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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Man Who Has Met Everyone

Talking with Sir Peter Ustinov is an unnerving experience. It's like talking to a charmingly erudite version of that man in the pub who knows everyone and has done everything.


"Been to Tibet have you? I gave that Dalai Lama a lift once. Hitchhiking to Birmingham he was. No, honestly."


Unlike that man in the pub, Ustinov is someone you're happy to be cornered with to hear him tell true tales of an extraordinary star-studded life and family.


Most famous as an actor -- he has won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for "Spartacus" and "Topkapi" -- Ustinov is also a successful playwright, novelist and director.


Housed in the National Hotel since early October, Ustinov is in Moscow wearing his director's hat as he shepherds the Bolshoi Theater's new production of Prokofiev's opera, "The Love for Three Oranges," which opens Nov. 11.


His years of storytelling in his one-man stage show were evident in an interview last week. Ustinov weaved languid sentences about the people he has known and the many things he has done, jumping from appearing on "The Muppet Show" to being summoned by Mikhail Gorbachev to Moscow.


Having directed various operas in Salzburg, London, Milan and Berlin Ustinov said he was interested in "The Love for Three Oranges" because "it requires a kind of fantasy they seem to think I'm capable of mustering."


The opera is a convoluted tale based on a play by the 17th-century playwright Carlo Gozzi.


"Its really a kind of fairy story about a prince who is sick, he's a hypochondriac and ... he's being slowly murdered by the prime minister together with the king's niece, who are lovers. The doctors say he's a hopeless case unless he can be made to laugh."


The parallel between the plot and the recent history of Russia and its ailing president is not lost on Ustinov.


"When the king is upset because the prince is a hypochondriac, it's awfully like the death of Boris [Yeltsin]," he said.


Any other hidden parallels were not acknowledged.


"The prime minister is a mixture of all sorts of imminent or past prime ministers. No, it's not Chernomyrdin as this prime minister is too open in his conspiracy," he said with a wonderfully arch look of conspiratorial glee.


In the opera, the sick prince is tickled to make him laugh, but not a titter emerges until the wicked fairy falls over and the prince collapses in hysterics at the sight of her colored knickers.


Bad move. The wicked fairy curses him with a mad love for three oranges. The prince goes in search for them and eventually manages to slip by a cook with a deadly ladle who guards the oranges. Luckily for the future royal lineage, the oranges contain three princesses.


More absurdities are heaped on before the opera winds its way to its happy ever after.


Ustinov, a big Prokofiev fan, found the silliness of it all part of its appeal. "I thought it was a fitting challenge in these hard times to do something as surrealist as this," he said.


Playing at the Bolshoi was also important to Ustinov for family reasons. "I'm very loyal to the idea of the Bolshoi. It's my great great uncle who rebuilt the damn thing after the last great fire."


His ties with Russia go way back before his birth. "I was born in London, but I was conceived in Leningrad -- in St. Petersburg."


He pauses, and with a grave mock-serious look adds, "I have that on the best authority."


His grandfather was exiled from Russia in the last century for converting to Protestantism after falling in love with a girl from the German Volga Republic.


On his mother's side, his family were originally French peasants, one of whom eventually rose to the height of pastry chef for a duke in pre-Revolutionary France. Forced to flee the Terror, the duke "left with the bare necessities which in those days ... included the pastry cook."


Ending up in St. Petersburg, the cook became ma”tre de bouche, or master of the royal mouth, to the dowager empress and married the wet nurse to the Empress and begot 17 children.


"When they opened a museum for my mother's family under the Soviets, I went ... and 155 relatives came out of the woodwork to greet me. It's a bit shocking at my age to meet 155 cousins ... so I avoid St. Petersburg a little bit."


Ustinov returned to the country of his conception for the first time in 1962 with his film "Billy Budd," after a personal invitation from the Soviet ambassador in London.


One of his last visits was in his role as ambassador for UNICEF touring "children's and maternity homes, and sex clinics, and other fascinating things which were thoroughly depressing"


As a friend of Alexander Yakovlev, a former adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev, Ustinov played a small part in the story of perestroika.


He began filming a six part television series called "My Russia" which "created some sort of stir because it was the first that treated the Russians as human beings and not as members of an evil empire, ... That started under [former Soviet leader Konstantin] Chernenko but ended under Gorbachev so I was here at that electric period."


He once received a phone call from the Kremlin requesting his immediate return to Russia, at Gorbachev's personal request, for a peace conference with the likes of Arthur Miller and James Baldwin.


An actor nearly 60 years, Ustinov remains unawed by the profession.


"I've enjoyed acting, but acting is [just] a more intellectual and much more lucrative form of jogging," he said.


Writing remains the thing he is most proud of.


"People ask what Bogart was like and I say 'Well He was just a person I met every morning at a certain time of my life' ... I 'm much more struck with somebody like Prokofiev because there is a man who sat in front of an empty piece of paper and did something with it. That to my mind is remarkable." By Kevin O'Flynn


STAFF WRITER


Talking with Sir Peter Ustinov is an unnerving experience. It's like talking to a charmingly erudite version of that man in the pub who knows everyone and has done everything.


