Peter Ustinov, 2 time Oscar winner, 20 years ago was the wittiest man in films, and still is

                                                June 1997    By Philip Berk

That grand old man of English culture — he is English even though he was conceived in Russia — Peter Ustinov was in Hollywood promoting a new movie, Stuff Upper lips, in which he has a supporting role. 

Ustinov welcomes the opportunity visit the film capitol; after all, it was here that he received his greatest acclaim, two totally unexpected Academy Awards (as best supporting actor) for which he never campaigned, for Spartacus in l960 and Topkapi in l964.

To underscore his indifference to awards he tells his Laurence Olivier story.

Were they ever friends?

“We always had a strange relationship, friendly, but I thought he was a tremendously political figure, not to take away anything from his quality as an actor,  but he was very political even within England and within the National Theatre. He was a brilliant maneuverer.

“For instance when I won the Oscar for Spartacus he sent me a telegram thanking me for having supported him so well.  And when we were both up an Emmy in the same category — he was in London and I was in New York — he sent a telegram to the Television Academy saying that if he won, he would like me to accept the award on his behalf. I won, and I said to the audience, ‘Unfortunately I have prepared nothing because I wasn’t prepared for this, but I have prepared a speech for Sir Laurence,’ and I gave that speech.” 

Ustinov has enjoyed a remarkable career. Fifty three years ago when he was only twenty five, he directed Ralph Richardson in School for Secrets.  During the 40’s he functioned as actor, writer, director of numerous British films. In the 50s, he achieved great success on Broadway as a playwright and then great demand in Hollywood for providing comic relief  in such ponderous spectacles  as Quo Vadis, The Egyptian, and Beau Brummel.

Much of his career has been spent in the West End, where he has acted in and written numerous plays, among them Love of Four Colonels  and Romanoff and Juliet.

He has also served as Chancellor of the University of Durham and Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, two prestigious positions which haven’t prevented him from appearing in such disparate movies as  Max Ophuls’ Lola Montez and Disney’s Treasure of the Matecumbe

Looking back over a very productive career, was there any period he found particularly rewarding?

“Not really. I don’t know that now isn’t in a way the happiest part of my life. It has a kind of serenity, and I’m very inquisitive about growing old. I mean I analyze every move I make.”

Have his needs changed?

“What has changed is, I’m beginning to believe in the immortality of the soul, not for religious reasons, nor because I’m frightened of death, but just simply because I notice as we grow older the body and the soul gradually part company. As we prepare for departure, the soul remains young. When you were born, you went to the counter of the Hertz Rent a Body, and you said, ‘Look, have you anything with a more powerful engine or with a sliding roof, I’d like that very much.’ ‘No sorry, they’re all out, take that or nothing.” And then you’re stuck with this body even though your soul may not be absolutely attuned to something of this ample nature.”

Of course he is referring to his girth which has changed over the years. Neither has his grumble which has endured him to audiences for over fifty years.  

“If I try to play tennis,”  he continues, “I say to myself, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve got plenty of time to get to that ball even though I’ve fallen down about three times trying to reach it, so everything is slightly strange. One watches it with a kind of clinical absence which gives me a great hope of course. I suppose that’s bound in the nature of things, in the immortality of the human soul because the soul is more and more detached from the human body. Whatever happens. the soul doesn’t get older really.  It has the same aspects as before. 

“It’s just the machine which is carrying you which is so idiotically unresponsive and boring. Yet I can’t really think there’s any happier time than now because I can look facts in the face, and that is enormous consolation.”

Two of the highlights of his career were working with directors Max Ophuls and Stanley Kubrick.

“Everybody has to wait until they die to become legendary, which is a commentary from the living. I knew Kubrick only during Spartacus. As I wrote in my biography, he had none of the virtues and none of the vices of youth. In other words, I had no idea what age he was. He was like Dorian Gray, he might have been anything.

“He was very engaging at the time. Both of our wives were pregnant during the shooting. Both were registered in the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. We had a friendly competition. I don’t want to blow my trumpet but I think I won by a day.

“His wife is German, a very nice woman, warm hearted and very calm. He admired Max Ophuls a great deal, another man I worked with and knew very well. They were both remarkable people in that they were both Jewish and both very, very fascinated with German militarism or Austrian kitsch, which really comes to the same thing. 

