15 Peter Ustinov films you should watch

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Playwright, filmmaker, actor and raconteur Peter Ustinov, who was born 95 years ago today and died on March 28, 2004, was a wonderful mimic and so when I met him in Toronto in the mid-’80s, I asked him what was the most difficult accent to immitate.

Ustinov thought for a moment and said, “ A Glaswegian Chinese man” and he proceeded to give an hilarious example. He displayed his uncanny gift on many television shows and on Sept. 9, 1999, he gave a dazzling display at the Park Lane Hotel ballroom in London where the late Stanley Kubrick was honoured by the Directors Guild of Great Britain.

He mimicked several of the characters in “Spartacus” – from Kirk Douglas to Laurence Olivier to Jean Simmons to Charles Laughton to Tony Curtis to Kubrick himself – as he described what it was like to work with the director. It brought the house down.

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A double Oscar-winner as best supporting actor in “Spartacus” (pictured above, 1960) and “Topkapi” (pictured below, 1964), Ustinov won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in “Quo Vadis” (1951), three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Grammy Award and Bafta’s Britannia Award for lifetime achievement.

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Born in London of a rich mix of Eastern European stock, he was a theatre and opera director, stage designer, author, newspaper and magazine columnist, radio broadcaster and TV presenter. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1990 and had honours from more than a dozen other nations plus citations from UNICEF, which he represented for many years.

Many of his films are forgotten now but there are several that warrant attention for film buffs willing to dig for them. Here are 15 to watch out for.

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Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile (above, 1978): Ustinov’s first appearance as detective Hercule Poirot is very entertaining and the villain actually comes as a surprise. A fine cast has fun on a cruise ship as Poirot seeks the murderer of a pompous millionairess played by Lois Chiles. Bette Davis is a posh American socialite with Maggie Smith as her downtrodden companion; Angela Lansbury plays a writer with a taste for alcohol, Jack Warden is a manic Swiss doctor, I.S. Johar is an offbeat ship’s manager; Jon Finch plays a Bolshie upstart and David Niven plays Poirot’s No. 2, Col. Race.

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Hammersmith is Out (1972): Trashed by most critics, it’s a variation on the Faust legend as Richard Burton plays a mental patient who promises the world to a gullible young man (Beau Bridges, pictured above with Elizabeth Taylor) if he will help him flee the institution where he has been placed. Ustinov directs and plays a doctor while Taylor plays one of the young man’s greatest temptations. Roger Ebert said it was “one of the year’s best comedies. It is also, while it’s at it, one of the year’s best satires, but it doesn’t lay the satire on very heavily.”

hot millions x325Hot Millions (1968): Pleasing comedy about a con-man (Ustinov) released from jail who scams his way into an insurance firm’s computer system and sends himself claim checks. His life is complicated when he falls for a clumsy clerk played by Maggie Smith (pictured). Stanley Kauffmann wrote in the New Republic that while the film did not make him laugh out loud, at the end he realised he had been smiling for almost two hours.

The Comedians (1967): One of Graham Greene’s finest novels comes unstuck in the film version, which the novelist adapted for director Peter Glenville. Lots of cynicism and sex the-comedians x325in Haiti during the reign of violent dictator Papa Doc Duvalier. It’s fascinating, though, to see a wonderful cast struggle with the material including Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Paul Ford, Lilian Gish, Georg Stanford Brown, Roscoe Lee Browne, and James Earl Jones. Ustinov plays Ambassador Manuel Pineda. Time Magazine said there are enough moments of “transcendant drama” to make it worthwhile and to be forgiven easily for its other sins.

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Lady L (1965): Ustinov writes and directs a colourful saga from Romain Gary’s novel about an elegant older woman played by Sophia Loren who reflects on her many dalliances with an assortment of men over a long, lusty career. Paul Newman (pictured with Loren) and David Niven co-star with Ustinov in a cameo as Prince Otto of Bavaria.

Topkapi (1964): Greek filmmaker Jules Dassin directs an entertaining and suspenseful caper movie about a raid on the Istanbul museum to steal a precious dagger. Co-written by Eric Ambler, based on his 1963 novel “The Light of Day”, it stars Ustinov with Merlina Mercouri, Maximilian Shell, and Robert Morley.

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Billy Budd (1962): Splendid, atmospheric tale of cruelty on the high seas as Ustinov directs and co-writes with Dewitt Bodeen and uncredited Robert Rossen, based on the play by Louis O. Coxe and Robert H. Chapman. Ustinov plays Royal Navy Post Captain Edwin Fairfax Vere who wavers as ruthless taskmaster Robert Ryan, as Master of Arms John Claggart, demands the death of innocent merchant seaman Billy Budd, played by Terence Stamp in his second film. Melvyn Douglas is the sailmaker and Paul Rogers, John Neville and David McCallum play ship’s officers.

romanoff and juliet x325Romanoff and Juliet (1961): Ustinov directs a screen version of his own play and stars as the representative of a middle-European country at the United Nations during the Cold War. John Gavin and Sandra Dee (left) play modern versions of Shakespeare’s fated couple.

