I'm a huge admirer of Peter Ustinov, whether as an Oscar-winning actor (for Topkapi and Spartacus, and nominated for Hot Millions and Quo Vadis and an Emmy-winner for A Storm in Summer and much more), playwright and screenwriter (for Romanoff and Juliet Billy Budd, Lady L and much more), director (Romanoff and Julet, Billy Budd, Lady L, Hot Millions, and much more and numerous stage and opera productions), general raconteur and fill in the blank what else.
I happily saw him on stage in his play Beethoven's Tenth, and also saw his stage play Halfway Up the Tree in London which he wasn't in but did star Robert Morley. (Note: If you're going to see a Peter Ustinov stage play that doesn't have Peter Ustinov starring in it, then Robert Morley is about as good a lucky choice as you can get...) And -- I even got to spend about 45-minutes alone with him in a car. Today's understatement: it was great. Memorable.
That occasion took place during my dark days as a movie publicist. During my time in that job at Universal Studios, I was only asked to come along on just one out-of-town movie junket. And that was in New York City to help promote the film Evil Under the Sun based on the Agatha Christie mystery that starred Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot -- and a cast that included Maggie Smith, Diana Rigg, James Mason, Roddy McDowell, Dennis Quilley, and Sylvia Miles. With a screenplay by Anthony Shaffer, who had written the play Sleuth. Hey, if you're only going to go on only one junket, that one was just really swell.
As probably the lowest-ranked staffer there, the bad news was that I had the job to take a limo and go to the airport to pick up an actor. The good news was that the actor was Peter Ustinov. I did not whine nor try to get out of the assignment.
Now, most times when you have to spend time alone "babysitting" an actor, it's an awkward, quiet situation of small talk at best. And when the person has just flown in -- from London, as I believe was the case here -- then it's all the more so, since he or she is exhausted, and just want to rest and unwind, not chit-chat with a total stranger. To be clear, the ride back was not one of raucous, rollicking bonhomie, instant fast friends for life, nor should it have been, but it was personable, totally comfortable (except for my nerves as a punk kid not to screw things up) and not awkward in the slightest. He was a nice fellow, polite, thoughtful, and although I gave him his space he was as good a conversationalist as he always appeared on television.
But the best part, and why it was so especially memorable other than even the obvious, was when I mentioned how much I loved his performance in that Hallmark Hall of Fame production of A Storm in Summer, a terrific, moving, rich drama written by Rod Serling, for which Ustinov had won the Emmy, playing an old Jewish deli owner in Brooklyn, Abel Shaddick (beating out, among other people that year, Sir Laurence Olivier...). And my comment wasn't idle praise, I really loved the show. A few years earlier, when I was at UCLA grad school, they had a full archive of Hallmark Hall of Fame Productions that wasn't available to the general public, but only to be viewed for research purposes. I went one day as a grad student, mumbo-jumboed some research explanation, and got access during which time I watched two, both that I had seen previously when they were originally on TV and had loved, and was curious how they held up: One was The Magnificent Yankee with the amazing cast of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontaine -- and it was as magnificent as I had remembered -- and the other was...A Storm in Summer. And it too held up as totally wonderful as I'd recalled. So, when I told Peter Ustinov that I loved it, I absolutely meant every word.
And as fate would have it, when I brought up A Storm in Summer, we were driving through a New York neighborhood that looked much like the setting for that story -- for all I know, it was Brooklyn -- the street lined with old, brownstone storefronts. And upon mention of the production, and seeing out the window our near-identical surroundings, Ustinov suddenly brought back that character of Abel Shaddick, and began to ad-lib in his old, Jewish Brooklyn accent, talking about the city, the streets, and his deli-owner life. It wasn't long, maybe about a half-minute or so. But as you can imagine, it seemed like a lifetime.
Which brings us to the video at hand. It's a 50-minute special called.An Audience with Peter Ustinov, done in 1988 for the British channel ITV. It may "just" be one man on stage talking, but when that one man is Peter Ustinov, 50-minutes isn't enough.
The show isn't just a straightforward lecture, but has sections. The first half or so is a monologue, with Ustinov telling stories. But -- and this is a critical "but" -- when Peter Ustinov tells stories, he doesn't just "recount" them but often brings characters alive and acts the tale out. Then, for the second half, he shifts and takes questions from the audience -- and as wonderful as the first half was, in this part of the evening he kicks the storytelling into high gear. And within this portion he veers off into yet another direction, when he's asked about a piano on stage. The instrument there, it turns out, because he brings a musician friend onstage, and Ustinov extemporizes a Schubert lieder in faux-German. And it's hilarious. And glorious.
That question about the piano, by the way, is from Petula Clark. There are a lot of very well-known personalities in the audience, to the extent that I wouldn't be surprised if this was a "limited ticket" Industry event. Among others I could recognize were John Cleese, Judi Dench, Hugh Laurie, the aforementioned Dennis Quilley, Roy Kinnear, and race car driver Jackie Stewart. There were a lot of others, some on the tip of my tongue, but this being 30 years ago in London I couldn't make everyone out. Your mileage may vary.
And so, here's the video. If you don't have time to watch the whole thing in one sitting, do it in sections. Mark down where you had to stop, and jump in later to pick it up from there. It will be worth it, because there are gems throughout that crop up at a moment's notice.
There are a lot of user comments on YouTube for this video that talk about how brilliant it is, and how actors and comedians today couldn't shine Peter Ustinov's shoes. In fairness, there weren't many back in 1988 either. Or before that. And likely won't be many since.
This is just utterly wonderful.