“While I was working with Kubrick, he was preparing a film called The German Officer, which he never made, but he showed his military inclination and his horror of it in the many films he made. 

“Ophuls’ father was a military tailor in Zabruckem who on the first day of World War l,  put red stripes down all the tuxedo trousers. Why because the old Jewish tailor knew that the war was going to go on much longer than the experts predicted. They said it would be over by Christmas.”

Was Kubrick “legendary” even then?

“The whole experience of making the film was extraordinary. Anthony Mann was the original director. I was very fond of him, and he was excellent, but suddenly he vanished overnight which was very depressing.The rumor was, though I don’t believe it,  they wanted Kubrick from the beginning. He had just made Kirk Douglas’s Paths of Glory, and Kirk wanted him which anybody can understand because it’s a brilliant film.

“There was no doubt in Kubrick’s potential to hit the big time, and I think he used Spartacus to do that. It was his university in a way, before he faced life and did Lolita. He even tried to interest me to play Humbert Humbert, but I’ve never felt very attached to Lolita. I don’t like the book very much even though I was a neighbor of Nabokov. I don’t think it’s his best book by any means. 

“Spartacus was made at the tail end of the McCarthy hearings. Perhaps that’s why Mann was fired because he took me to Dalton Trumbo who was writing the script in a hut somewhere. He had been blacklisted and was writing under the name Sam Jackson. The studio asked me to write all the scenes between Charles Laughton and myself because Laughton wouldn’t play what he’d been given, claimed it wasn’t the same script he had approved. I wrote all these scenes handing them in under the sobriquet of Stonewall Ustinov after Trumbo had used Sam Jackson.  

“Laughton and I rehearsed either in his home on Curson Avenue or in the house I rented in Bel Air. We rehearsed until the early hours of the morning, and then we arrived at the studio and played it for Kubrick. He’d adjust a piece of furniture and say, ‘Let’s shoot it.” I think we saved quite a bit of money for the studio by doing our homework ourselves.” 

And Ophuls, any special memories?

“He was the only soi disant intellectual I know who giggled a great deal. Most of them are appallingly solemn, but he broke into giggles the whole time. He found all sorts of things irresistibly funny.

“One scene was impossibly difficult. I had four and a half minutes of text  with Ophuls moving the camera under the table, through a tennis net, up and above, everywhere. As I walked across the circus set with all the lions and the tigers, I felt I was getting a frog in my throat, so I said to a dwarf in the scene in German, “A glass of water please.” He was astonished, but I began climbing the spiral staircase. No sign of the dwarf. Then I saw him coming with the glass of water. I took it, drank it, and finished the scene. It was so complicated the crew, the other actors, everyone applauded. I came back with the empty glass, flushed with pride, a little vain, and there was Ophuls in his director’s chair sulking. ‘How was it?’ I asked him. No reaction. I said, ‘You’ve got to tell me how it was.’ Eventually I got angry, ‘Look., I’ve climbed the bloody staircase, talked in German for four and a half minutes, you have to tell me something!’ And he said, ‘I wished I had the idea of the water!”

Ustinov has always been one of the world’s great raconteurs and he hasn’t lost any of his skill.

His recollection of the ceremony when the Queen conferred a Knighthood on him a few years back is priceless.

“It was the usual mixture of British formality and surprising informality. While I was actually  kneeling in front of the Queen, about to be knighted, the orchestra was playing “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair,” which is not really what I looked forward to. 

“Also when they invite you to be knighted, they send you a printed form, of the kind you might find at the U.S. Immigration, which says underneath, cross out the question which is inapplicable, and the questions — there are two — are, ‘I can kneel’ and ‘I cannot kneel.’ And then there’s a box where you can put a cross or whatever you put. I had to call them up because it made no provision for me, because I can kneel, but I can’t get up again.” 

Was the Queen charming?

“Absolutely but you have to wait your turn. You’re pushed forward, I thought, with unnecessary brutality, to the footstool. When you rise, she puts the sword on one shoulder and then lifts it extraordinarily high in order to put it down on the second shoulder, which suggests that there must have a been a hideous accident at one point.

