Ustinov enjoyed a long career. His first movie, Mein Kampf,
was released in 1940. He played Marinus van der Lubbe, the man
— probably a mental defective — who started the Reichstag
fire in 1933. The fire enabled Hitler to gain dictatorial power
in Germany under emergency laws. There was never another free
election in Nazi Germany. Indeed, that event is what made Germany
he had a supporting role in Luther, in which he played
Frederick the Elector, Luther’s patron. He pretty much stole the
movie in the scene where he meets Luther. It is a shame that the
two never actually met.
my first Ustinov movie: Quo
Vadis (1951), in which he played Nero. I have seen few
other big screen performances to match it. The movie still holds
up well, mainly because of Ustinov, and secondarily because of
the scene in the Colosseum where Buddy Baer barehandedly (sorry)
battles a bull to the death. (I still cannot understand how they
got Baer to do that scene. I offer it as the greatest stunt scene
in movie history. If you doubt me, watch it and think to yourself,
“How much money would they have to pay me to get me to star in
that scene?” If your reply is, “it was a fairly small bull,” you
are in need of professional therapy. If there was trick photography,
it still escapes me.)
I do not
think he ever had a role that matched his version of Nero. Hardly
anyone ever has. He was young, only eleven years into a long career.
I wonder if he ever looked back at that film, wondering if he
would ever get another role as powerful. This is the question
that Jack Palance must have asked himself about his performance
as Wilson, the gunfighter, in Shane.
The answer in both cases has been “no.” The answer is now definitive
in Ustinov’s case.
dramatic TV performance I ever saw was a one-man show that Ustinov
did of King George III. He spoke to the camera for the entire
show. It was just incredible. Within two minutes, I imagined that
I was the companion of George III. The scene when he first begins
to go mad was memorable. He gets out of a carriage and walks over
to a tree, which he hugs, talking to it as an old friend. This
was long before the ecology movement got labeled “tree-huggers.”
This performance was not the spoof that he and Eric Sevareid did,
or if it was, then he so overwhelmed Sevareid that I have forgotten
Sevareid’s presence. I never recall having seen anyone overcome
Sevareid on-camera. It was said of Sevareid in the industry, “He
reminds you of how God must be, except for his ties.” So, if Ustinov
really did overwhelm Sevareid, I rest my case.
was a master raconteur. Johnny Carson had possibly half a dozen
movie stars whom he would occasionally interview for all 90 minutes
of “The Tonight Show.” Ustinov was one of them. (The others that
my fading memory still recalls were Buddy Hackett, Groucho Marx,
Orson Welles, and Burt Reynolds. There may have been a sixth man.)
Ustinov could hold that huge audience.
never forget the story he told Carson about some Italian entrepreneurs.
When the Americans drove the Germans out of Italy, these Italians
began stealing German tanks and heavy equipment. They hid this
equipment in caves. Did they plan to start a post-war guerilla
movement? Hardly. They knew that American film crews would come
to Italy after the war to make war movies. They planned to rent
the stuff to the studios. Ustinov could fill an entire evening
with these stories, sending Carson into gales of laughter. He
always made Carson’s work easy for him.
school as a teenager. He refused to conform to the rules. He went
on to learn six languages fluently. He was such a master of French
that when he did his famous detective Poirot role in Death
on the Nile, he spoke English with a Belgian accent. Poirot
was a director, a playwright, and a novelist. It is always amazing
to see gifted artists of his caliber. He had the great good fortune
of being a movie actor in movies good enough to survive. His work
on-screen will live on to charm and delight audiences yet unborn.
What more could an artist ask for?
On the day
he died, unknown to me, I watched the movie version of Orwell’s
Farm. Ustinov did the voice of the original Communist
pig, Major. His mastery of the anti-human rhetoric, coupled with
the special effects of the pig’s mouth, helped make it a classic
film suitable for children of all ages. And, unlike Orwell’s
book, it has a happy ending. So far, so has the real world.
miss Sir Peter.