Ustinov was always one of my favorite actors. He had the wit of Robert Morley and the range of Peter Sellers. As a comic actor there were few in his league and even fewer who surpassed him. He is perhaps best known nowadays (if he is known at all) for his three runs at playing Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s eccentric Belgian detective with the outrageous moustaches, the prickly pride, and “the little grey cells” that invariably solved the crime. I love Ustinov’s Poirot, but he had almost nothing to do with Christie’s Poirot. Christie’s was, well, Albert Finney in Murder on the Orient Express, if you want to see him in the flesh. Finney didn’t want to repeat the role for the sequels (one of the great losses of film history, detective film history, anyway), so they got Peter, who couldn’t help but pour charm and heart into a character that was supposed to be all mind. Finney’s performance will forever be the one true film Poirot and a singular achievement, but it’s Ustinov’s Poirot I want to see again and again.
Peter had a knack for finding the humanity in every character he played, even his Nero in Quo Vadis. A mad tyrant in the script, in Ustinov’s hands he becomes more than a monster. He becomes a recognizable human being, spoiled and ignorant, frightened and selfish, using arrogance and bluster to cover over his nagging fear that something is very, very wrong with him. It’s a marvelous performance, one of the few times an actor has penetrated far enough into the mind of a monster to find the core of the child he once was. I should add that he managed that little feat with almost zero help from the script, which was a fairly standard Roman epic. For non-actors: it is one thing for an actor to bring a great script to life, worthy and a joy to watch; but it is quite another for an actor to bring life and depth to a poorly-written script that has neither. That is a true test of talent, and it was a test Peter never failed in his life.
But more important than being a great actor, Peter was a good man. He understood that life outside theater and film was real life, not the other way around, and he devoted himself to activities and organizations that tried to make that life a little better for people who weren’t as lucky or–as he would have said–“blessed” as he was. He worked tirelessly for UNESCO and UNICEF, was always available for charity events and fundraisers, and boosted any number of NGO profiles with credibility and renown.
He was a good writer, too, but his stuff has never played well here, I’m not sure why. Maybe it isn’t “big” enough. His humor is droll rather than arch, subtle rather than broad and brassy, character-driven rather than joke-driven. In fact it’s virtually impossible to find a single line in one of his comedies–even lines that had audiences screaming with laughter–that is funny all by itself, the kind of gag Woody Allen’s writing is full of. Peter’s funniest lines require that you understand the person who’s saying them well enough to know why they’re being said; out of context, they usually don’t make any sense.
Peter will be greatly missed, at least by me and by everyone who actually knew him. He lived, as they say, a long and valuable life, and seems to have got everything right – a very difficult trick to pull off. I am by nature a “black Scot” – moody, pessimistic and cynical. I see the dark glow of human greed and rage stalking us in the shadows wherever we go, making a planet that could be Paradise into a parking lot, the culmination of our own childish fears, short-sightedness, and ignorance. To a man like me, a man like Peter was an invaluable reminder that it doesn’t have to be that way, that goodness, mercy and grace are still possible, still desirable, still powerful even when spoken quietly and with a wry humor. It’s going to be harder for me to feel that now that he’s gone.
Do yourself a favor and rent a couple of his movies in his honor. I would recommend Death on the Nile, Topkapi, Hot Millions, Billy Budd (which he also wrote and directed), Romanov and Juliet, Barefoot in Athens, and/or A Storm in Summer. Any one of them will enrich your life in ways that you don’t expect, and which of us couldn’t use a little of that?
I’ll leave you with a couple of random Ustinov quotes:
“Beliefs are what divide people. Doubt unites them.”
“Love is an act of endless forgiveness, a tender look which becomes a habit.”
“Her virtue was that she said what she thought, her vice that what she thought didn’t amount to much.”
“It is our responsibilities, not ourselves, that we should take seriously.”
“If the world should blow itself up, the last audible voice would be that of an expert saying it can’t be done.”
Requiescat in Pace, Peter.