Hirsute, puckish "renaissance man" Peter Ustinov was born in England to parents of Russian lineage. Trained at the London Theatre Studio, Ustinov was on stage from the age of 17, performing sketches written by himself in the 1939 revue Late Joys. In 1940, the year that his first play, Fishing for Shadows, was staged, the 19-year-old Ustinov appeared in his first film. Just before entering the British army, Ustinov penned his first screenplay, The True Glory (1945). School for Secrets (1946) was the first of several films starring, written, and directed by Ustinov; others include Vice Versa (1946), Private Angelo (1949), Romanoff and Juliet (1961) (adapted from his own stage play), and Lady L (1965). Perhaps Ustinov's most ambitious film directorial project was Billy Budd (1962), a laudable if not completely successful attempt to transfer the allegorical style of Herman Melville to the screen. As an actor in films directed by others, Ustinov has sparkled in parts requiring what can best be described as "justifiable ham" -- he was Oscar-nominated for his riveting performance as the addled Nero in 1951's Quo Vadis and has won the Best Supporting Actor prize for Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi (1964). Never one to turn down a good television assignment, Ustinov has appeared on American TV in such guises as King George and Dr. Samuel Johnson, winning the first of his three Emmy awards for the latter characterization; he is also a frequent talk show guest, regaling audiences with his droll wit and his mastery over several dialects. While he has never starred on-camera in a weekly TV series, his voice could be heard essaying virtually all the roles on the 1981 syndicated cartoon series Dr. Snuggles. The closest he has come to repeating himself was with his frequent theatrical film and TV-movie appearances as Agatha Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in the late '70s and early '80s. The author of several plays (the most popular of which included Love of Four Colonels and Photo Finish) and books (including two autobiographies), Peter Ustinov was still going strong into the 1990s, making a long-overdue return to Hollywood in the 1992 film Lorenzo's Oil.
Biography by Hal Erickson
- During World War II, served as a batman (British term for personal servant) to David Niven; the two became life-long friends.
- His first wife, Isolde Denham, was half-sister to Angela Lansbury.
- The film Spartacus took so long to film that he wrote a full-length novel during filming, and his youngest child Andrea replied "Spartacus" when a schoolmate asked her what her father did for a living.
- Set to interview Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on the day she was assassinated.
- Was knighted in 1990.
- An accomplished raconteur, he frequently appeared on talk shows in his later years.