974 nominated: Best Recording for Children (The Little Prince)
1978 nominated: Best Recording for Children (Russell Hoban, The Mouse and His Child)
1981 nominated: Best Spoken Word Album (A Curb in the Sky)
1958 nominated: Best Play (Romanoff and Juliet)
1958 nominated: Best Actor in a Play (Romanoff and Juliet)
1980 won Best Actor (Death on the Nile)
1992: Britannia Award
1993: London Critics' Award
1997: German Video Prize of the DIVA Award
1998: Bavarian Television Award
2001: Golden Camera (Goldene Kamera, Berlin)
2002: Planetary Consciousness Award of the Club of Budapest
2004: Bavarian Film Award (Bayerischer Filmpreis)
2004: Rose d'Or Charity Award with UNICEF (posthumously)
1974: Golden Camera Award for Best Actor for the Exchange of Notes
1978: Prix de la Butte for Oh my goodness! Messy memoirs
1981: Karl-Valentin-Orden (Munich)
1987: Golden Rascal (Goldenes Schlitzohr)
1957: Benjamin Franklin Medal of the Royal Society of Arts (London)
1974: Order of the Smile (Poland)
1975: Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) (United Kingdom)
1978: UNICEF International Prize for outstanding services
1985: Commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (France)
1986: Istiqlal Order (Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan)
1987: Order of the Yugoslav Flag
1987: Elected to the Académie française
1990: Gold Medal of the City of Athens
1990: Medal of the Hellenic Red Cross
1990: Knight Bachelor (United Kingdom)
1991: Medal of Charles University in Prague
1994: Knight of the National Order of the Southern Cross (Brazil)
1994: German Culture Prize (Deutscher Kulturpreis)
1995: International UNICEF Prize for Outstanding Services
1998: Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundesverdienstkreuz)
2001: Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, 1st class
2004: Hanseatic Bremen Prize for International Understanding (Bremer Hansepreis für Völkerverständigung)
Ustinov received many Honorary Degrees in honour of his work.Honorary Degrees
In 1997 singer-songwriter Lauren Christy released a song entitled "The Night I Saved Peter Ustinov", on her album Breed. In it Christy recounts a story in which she saves Ustinov from a suicide attempt. In Knowing Me Knowing You, when asked who the most famous philosopher alive is, after much consternation, Alan Partridge replies "Peter Ustinov".