"Been to Tibet have you? I gave that Dalai Lama a lift once. Hitchhiking to Birmingham he was. No, honestly."


Unlike that man in the pub, Ustinov is someone you're happy to be cornered with to hear him tell true tales of an extraordinary star-studded life and family.


Most famous as an actor -- he has won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for "Spartacus" and "Topkapi" -- Ustinov is also a successful playwright, novelist and director.


Housed in the National Hotel since early October, Ustinov is in Moscow wearing his director's hat as he shepherds the Bolshoi Theater's new production of Prokofiev's opera, "The Love for Three Oranges," which opens Nov. 11.


His years of storytelling in his one-man stage show were evident in an interview last week. Ustinov weaved languid sentences about the people he has known and the many things he has done, jumping from appearing on "The Muppet Show" to being summoned by Mikhail Gorbachev to Moscow.


Having directed various operas in Salzburg, London, Milan and Berlin Ustinov said he was interested in "The Love for Three Oranges" because "it requires a kind of fantasy they seem to think I'm capable of mustering."


The opera is a convoluted tale based on a play by the 17th-century playwright Carlo Gozzi.


"Its really a kind of fairy story about a prince who is sick, he's a hypochondriac and ... he's being slowly murdered by the prime minister together with the king's niece, who are lovers. The doctors say he's a hopeless case unless he can be made to laugh."


The parallel between the plot and the recent history of Russia and its ailing president is not lost on Ustinov.


"When the king is upset because the prince is a hypochondriac, it's awfully like the death of Boris [Yeltsin]," he said.


Any other hidden parallels were not acknowledged.


"The prime minister is a mixture of all sorts of imminent or past prime ministers. No, it's not Chernomyrdin as this prime minister is too open in his conspiracy," he said with a wonderfully arch look of conspiratorial glee.


In the opera, the sick prince is tickled to make him laugh, but not a titter emerges until the wicked fairy falls over and the prince collapses in hysterics at the sight of her colored knickers.


Bad move. The wicked fairy curses him with a mad love for three oranges. The prince goes in search for them and eventually manages to slip by a cook with a deadly ladle who guards the oranges. Luckily for the future royal lineage, the oranges contain three princesses.


More absurdities are heaped on before the opera winds its way to its happy ever after.


Ustinov, a big Prokofiev fan, found the silliness of it all part of its appeal. "I thought it was a fitting challenge in these hard times to do something as surrealist as this," he said.


Playing at the Bolshoi was also important to Ustinov for family reasons. "I'm very loyal to the idea of the Bolshoi. It's my great great uncle who rebuilt the damn thing after the last great fire."


His ties with Russia go way back before his birth. "I was born in London, but I was conceived in Leningrad -- in St. Petersburg."


He pauses, and with a grave mock-serious look adds, "I have that on the best authority."


His grandfather was exiled from Russia in the last century for converting to Protestantism after falling in love with a girl from the German Volga Republic.


On his mother's side, his family were originally French peasants, one of whom eventually rose to the height of pastry chef for a duke in pre-Revolutionary France. Forced to flee the Terror, the duke "left with the bare necessities which in those days ... included the pastry cook."


Ending up in St. Petersburg, the cook became ma”tre de bouche, or master of the royal mouth, to the dowager empress and married the wet nurse to the Empress and begot 17 children.


"When they opened a museum for my mother's family under the Soviets, I went ... and 155 relatives came out of the woodwork to greet me. It's a bit shocking at my age to meet 155 cousins ... so I avoid St. Petersburg a little bit."


Ustinov returned to the country of his conception for the first time in 1962 with his film "Billy Budd," after a personal invitation from the Soviet ambassador in London.


One of his last visits was in his role as ambassador for UNICEF touring "children's and maternity homes, and sex clinics, and other fascinating things which were thoroughly depressing"


As a friend of Alexander Yakovlev, a former adviser to President Mikhail Gorbachev, Ustinov played a small part in the story of perestroika.


He began filming a six part television series called "My Russia" which "created some sort of stir because it was the first that treated the Russians as human beings and not as members of an evil empire, ... That started under [former Soviet leader Konstantin] Chernenko but ended under Gorbachev so I was here at that electric period."


He once received a phone call from the Kremlin requesting his immediate return to Russia, at Gorbachev's personal request, for a peace conference with the likes of Arthur Miller and James Baldwin.


An actor nearly 60 years, Ustinov remains unawed by the profession.


"I've enjoyed acting, but acting is [just] a more intellectual and much more lucrative form of jogging," he said.


Writing remains the thing he is most proud of.


"People ask what Bogart was like and I say 'Well He was just a person I met every morning at a certain time of my life' ... I 'm much more struck with somebody like Prokofiev because there is a man who sat in front of an empty piece of paper and did something with it. That to my mind is remarkable."