Renowned actor on culture, courage
PASADENA, CALIF. — Sir Peter Ustinov says he and former Indian leader Indira Gandhi, had something important in common.
"We both grew up as only children," he says with a laugh, recalling that the daughter of the revered Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru, "could never understand why her sons fought with each other, because she didn't grow up with the most basic kinds of sibling jealousy."
Like her, Mr. Ustinov says, it took him until, "shall we say, adulthood to learn to share my toys." But the Oscar- and Emmy-award winner says his childhood minus siblings gave him an appreciation for the value of solitude.
"Solitude is very important to creativity," says the actor-playwright-novelist-political activist. "You need the ability to be alone with yourself to do the hard work that creativity requires." And, he adds, solitude is very different from loneliness, which Ustinov describes as a state in which "there is no work to do."
If your mind is engaged, explains this ultimate Renaissance man, author of 23 plays, nine screenplays, and 14 books, "you can't be lonely."
A professional actor by the age of 17, Ustinov is perhaps best known for his comic sensibility. But, he says, at heart, he is equally serious about each of his pursuits. Whether it's fiction or truth, drama or comedy, "storytelling is about making connections," he says.
The actor, who appears to have been born to play Agatha Christie's sleuth Inspector Hercule Poirot, relates an experience he had while performing his own stage piece in New Zealand.
The show was under way when the power failed.
"There we were, a giant room full of people and me, in the dark," he recalls. More concerned about panic than his own reviews, he decided to seize the opportunity.
"In a very loud voice, I said, 'You're now in bed and can't sleep. You turn on the radio. Unfortunately, I'm on it.' "
He adapted his entire show to the blackout and got "wonderful reactions in the dark. When they finally turned the lights back on, it was a fearful anticlimax."
The experience underlined what he sees as a truth about the role of creativity in a culture.
"Every time you make audiences work," he says, "they're grateful because it's so stimulating."
An author who publicly examines his personal failings (in his autobiography, "Dear Me," he chalks up two failed marriages to an undeveloped ability to love), Ustinov says he believes that while physical courage seems to abound in public, there is a great shortage of the deeper sort.
"The role of the creative person is to comment freely with moral courage, which I think is greatly lacking today, much more so than physical courage."
Ustinov, who pays close attention to world events, says he has allegiance to people, not flags.
"I worry about who's holding the flag at the moment." He has a deep respect for what he calls "a uniquely American common sense, a clear view of truth," but worries about what he sees as the downside of American culture. "America's concept of democracy seems to be an inalienable right to be just like your neighbor," he says with a soft laugh. "There is a massive fear of nonconformity, which produces a country fishing around for anything that it can come together on."
A child of Russian, French, and German heritage, Ustinov points out that the world still looks to the United States: "There's so much hope invested in America. When it shows its brutishness, it makes me sad."
Recently declassified military documents have revealed that Ustinov's father, who served in the German army and was a World War I recipient of Germany's Iron Cross, spied for the Allies during World War II. Coming from a deeply political family, Ustinov says he has always held a keen sense of the role of the creative individual in public life.
Ambassador-at-large for UNICEF and recipient of the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the actor says that today people are "bored and fragmented by governments that don't work."
He says the result is evident all over the world.
"There is a new form of democracy springing up," he says, "like flowers in a rainstorm, and it is completely nongovernmental."
He still maintains an active professional life. His new film "Stiff Upper Lips" opens this week, and he goes around the world in a two-part, four-hour PBS documentary Aug. 25 and Sept. 1 (see 'Following in Mark Twain's footsteps' on this page). But Ustinov says these days "the things that move me most are those for which I'm not paid."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society