The Sundowners (1960): Fred Zinnemann directs a rambunctious family drama about travellers in the Australian outback during the first part of the 20th century. Ustinov stars with Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum (pictured below), Glynis Johns, and Aussie star Chips Rafferty.


Spartacus (1960): Stanley Kubrick’s intelligent epic has stood the test of time with Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, John Gavin, Tony Curtis, Herbert Lom and Charles Laughton (pictured with Ustinov).

We’re No Angels (1955): Delightful, if sentimental, yarn directed by Michael Curtiz (“Casablanca”) with Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Ustinov (below) as three escapees from Devil’s Island who are taken in by a kindly villager and do their best to repay his kindness despite their penchant for criminality.

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beau brummel x325Beau Brummel (1954): Glossy adventure with Stewart Granger as the 19th century dandy who insults the Prince of Wales (Ustinov) and is surprised when the neurotic prince takes him on as an advisor to spite the yes-men that surround him. Mostly, it’s a romance between Granger and Elizabeth Taylor with Robert Morley as King George III and a very young Rosemary Harris (pictured with Ustinov left).

Quo Vadis (1951): Opulent Roman epic directed by Mervyn LeRoy about a general (Robert Taylor) in love with a Christian hostage (Deborah Kerr) in the face of despicable behaviour by the Emperor Nero (Ustinov, below).

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odette x325Odette (1950): True-life war story of a legendary woman, played by Anna Neagal (right), who risks her life when she joins the resistance during the Nazi occupation of France and undergoes torture to make her reveal her accomplices. Ustinov co-stars with Herbert Wilcox, Trevor Howard and Marius Goring (pictured with Neagal) as a Nazi intelligence officer.

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The Way Ahead (1944): Highly praised film that was made to boost the U.K. war effort although it wasn’t released until D-Day 1944. Directed by Carol Reed (“The Third Man”), the script by Ustinov and novelist Eric Ambler follows a group of men called up for the infantry at the outbreak of war. David Niven (left), Stanley Holloway, James Donald, and John Laurie lead the cast. Ustinov plays a cafe owner. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called it “a splendid picture” and “ a warm and touching tribute to the British Army infantryman”.

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The serious side of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – At the Festival de Cannes in 1999, the Croisette was filled with promotions for “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” and the buzzword was “shagadelic”.

When The Hollywood Reporter Cannes Daily ran a picture of Hugh Hefner, who turns 90 today, with some young women on his arm, my kicker on the caption said, “Shagarelic” and rivals at Variety and Screen Daily declared it the headline of the festival.

It’s easy to make fun of the Playboy founder when he appears with a gaggle of siliconed beauties but when I interviewed Hefner at the Playboy Mansion in 1995, he showed his serious side.

tarzan and his mate x325He had just given $1.5 million to the USC Film School and he spoke of his love of movies and music, which began in Chicago in 1934 when his mother took him to see “Tarzan and his Mate”, the second of the series with Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan (left), and the last before films were censored under the Hays Code.

Hefner said, “I was very aware that they dressed differently in the next one, and ‘Flash Gordon’ had a tremendous impact on me. It was probably the most erotic serial of the 1930s in a very simple fashion. I had a big crush on Jean Rogers (below) – she had that kind of pre-Code platinum blone look.”

He said he loved horror movies and mysteries but his true love was movie music: “The single most romantic scenes in movies for me were musical scenes with their ability to express emotion. Being raised in a very repressed, typically mid-western American home, there was something in the lyrics that you could express in a poetic way – the yearning, the hunger for lover that you saw in those musicals. Alice Faye made a big impact on me, another platinum blonde.”

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Years later, Hefner had a spell as a movie producer on films such as Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” (1971), with Jon Finch and Francesca Annis (below); “The Naked Ape” (1973), with Johnny Crawford and Victoria Principal; Arthur Hiller’s “The Crazy World of Julius Vrooder” (1974) with Timothy Bottoms and Barbara Hershey; and Peter Bogdanovich’s film of the Paul Theroux novel “Saint Jack” (1979), with Ben Gazzara.

Hefner said Playboy’s corporate people in Chicago had turned down “Macbeth” because they did not think it would make money, and it did not do well commercially: “Shakespeare’s not what you do with your first commercial benture but I reconsidered it. Roman was a friend and I felt he could bring something special to it.”

macbeth x325Polanski was still reeling from the murder of his wife, Sharon Tate, a few years earlier, and Hefner said, “In the making of that film there was almost a cathartic kind of something that occurred. I do think that it continues to be the best ‘Macbeth’ on film.”

Hefner also was instrumental, via Playboy’s London executive Victor Lownes, in the first Monty Python film, “And Now For Something Completely Different” and he said he was involved in a secondary way with the last Peter Sellers film, “The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”, with Helen Mirren (below): “It was a return to his ‘Goon Show’ days, what the film finally wound up being, and you can find it quite a delightful film in that context, because that’s all it is, he took over the film and it was almost like an epilogue to his life. It was like going back full circle to his origins.”

