I first met Peter Ustinov in the late 50’s when I went backstage at the then-Huntington Hartford Theater in Hollywood, where he was starring in “Romanoff and Juliet,” to ask for an autograph.
He signed my program, then asked me how I had enjoyed the play. I replied that I thought it was an amusing romp, but I didn’t understand the political implications and didn’t really get the connection to “Romeo and Juliet” I had expected.
I also said, I thought his performance was hilarious, but commented that I really liked Edward Atienza, who had a supporting role. “Hmmm,” he said, “so young and already a critic, perhaps you should read the play and come back again,” then gave me a copy (he had written it). I read it and came back, then told him I now understood what he was doing, but thought it still too farcical and returned the copy of the play.
Several years passed and I found myself a publicist on the staff of Rogers & Cowan.
One day, Warren Cowan said he was going to give me something I would remember for the rest of my life. He took me to the Beverly Hills Hotel for cocktails with a client, who turned out to be Peter Ustinov.
He was right. For nearly two hours I never stopped laughing at the wittiest man I had ever met in my life. Only when there was a break did I mention that we had met once before at the Hartford. Ustinov looked at me carefully.
“Ah, the young critic,” he said, and I was astonished that he remembered.
Then, even though he had now become a force on the screen with Oscars for “Spartacus” and “Topkapi,” we started talking about the theater and a new friendship began. Ustinov had really been a client of Margaret Gardner, the head of the R&C office in London, but Warren quickly assigned me as his Los Angeles representative, which kept me laughing for years.
Whenever Peter was in town, we would meet, often at a variety of restaurants. One of these was the popular Benihana, which featured Japanese cuisine, where we would often sit at the bar in front of the chef, who would make a show out of his fast-chopping knives. Peter would accompany him singing what sounded like real Japanese lyrics but I suspected were simply his own clever made-up language, to the tune of the chopping knives until, certain that he would unnerve the chef, throw off his rhythm and we would be stabbed to death, I would yell “shut up, or we’ll be killed.” He would just smile — and so would the chef, who was used to us.
At the time, I was the frequent host of large dinner parties at my home and, since Peter liked to eat and liked my cooking, he was a frequent and memorable guest.
A party for Peter Ustinov drew the royalty of Hollywood and, after dinner, all of them gathered around the guest of honor, many finding a spot on the living room floor, and the show would begin.
Sitting in the middle of the room, the best raconteur of Hollywood would have everyone in stitches for the next hour or so; all conversation stopped, we just laughed until our bellies hurt.
Those parties packed the house as people heard about them and my Mulholland Drive home became the talk of the street — and the talk of the town.
In 1976, I was hired by the late Joseph E. Levine to publicize the film “Paper Tiger,” starring David Niven, the other great wit of Hollywood.
How amazing, Peter Ustinov and David Niven in my life at the same time. I could barely get my work done inbetween laughs.
Merv Griffin then had his TV talk show and I came up with what I thought was the blockbuster show of all time — an evening with Peter Ustinov and David Niven, the entire 90 minutes, which would publicize both “Paper Tiger” and any Ustinov film. He was in such demand, there was always a Ustinov film to publicize.
Merv thought it was the best idea he’d ever heard and bought it at once. The problem was, I hadn’t mentioned it to either Peter or David and, when I did, they both turned it down. Neither of them wanted to go on national television with the other, feeling certain they would top each other.
What a DVD that show would make, today.
Sir Peter left us for a higher life a few days ago. Maybe he and David are swapping wits together now. I’m sure the Angels and God are laughing their heads off. I will not mourn him, I will only remember his gift of laughter.
(Dale Olson is a veteran journalist and publicist, a former drama critic for Daily Variety and the Founder of the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle.)