LONDON — Peter Ustinov, whose film career began in London in the 1940s and netted two Oscars in the ’60s, died Sunday of heart failure near Lake Geneva, Switzerland. He was 82.
A brilliant wit and mimic and a physically imposing bear of a man, Ustinov scored his first supporting actor Oscar nomination as Nero in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 pic “Quo Vadis.” He took home supporting actor honors for Stanley Kubrick’s “Spartacus” in 1961 and garnered the award again in 1965 for Jules Dassin’s caper classic “Topkapi.”
Ustinov, a renaissance man whose talents included writing plays, movies and novels as well as directing operas, films and plays, also devoted himself to the world’s children for more than 30 years as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
Director Michael Winner, who helmed the Agatha Christie thriller “Appointment with Death,” which starred Ustinov as the famed detective Hercule Poirot, described him as “one of those major characters which pop up very rarely” and “the best mimic I have ever seen.”
Born in London, the only son of a Russian artist mother and a journalist father, Ustinov made some 90 movies. He also received an Oscar nomination for original screenplay for the comic con artist tale “Hot Millions” in 1968. His narration of Tchaikovsky’s “Peter and the Wolf” won him a Grammy.
Among his notable film roles were a nomad in the outback in “The Sundowners,” a one-eyed slave in “The Egyptian,” Poirot in “Death on the Nile” and Abdi Aga, an illiterate tyrant with pretensions of learning in “Memed My Hawk.”
On the strength of “Quo Vadis,” he found steady employment in Hollywood in films such as 1954’s “Beau Brummel” and “The Egyptian.”
A favorite of the period was 1955’s “We’re No Angels,” with Humphrey Bogart and Aldo Ray. In “Lola Montes,” Max Ophuls coaxed out of the often hammy Ustinov what is considered the most restrained and impressive screen performances of his career, though some of it was trimmed from the release version. After several indifferent international film productions, Stanley Kubrick cast him in “Spartacus” as a bemused Roman slave dealer. The performance earned a supporting actor Oscar in 1961, and it was backed up by another fine performance in Fred Zinnemann’s “The Sundowners.”
Ustinov considered “Billy Budd,” which he wrote and directed in 1962, the best of his efforts behind the camera, and the pic garnered Directors Guild and Writers Guild nominations.
He also won three television Emmys, portraying the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson in “Dr. Johnson” and Socrates in “Barefoot in Athens.” In “A Storm in Summer,” his Emmy came for playing an aged Jewish deli owner in Long Island. Ustinov was educated at the 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. UNICEF asked Ustinov to join the U.N. children’s agency as a goodwill ambassador in the play’s wake. He later became a staunch advocate for UNESCO.
Fellow UNICEF goodwill ambassador Roger Moore remembered him as “a man of extraordinary talents,” but in Moore’s view, Ustinov’s greatest talent was “his ability to help those less fortunate and, in particular, children. For 35 years he served as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. He was an inspiration to us all at UNICEF. He can never be replaced.”
Despite health problems, Ustinov remained active until close to his death, playing himself in the 2003 TV movie “Winter Solstice.” In other late roles, he was the voice of Babar the Elephant, portrayed 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 was knighted for his output on the eve of his 70th birthday in 1991.
Ustinov was married three times and is survived by his four children and his third wife, Helen du Lau d’Allemans.
(Richard Natale in Los Angeles contributed to this story.)