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Hefner has put money into film preservation at USC and UCLA, sponsored courses at Columbia, created a Playboy Sundance Award and this June will see the 37th annual Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. He also almost singlehandedly saved the Hollywood sign, which was in a state of disrepair until he launched a fundraising campaign that offered each letter for sale. Oddly, he ended up with the Y: “I’m not quite sure how that happened, perhaps it’s because it’s in the middle.”

For all the frivolousness of the Playboy brand, Hefner and the magazine played a major role in the fight against prejudice and repression in the United States. He noted that he founded the publication in 1953 in the middle of the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of Hollywood and the “red scare”.

playboy cover x325He said, “It was a very repressive time and you still find everybody fighting the same battles all over again. It’s the way of things. America is a very schizophrenic country when it comes to sex. We essentially remain in part a Puritan culture and it is the conflict that exists between the Puritans and the Founding Fathers, who saw the great danger in that kind of repression and put it in the Constitution to separate Church and State. It’s ongoing. It’s who we are and one has to find some balance.”

Hefner said he is an 11th or 12th descendant of William Bradford, the Governor of Massachussetts – “a real Puritan” – who arrived at Plymouth Rock but he suggests that the Puritan concern to perpetuate censorship is simply a need to control somebody else’s life. He said, “That’s what Puritanism is all about; that’s how we got Prohibition. It’s the notion that somehow or other we all need to be perfected in some wonderful moralistic way, and I know the way it should be done better than you and I’m gonna tell you how to run your life.”

Parents should be allowed to control the availability of material at home so that adults can make their own choices for their families: “That is perfectly legitimate and vastly superior to the notion of allowing someone else to do it. I think that one of the things that is really remarkable is that we’re more afraid of sex than we are of violence. That’s always struck me as very bizarre. We’re more afraid of the life-force than the death-force. It doesn’t make any sense at all. We speak of sex and violence as if they are evil twins. Aren’t they polar opposites? One is love and affection and procreation. The other is death, hatred and hurting.”

It comes from the mythology of religious heritage, Hefner said: “We have some very screwed up views of what is right and wrong when it comes to sex. What we call moral, in every other context, is what is good for people but not in sex. Sex has its own set of thou-shalt-nots that have nothing to do with what is really good for people. A lot of it is rooted in superstition and hatred. You see the attitudes toward gays or somebody who wants to live a little differently from you and me. These are not moral views. This is bigotry.”

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When electronic darts machines made me weep

By Ray Bennett

A long time ago in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, the local taverns began to sprout loud and offensive machines that, for a price, offered electronic darts. As a player of real darts, I took immediate offence and expressed my disdain in a piece in The Windsor Star.

Here’s that story from Dec. 2 1972, edited slightly. Continue reading

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A birthday card from Paris from Gregory Peck

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By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Gregory Peck and I were born on April 5 and when he turned 80 he sent me a card from Paris on which he wrote, “This French graffiti describes perfectly how it feels to be 80 all of a sudden. Best regards, Greg Peck.” I feel the same way as I reach my three-score and ten today. Continue reading

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How I introduced Martin Short to Steve Martin

The Three Amigos x650By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The memory of how I introduced Martin Short, who is 65 today, to Steve Martin still cracks me up but I’ve discovered that I’m the only one who thinks it’s funny.

It was backstage at the “Pee Wee Herman Show”, long before the Tim Burton movie, at the Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles on May 5, 1981. Continue reading

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Canadian actress Alberta Watson dies

Alberta Watson  - Version 2 x650By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Canadian actress Alberta Watson has died aged 60. I knew her long ago as Susan. To meet Susan Watson in 1977 was to fall in love. She was 21, beautiful and a force of nature.

We stalked each other around a CBC party when we first met and went out a few times. Then she took her middle name and was Alberta Watson and became a star. Continue reading

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The Old Vic names full cast for ‘High Society’

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By Ray Bennett

The Old Vic has announced full casting for its production of Cole Porter’s “High Society” based on the film musical version of  “The Philadelphia Story”, which will open on May 14 following previews that begin on April 30. Continue reading

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Dashing into action to the aid of Rachel Weisz

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By Ray Bennett

Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz, who turns 45 on March 7, is Mrs. Daniel Craig now but there was a moment, a single moment, when she only had eyes for me. Continue reading

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20 David Niven movies you should see

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By Ray Bennett

David Niven, who was born 105 years ago today and died aged 73 in 1983, gave Ron Base and me the best quote of all time.

The Oscar-winning British actor was on a book tour to promote his first memoir, the brilliant “The Moon’s a Balloon”, in 1972. Ron and I, who worked at The Windsor Star across the river, went to a Detroit hotel ballroom for a lunch – a hospital fundraiser – at which Niven was to speak. We were told we could interview him afterwards. Continue reading

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When Mr. Spock invited me on a day out

By Ray Bennett

It was the familiar voice of Mr. Spock on the phone although Leonard Nimoy, who died today aged 83, at the time was soon to publish his defiant memoire, “I Am Not Spock”. Continue reading

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