“In my case, she said to me, ‘I’m delighted to see you here,’ and I said to her, ‘Your delight can hardly match mine, ma’am.’ And she said, ‘We read that you are as active as ever,’ and I said, ‘Yes indeed, I’ve just come back from New…’ but I didn’t get any further. I was pushed aside by the next person, and it was over.

“But if you think the English have a monopoly on this kind of thing, I remember the day I was elected to the French Academy. I had to go and put on my uniform with a sword which my son and daughter had made at cost. The uniform itself however was made by Pierre Cardin for a special price which was astronomical. 

“When I went to the changing room, it was arranged like a French farce. There were about 15 doors, all of which could open. An old man appeared in his thermal underwear but already wearing the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor, in case he mislaid it. 

“This started a tremendous row between two old men when the one said, ‘My wife left the belt. Now I don’t know what to do with the sword.’ The other old man came out and said, ‘Use your head! God, you’re stupid. Hold it, hold the damn sword! You don’t need to put it in the holster, damn it.’ All this terrible bad humour from people who were really suffering from very, very old stress…”

Has that ever been a worry for him?

“Not at all. I would say that life is depressingly short, but I welcome that because it would be absolutely awful if it were depressingly long.”

Any other honors that have come his way?

“About a month ago I had a delicious experience. I suddenly got a fax from the Ministry of Culture of Italy, Signora Milandri, inviting me to Rome on behalf of the Italian government. She said, ‘We are opening a fully reconstituted Nero’s Palace for the first time, and we consider it inconceivable that we organize such a ceremony without the presence of the original owner.” 

(Ustinov played Nero in Quo Vadis.)

“I thought that was absolutely delightful, and of course I went. They ran Quo Vadis in the Piazza Del Popola on an enormous screen. Afterwards I was asked to address the public, sitting on these huge chairs.  I apologized for my bad Italian because I said my mother tongue was Latin. I also congratulated the ministry of Culture, the mayor of Rome with all they managed to do with he city since I burned it.  I congratulated them that Rome was still a vital city, having been home to one of the great decisions of the century — the World criminal Court passed there by an astonishing 120 votes to 7.

As a grandfather — he has four children, only one grandchild — is he appalled by the violence that permeates the mass media?

“Yes I can say I am appalled. I remember, it was at the height of the Vietnam War, and I was invited to someone’s house to share tea with the children. They had the most ghastly things on television which admittedly the children weren’t watching, but you saw people dying, falling out of trucks, all this, while the children were eating a nursery tea.

“So I sidled over and switched off the television, which then resulted in an immediate outcry from the children who weren’t watching it  but were missing it when it wasn’t on. It’s like Muzak in an elevator.

“In that sense, I suppose, it has a bad effect on children considering the amount of hours people watch it. I don’t think children are being catered for, but then I wonder in what special way should children be catered for? 

“It sends shudders down my spine when people talk to children as though they were different from adults. ‘Are we all having our tea now? and that sort of awful thing.

“I very rarely take a British aeroplane because I can’t bear the way they talk to us. ‘In the interests of your safety and comfort, would you mind fastening your…’ It’s all kind of Mrs. Thatcher’s tea parties. The kind of nursery atmosphere which I find a terrible strain.

“The films I enjoyed most as a child were not meant for me. My parents, when  they wanted to give me a treat,  always took me to pictures about the African jungle of which I was scared stiff.  Everytime some reed parted, a man with a bone in his nose looked through. I didn’t sleep for months after those things.

“ Why they though t this was suitable for children I will never know. On the other hand,  children are quite capable of putting up with some perfectly adult things.

“Intelligent children can make a lot out of everything, and very often you react against what you see, which is also part of education. So I’m not one for any great censorship. Maybe there is too much violence but censorship is not the answer. Especially when you consider that in some countries sex is considered as dangerous and gratuitous as violence!”

is it any surprise that when he was asked where he feels most at home, his quick reply was, “Not in an airplane.”

By the way, he offered a Goldwynism when pressed for one.

“When I came over here, very young and raw directing films for J. Arthur Rank, Mr. Goldwyn received me and he said suddenly, “The greatest picture to come out of Britain at the moment is Black Neurosis. It was Black Narcissus. But that’s one I kept to myself.”