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Remembering Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)

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Remembering Sir Peter Ustinov (1921-2004)

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How do you sum up the life of someone like Sir Peter Ustinov?

Sure, you could talk about his honors and awards. Ustinov was a one-time Golden Globe winner, a two-time Academy Award winner and a three-time Emmy Award winner. Peter also received numerous medals and honors for his fundraising efforts for UNICEF. Not to mention being knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990.

Of course, film buffs would probably point to Ustinov's wonderful work in such great motion pictures as "Quo Vadis," "Spartacus" and "Topkapi." Not to mention his witty turns as Agatha Christie's finicky Belgium detective Hercule Poirot in two feature films as well as three television movies.

Of course, Disneyana fans would probably prefer it if I'd talk about Peter's performances in the pictures that he did for Walt Disney Studios: His over-the-top pirate in 1968's "Blackbeard's Ghost," his elegantly under-played Hnup Wan in 1975's "One of Our Dinosaurs are Missing" as well as his oily traveling salesman in 1976's "The Treasure of Matecumbe." Not to mention the witty vocal performance Ustinov turned in for Prince John in Disney's animated favorite, 1973's "Robin Hood."

Cartoon of Blackbeard's Ghost

But -- to do just that -- would overlook Peter's work as a playwright and author. Overlooking all the novels, short stories, plays and screenplays that he wrote over the years.

Yes, Sir Peter Ustinov accomplished quite a bit during his all-too-brief 82-year-stay on this planet. Which is why he'll be remembered with much fondness for many, many years yet to come.

Me personally? How will I remember Sir Peter Ustinov? Back in the early 1980s, I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with the man. He was in Boston, putting in an appearance with the Boston Pops. And I was lucky enough to score an interview with the guy before he had to head over to Symphony Hall.

Now please keep in mind that -- then, just as now -- I was small potatoes. Just this low-on-the-food-chain reporter, hoping to get just a few minutes with a celebrity. Maybe get enough material so that I could put together a feature on Sir Peter.

Well, Ustinov ... The man could not have been more gracious. Once he found out that I wanted to talk about Walt Disney, that I wanted to learn more about his experiences with Walt during the last year of Disney's life, Sir Peter opened like a flower.

You see, Ustinov really loved working for Walt Disney. In fact, he had so enjoyed working on "Blackbeard's Ghost" that -- even though they had get to finish filming this Robert Stevenson comedy -- Sir Peter was already looking forward to working with Walt on a follow-up project. Which was supposed to have been "Khrushchev at Disneyland."

Now -- if you'd like to learn more about this aborted Disney Studios project -- you can follow this link where you'll find a brief history of this Bill Walsh / Don DaGradi project.

But Sir Peter Ustinov ... he viewed "Khrushchev at Disneyland" as one of the great missed opportunity of his career. Which is why -- that afternoon in that hotel suite in Boston -- Sir Peter recreated for me all of his favorite moments from that never-produced film.

It was an amazing one man performance. Using his amazing powers of mimicry, Ustinov quickly sketched out all of the roles he could remember from the screenplay. The stressed out head of Khrushchev's security detail, the officious head of Disneyland publicity and -- of course -- Nikita himself. Sir Peter ran through the whole film in about 15 minutes and had me in stitches.

Ustinov also talked about how sad it was to see Walt during his last visit to the set of "Blackbeard's Ghost." How gaunt and sallow the studio head looked. That was when Sir Peter and Bill Walsh realized that Walt wasn't long for this world. But -- rather than demoralize the rest of the studio -- Ustinov and Walsh decided to keep this grim information to themselves.

Sir Peter then went on to talk about working on "Robin Hood." An animated film that Ustinov felt that he may have unintentionally ruined because Ollie Johnston and Woolie Reitherman just fell in love with all of the extra dialogue that he would ad lib during recording sessions for that film. Which ultimately made that film's villain more entertaining than the hero.

Mind you, Sir Peter wasn't all hearts-and-flowers when it came to talking about the Walt Disney Company. Ustinov didn't have very nice things to say about "One of Our Dinosaurs Are Missing" and "The Treasure of Matecumbe." Both of these films were projects that he felt Walt would have never allowed to go into production if he had still been alive. (Sir Peter was a strong believer in the idea that Walt Disney Productions pretty much lost its way the day Walt died.)

All in all, it was a very memorable and extremely enjoyable afternoon for me. Ustinov didn't make me feel (as some celebrities sometimes do) as if I was some sort annoyance in his life. As if our interview was some chore he had to do. Sir Peter was gracious, witty and extremely generous with his time. And his private performance of the Reader's Digest version of "Khrushchev at Disneyland" is something that I'll always treasure.

So here's to Sir Peter Ustinov. A great talent who'll be sorely missed.

Caricature of Peter Ustinov

"Special thanks to Peter Emslie for providing the wonderful caricatures of Sir Peter Ustinov that appear with today's article."

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