On this day in history : 28th March 2004 – The death of actor, director, playwright, screenwriter, comedian, novelist, raconteur and humanitarian – Sir Peter Ustinov….

Sir Peter Ustinov – Image Credit : Allan Warren – own work CC BY-SA 3.0

Born Peter Alexander Freiherr Von Ustinov on the 16th of April 1921 in Swiss Cottage, London, Peter once said of himself “I am an international citizen conceived in Russia, born in England, working in Hollywood, living in Switzerland and touring the world”…. It could perhaps be said his global diversity started with the blood in his veins…. His father was half Russian, part African-Ethiopian, Polish and German….whilst his mother was also half Russian but part Italian, French and German…. The family had ancestral connections to Russian nobility and the Ethiopian royal family…. Not surprisingly Peter was brought up in a multi-lingual family – he spoke fluent English, Russian, French, Italian, German and Spanish and could get by in Greek and Turkish….

Peter attended Westminster College between 1934 and 1937 before joining the London Theatre Studio until 1939…. He made his stage debut in 1939…. His film debut came in 1940 with ‘Hullo, Fame!’

From 1942-1946 he served with the Royal Sussex Regiment as a Private…. It was during this period that he was to form a life long friendship with the actor David Niven…. Peter spent most of his service making recruitment films…. He also co-wrote the 1944 World War 2 drama ‘The Way Ahead’ starring David Niven…. After the War Peter himself was to appear in a catalogue of films, from the acclaimed ‘Lola Montes’ in 1955 to ‘The Comedians’, 1967 and ‘Robin Hood’, 1973 and ‘Logan’s Run‘, 1976 – and a whole host of other films in between…. He was awarded two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, one for ‘Spartacus’ in 1960 and ‘Topkapi’ in 1964…. He received a further two nominations both as an actor and writer…. His play ‘The Unknown Soldier and His Wife’ was the first play to be performed at the New London Theatre, Drury Lane, on its opening in 1973….

His career, as an actor, slowed down a little during the 1970s but 1978 saw him back in the role of Hercules Poirot in Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’…. The 1980s saw him in several strong TV film roles such as ‘Evil Under the Sun’ with Maggie Smith in 1982 and ‘Appointment with Death’ in 1988…. 1992 saw him in the epic film ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ with Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon….

Peter as Hercule Poirot with John Gielgud in ‘Appointment with Death’, 1988 – Image credit : Yoni S. Hamenahem CC BY-SA 3.0

His writing career included his autobiographical books ‘Dear Me’ in 1977 and ‘My Russia’ in 1996…. With his wit and humour he was a popular choice for TV chat shows – he was also a TV journalist himself…. His 1986 BBC TV series ‘Russia’ saw him visit more than 30 Russian cities during this well-received series….

In 1975 Peter received a CBE for his services to drama and in 1991 he received his knighthood…. He was a Humanist Laureate and from 1968 until his death a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF….

Peter was father to four….he married three times…. His first wife Isolde Dunham, who he married in 1940 and with whom he had a daughter, was the half sister of Angela Lansbury…. The marriage ended in divorce in 1950…. Peter then married Suzanne Cloutier in 1954 and they had two daughters and a son…. This marriage ended in 1971….

With Suzanne Cloutier and their daughter during the 1950s – Public domain

It was in 1971 that Peter moved to a chateau in the village of Bursins in Switzerland…. In June 1971 he married Helene du Lau d’Allemans…. He died of heart failure in a clinic in Genolier, Switzerland on the 28th March 2004…. His funeral was held at Geneva’s Cathedral of St. Pierre – he is buried in the cemetery in Bursins….

Peter Ustinov – Image credit : Alberto Botella via Flickr

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