Peter Ustinov is another one of those people where I have a ridiculously hard time figuring out where I think of him first. Is he Edward Teach? Is he Nero? Is he Hercule Poirot? What about Stiff Upper Lips, whatever he’s called in that? In my heart, I think he’s Prince John, which is not an image I’m going to use, because my principle is to use an image of the person, and when I use a drawing or painting, it’s still a drawing or painting of the person. And last I checked, Peter Ustinov was many things, but he was not a cartoon lion.
For one thing, he was a Von. His grandfather was a Russian nobleman. Actually, his family line in general is so fascinating that I suggest reading about it instead of just letting me summarize it for you. But he was of Jewish, German, Russian, Polish, and Ethiopian descent, and with that list, you just know there’s some wild history in there. And the Ethiopian descent itself involved nobility. I mean, being knighted in Brazil (which is a thing that actually happened to him) is just nothing to him. That’s mild compared to the list of nobility extant in his family tree going in.
He actually became an actor because he didn’t like school. He went through your standard Upper Crust British Education, though I’ll admit that having the eldest son of Joachim von Ribbentrop as a classmate isn’t completely standard. Also, few of his classmates probably had parents who were working for MI5 as spies. But you know, other than all that. And he said that acting was his escape from the rat race of school. Which, you know, fine. You can’t even say he’s not following the family business by it, because his family has done so many things that you can’t pick one.
And oh, my, the acting. He didn’t EGOT—while he was nominated for two Tonys, he never won. (He was nominated for writing and for acting for his play Romanoff and Juliet, and both awards lost to Sunrise at Campobello.) And apparently he had his Oscar and his Golden Globe set up to look like they were playing tennis, because why not? But the list of awards for his work is at least a full page by itself, and Wikipedia still lists it as incomplete. And that’s because he was an amazing actor and writer with a wide body of work. In fact, to my amusement, his first movie was called One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and he would go on to star in Disney’s One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing.
I do tend to think of him in some of the weirder alleys of his career. I own Quo Vadis, a movie I first saw in Sunday school as a child that includes his performance as a ludicrously over-the-top Nero, even by the standards of theatrical Neros, and think of it more often than I think of his Oscar-winning performance in Spartacus. (He lost the Oscar for Nero to Karl Malden in Streetcar Named Desire.) And I do love Stiff Upper Lips. I like his Poirot better than Albert Finney’s, albeit less than David Suchet’s. And, yes, my love of the Disney, except One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing, which I manage to have not seen.