April 11, 1977 12:00 PM

At random moments during the day—while soaking his formidable bulk in a hot tub, for example—Peter Ustinov lets his mind wander. He fancies himself as chairman of an auto manufacturing firm or, better yet, as president of a mid-Atlantic island nation. His rise to the pinnacle, Ustinov explains, came as a result of his “heroic deportment” during his country’s war of independence from the United States. “By some miracle,” his presidency is regularly renewed in free elections. “It is my country,” he explains, “very real to me.”

Childish day dreams? Not to Peter Ustinov. To make his flights of fancy as realistic as possible, President Ustinov continually asks himself, “How are we going to respond?” in the event of rebellion, terrorist attacks, economic collapse or other calamities. “The exercise helps me to know my own mind, to put everything into perspective, not to overreact,” Ustinov insists. “It’s of enormous value, far more important at my age than as a child.”

His fantasies surely served Ustinov well in his most recent role as King Herod in the current and controversial Easter TV airing of Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth. Just the announcement of the six-hour epic (with Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Anne Bancroft, Michael York, Ralph Richardson and Anthony Quinn) brought so many letters from protesting fundamentalists in the U.S. that General Motors withdrew its sponsorship. Ustinov says of his own role as the king who ruled at the time of Christ’s birth, “I play him as if he thought he was right—the only way to play someone who has been made a villain by history.”

On reaching the age of 56 (April 16), the British-born actor, playwright, director, producer, novelist, Mozart buff and tireless wit finally has shed the label of “young prodigy”—or even “veteran prodigy.” His accomplishments would do credit to several lifetimes and have won for him, among other honors, two Oscars, three Emmys and a Grammy. He has a raconteur’s gift for mimicry, which hardly makes his complex personality easier to understand. A British columnist wrote in mild exasperation after a recent interview with Ustinov: “You still don’t know whether you’re about to tackle an Austrian zither player or a spy from Omsk.”

Even more than most people, Ustinov tends to define himself as a product of his lineage, an exotic geneology as confusing as modern European history. His Russian forebears made their fortune in Siberian salt and land (at his death in 1848 his great-great-grandfather had 6,000 serfs). Two generations later Peter’s grandfather married a German girl and moved to Germany and then to Palestine to pursue archeology. Peter’s father, Jiona, was born in Jaffa.

In time Jiona became a distinguished political correspondent for a German news agency. He married an artist named Nadia Benois (herself Russian, French and Italian) and was transferred to London in 1921. There Jiona and Nadia Ustinov’s only child, Peter Alexander, was born nine months to the day after his parents’ wedding.

His was “not a particularly happy childhood,” Ustinov recalls. “I came along before my parents really knew each other.” Almost from the beginning, he was caught between his mother’s “highly professional tradition—I admired her thoroughness” and his father’s dilettante ways (“He wrote the shortest novels on record—they never got beyond the first page”). Says Ustinov: “I recognized both strains in me, and started pushing myself in ways more in keeping with what I wanted to do.”

He discovered at the exclusive Westminster School that he did not much take to formal education. His schoolboy years are remembered chiefly for an ability to mimic his teachers hilariously and for his service as soccer goalkeeper (“My natural corpulence blocked out more of the goalmouth than any other boy”). One of Ustinov’s teachers warned of the lad who quit before his final exams, “He has great originality, which must be curbed at all cost.”

Young Peter turned to studies at Michel St. Denis’ London Theatre Studio. He was an actor at 18, a playwright at 19 and a director at 20. When the British army claimed him during World War II his military record was unnoteworthy and consistent—he remained a private throughout four-and-a-half years’ service. In spite of humble rank, however, he was permitted to work with Carol Reed, Garson Kanin and David Niven to make propaganda films.

In the postwar years Ustinov became a trans-Atlantic theatrical whiz-kid. His first big success, The Love of Four Colonels, won the New York Drama Critics’ Award as the best play of 1952-53 by a foreigner. He made his Broadway acting debut four years later in his own Romanoff and Juliet. Hailed as “the multitalented marvel of the English stage,” Peter Ustinov was clearly on his way.

He is fluent in four languages (English, French, German and Italian), commands a smattering of two others (Russian and Spanish) and can do credible imitations of many more. Yet Ustinov is a stateless soul by instinct. He holds a British passport, but stays mostly In Paris and Switzerland. “I don’t place any store by where I live,” he says, “and have no particular loyalty except to myself.”

Nor did his Lutheran father or Catholic mother impose a religion on him. He still recalls his father as a man “with all the trappings of an 18th-century libertine” who habitually made public observations on every woman from the ankles up. “I used to hate it,” Ustinov says. “It gave me a certain timidity that’s lasted all my life and inhibited my development. With women, I was always eager to express permanence rather than permit it to be a passing flirtation.”

