ustinov: diversity in identity

At one time in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s it became virtually impossible to turn on television without finding Peter Ustinov. He might appear as a traffic policeman- first British, then French, then Austrian. He might do his own version of mock opera by Mozart, mimicking not only the sopranos, contraltos, and tenors but the wood winds and strings. He might impersonate a customs official in five or more languages. Ustinov could even get laughs in languages he didn’t know such as impersonating a Russian speaking Japanese.

—One rarely encounters a cinematic calamity as uncouth, outragous and gleefully offensive (and hilarious) as 1972 “Hammersmith Is Out,” Peter Ustinov’s willfully unhinged take on the “Faust” legend.
Beau Bridges plays a greasy sleaze wittily named Billy Breedlove who falls in thrall of both Hammersmith, a patient at the facility for the criminally insane where Billy works as an orderly, and Jimmie Jean Jackson, a hashslinger with pretentions. These roles are played by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, clearly cast against type when they were at the height of their reign as the film industry’s “It” couple.—Read More:

The television audience saw Ustinov’s satirical impersonations on the Steve Allen and Jack Paar shows. He was wittily erudite on the upper-middle-brow program The Last Word. On the $64,000 Challenge, he reached the $8,000 plateau before being trapped on identification of the Shalimar Gardens. He tossed off quips on Ed Murrow’s Person to Person, (“People only get to the top because they have no qualification to detain them at the bottom”). He starred in his own satiric tragedy Moment of Truth, a failure on the London stage, in which he played an aged marshal reminiscent of Petain.

—As a performer, Ustinov combined the technique of a classical stage actor with the skewed view of a comedian. He had enormous facility, extraordinary looseness and an original interpretive gift. As in “Spartacus,” in which he played the head of a gladiator school, he could mine scenes for comedy where comedy hardly seemed possible. He must have been terrifying to act against. His scenes opposite Laurence Olivier in “Spartacus” are classic examples of two scene-stealers throwing everything they have at each other.
Hirsute and rotund, he looked like our conception of an ancient decadent, and that, combined with an unmistakably Epicurean sensibility and an aura of unaccountable vanity, made him a natural for roles such as Nero in “Quo Vadis” (1951) and Herod in the Franco Zeffirelli TV movie “Jesus of Nazareth” (1977).
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But his greatest triumph may have come in The Life of Samuel Johnson on Omnibus. For this television play studded with Dr. Johnson’s best sayings, Ustinov had to spend two hours gluing down the beard he grew for Romanoff and Juliet, stuffing himself with padding, and making fast the five-piece plastic mask fashioned after Sir Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Johnson. The production was seen as so realistic that when actor Theodore Tenley, playing Dr. Dodd, was “hanged,” he actually blacked out on camera.

But Tenley so admired Ustinov’s performance that he wrote him, “I’d be glad to be hanged again.” Ustinov wrote back in fine Johnstonian prose: “Sir, I believe that for the crime of playing with Ustinov, the death penalty would be too severe. But I shall include in my ‘Dictionary’ the definition of the word ‘Dodd’ as ‘a man who would die more than once for his friends’ (rare word and rarer person). Signed: Sam Johnson.”

But Ustinov said he would rather write than act in the theater. He wrote in the bathroom- “It’s the one door you can lock without offending anyone.” However, Ustinov said that “even if I had all the time in the world, I couldn’t write 2,000 words a day, Like Maughan. I’ll go for long periods of silence; then there’ll be a click and they can’t stop me.”

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