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Loved the World Over: Peter Ustinov Dies at 82

Sir Peter Ustinov, who German President Johannes Rau once described as a "one-man creative force" may have been British, but for Germans, his deep ties to this country made him something of an honorary citizen.

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He felt 'understood' in Germany.

Sir Peter Ustinov, the Oscar-winning actor, novelist, and raconteur, died late Sunday of heart failure in a Swiss clinic near his home overlooking Lake Geneva. He was 82.

"He was a great man, he was a unique person, someone you could really count on," said his close friend and former United Nations spokesman Leon Davico.

Ustinov was the world's first global citizen. The only son of a French/Russian artist mother and a German/Russian journalist father, he claimed also to have Swiss, Ethiopian, and Italian blood -- everything except English. Ustinov grew up in England, had a German passport, and was fluent in six languages, including German.

"I've never felt particularly British," he once said. At a special ceremony in Berlin on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2001, Ustinov said he was thankful for the special place he occupies in the hearts of Germans. "I believe that I have been understood here in Germany," he said.

Acting legend

Ustinov discovered his talent as an actor and mimic as a young student, when classmates teased him for being overweight. "I saved myself by doing imitations of the teachers, and making the others laugh," he said.

He left school at 16, and by 19 was a published playwright and London revue star. It was the beginning of an acting career that spanned six decades, during which Ustinov worked in over 80 films. He appeared in roles ranging from Emperor Nero to Agatha Christie's Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. He won Academy Awards for supporting actor roles in the films Spartacus and Topkapi in the 1960's.

Galerie Peter Ustinov

Actor Peter Ustinov gets a kiss from Italian actress Sophia Loren as she delivers the Oscar to him in Paris, France, May 9, 1965.

A true renaissance man, Ustinov wrote, directed, and starred in his own plays in London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Rome. Not content with a career in film and on stage, he also tried his hand as a novelist, working on manuscripts to fill the time while he waited around on Hollywood sets.

Michael Winner, who directed Ustinov in the 1988 movie Appointment With Death, described the actor as a "marvelous man, a great wit, a great raconteur, a man of the world."

"He was a very good actor but he wasn't used as an actor as much as he should have been because he became famous as Peter Ustinov," Winner told The Associated Press.

Ambassador of goodwill

Ustinov's international fame made him a good choice to serve as a goodwill ambassador for the U.N. Children's Fund, UNICEF. He later became a staunch advocate for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Galerie Peter Ustinov

Sir Peter Ustinov jokes with the photographers prior to a meeting with German TV anchor woman Sabine Christiansen for a UNICEF book presentation in Berlin on May 22, 2003.

"He was not just a writer and actor. He was someone who really tried to help," Davico said. "He was not only the funniest person I've ever met, but the most intelligent. He was an attentive citizen of the world."

Ustinov's long-running service to the United Nations once led U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to joke that Ustinov was the man to take over from him.

Humor above all else

In 1990, Ustinov was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. But for all his achievements, he always maintained his trademark, self-deprecating humor. Asked during a guest appearance on a German talk-show what the knighthood meant to him, Ustinov replied that it gave him a "Sir" in his title, and little else. "But my wife is very happy that it's turned her into a Lady," he said.

Ustinov applied that same famous humor to his growing years. On his 80th birthday, he was asked if he would be cutting back on his public engagements. "Why should one slow down?" he answered. "I don't quite understand it." The only thing he bemoaned was his inability to play tennis anymore. "I see the ball coming and I think to myself, 'I have plenty of time to reach that' and it bounces three times before I've fallen down."

He even viewed his own mortality with wit, responding to an interviewer who asked him what he wanted inscribed on his tombstone: "Keep off the grass."

Ustinov is survived by his third wife, Helene du Lau d'Allemans, with whom he lived in the Swiss canton of Vaud. He had four children from two previous marriages. No details have yet been released about his funeral.

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  • Date 30.03.2004
  • Author DW staff (dc)
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  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4qSl
  • Date 30.03.2004
  • Author DW staff (dc)
  • Print Print this page
  • Permalink http://p.dw.com/p/4qSl