That attitude, he suspects, has contributed to his marital problems. His first wife, Isolde Denham, is Angela Lansbury’s half sister. Married when both were 19, they were divorced seven years later. (Their daughter, Tamara, is now 31 and an actress.) In 1954 Ustinov married French-Canadian actress Suzanne Cloutier. That ended in divorce in 1971 with Peter winning custody of their three children: Pavla, now 22 and also an actress, Igor, 20, and Andrea, 18.

The third Mrs. Ustinov is Paris-born Hélène du Lau d’ Allemans, aristocratic, stylish and an erstwhile declared dabbler (journalism, modeling, films). They were married in 1972 on the island of Corsica. Though Hélène often accompanies her husband on his travels, she does not involve herself with his work. “We both are extremely independent, and we don’t abuse that independence,” Peter says. “When two marriages have gone wrong, and if you then don’t hate all womenkind, you begin to suspect that part of it is your fault, and you become more idealistic.” He adds: “There’s a side of my character that needs badly to help. I alight on people in need. It’s a form of vanity. In my first two marriages I was psychologically unable to cope. That’s no longer a factor.”

Ustinov claims “lots of acquaintances but few real friends.” As a result, he and Hélène keep pretty much to themselves. Their favorite retreat is a villa near Geneva, where Peter’s vineyard provides him with 4,000 bottles of white wine a year (he keeps 400 and sells the rest). His indulgences are modest: one or two large Havana cigars a day, a 1934 Hispano-Suiza and a 1968 Maserati, and a 58-foot Dutch-built ketch named Nitchevo (“nothing” in Russian) for cruising the Mediterranean. For exercise Peter swims (“I float all right”) and plays tennis (“with a snide backhand”).

“What money does is give you time,” says Ustinov. While he does not deny that Switzerland is a splendid haven from British taxes, he also finds his proximity to Geneva convenient for the volunteer work he does for United Nations agencies such as UNICEF and UNESCO. Most important, his Swiss retreat is a place for uninterrupted writing, the pursuit Ustinov loves best. “I take a long time to think about what I want to do and then write very fast,” he says. He always writes—in longhand with a felt pen—to background music. “The sound of silence is sometimes an embarrassment to me,” he explains. “I begin to hear it. I find it easier to concentrate against something.”

With two novels (The Losers, Krumnagel) and two books of short stories to his credit, Ustinov is now into a third novel about “a quiet Soviet dissident.” Also on the way this year is his 150,000-word autobiography, Dear Me, which Ustinov describes as a letter to himself. “I interrupt myself and have rows with myself,” he reveals. “It’s not so much letting out the truth as extracting it—a frightening experience. I’d never seen the entire landscape like that before.”

In addition, a Ustinov play is projected for London next year. Titled Beethoven’s Tenth, it will be Ustinov’s 19th. He hopes to play the lead as the composer, “if I can lose a few inches—in height,” he chuckles, well aware that he could stand to lose a few horizontal inches too. His publicity people say Ustinov carries “between 198 and 215 pounds” on his 5’11½” frame, surely a compassionate view of reality. He says, “I avoid scales because I break them.”

His film admirers will not be neglected by the man who won Academy Awards for supporting roles in Spartacus and Topkapi. Ustinov will be seen as a wily Central European who lives by his wits in The Purple Taxi and as a one-legged German sergeant in Marty Feldman’s spoof The Last Remake of Beau Geste, both due for release this year. Any review of Ustinov’s protean career inevitably poses the question: Has he spread his ample talents too thin? (About the only area in which he is professionally quiescent for the moment is music, in which he has been a Grammy-winning narrator of Peter and the Wolf and a producer of Mozart operas.) Too often critics have described his work as almost brilliant, suggesting that the offending qualifier could be eliminated if only Ustinov would focus his abilities.

Ustinov remains defiantly unrepentant. “I may have been a victim of critical vacillation: overpraised at the start, underpraised since. I don’t think I could have written more than I’ve done. If I have nothing to say, I can’t say it, so I do something different rather than step on my own toes. I take what offers come along because I like to know I’m going to have a solvent year.” He continues: “It’s no use telling someone they would do better if they tried harder. It isn’t really the amount of trouble you take, because many people of no talent have taken enormous trouble and produced nonsense.”

Almost as if he has noticed he is becoming uncharacteristically passionate on the subject, Ustinov winds down on a philosophical note. “I’m not suggesting I was always right,” he says, “but I’ve been too intrigued by life itself to shut any of the windows. The point of living, and of being an optimist, is to make the best of things—and to be foolish enough to believe that the best in this marathon is still to come.”

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