Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Peter Ustinov

Peter Ustinov, actor, playwright, director, and novelist, talks to Wallace about a variety of subjects including the monarchy versus the presidency, death, education, sex, money, advertising, and fame.

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Guest: Peter Ustinov

WALLACE: Good evening, tonight we go after the story of an intellectual juggler. He's Britain's veteran boy wonder, Peter Ustinov. A dazzling performer who's an actor, a playwright, a director, a novelist, a mimic, a wit; perhaps this season's brightest new television personality and a relentless social satirist. If you're curious to know why Peter Ustinov says that the best kind of comedy is subversive and what he thinks about American humor, international politics, the military and the clergy, we'll go after those stories in a moment. My name is Mike Wallace, the cigarette is Parliament.


WALLACE: And now to our story. Peter Ustinov is a big and exceedingly articulate bear of a man. Now thirty-six years old, he's spent half his life sticking satiric barbs into sacred cows. In private conversation, he's been known to get so wrapped up in the fascination of his own thoughts that he slides from wherever he's been sitting to the floor and apparently unaware of it, he continues to talk on his knees.

WALLACE: Peter, sitting straight, the American television audience has found you such an intriguing personality that before we go any further, I would like to explore your thoughts on some specific issues. You may take as much or as little time in discussing these, as you care to. Let's call it a kind of a verbal Rorschach test. I'd like your capsule opinion of first, the British Monarchy in general, Queen Elizabeth in particular.

USTINOV: Well, Mike, I've been asked that question here on several occasions. Why can the British not criticize their Monarchy whereas you can criticize your President. I don't think it's quite the same thing because the Monarchy is a kind of ... I suppose... living symbol just like Old Glory is. It has personality of course, but isn't supposed to have much.

USTINOV: Consequently, you can criticize the President, but you can't very easily criticize the Office of the President and when you're criticizing whoever happens to be the President, let us say Mr. Eisenhower, you can quite as easily and do, and I do, certainly criticize Mr. McMillan with whom I'm very rarely in agreement.

WALLACE: Did you think that Malcolm Muggeridge was considerably out of line when he made what comments he did in our Saturday Evening Post about the British Monarchy in general and Queen Elizabeth in particular?

USTINOV: I didn't see the piece unfortunately cause I was crossing the water at that time and I missed that. I came in on the end of that. But of course the Monarchy used to be attacked a great deal at the beginning of this century. The Prince Regent was caricatured mercilessly and this reverence is a fairly new thing. I suppose it's Queen Victoria who outlasted critics to such an extent.

USTINOV: But, I don't see what everybody's so angry about, there seems to be many more things which would excite one and they seem to me to be very charming people. It's a form of government which seems to suit the English very well, because after all the French found, at the cost of great blood shed, that it didn't suit them and the English found, at the cost of... also of great blood shed, that a republic didn't really suit them temperamentally.. in the case of Oliver Cromwell.

WALLACE: If I were to say to you, do you find Queen Elizabeth as a woman an attractive woman, would you say to me I'd rather not talk about it.

USTINOV: No, I wouldn't say that. I find she's a very charming woman and I'm not temperamentally a monarchist at all, but at the same time I find there's very little to get "het up" about.

WALLACE: You're not temperamentally a monarchist? An anarchist, perhaps?

USTINOV: A liberal which is after all only an organized anarchist in many ways.

WALLACE: When I say the word "death" to you, what comes to mind?

USTINOV: Nothing very much because I suppose we're all approaching it, but there seems to me so much that is fascinating in life that the people that try to speak to people after death, I think, to my mind is a fairly useless occupation because... I mean all those spiritualists and things... They don't interest me nearly as much as what goes on unnoticed in life.

USTINOV: The only thing of course that springs to my mind when you mention the word "death" is the death sentence which I'm rabidly against because I believe it isn't our right to exercise the death sentence because in point of fact we are not condemning someone to death, which we don't know about, we're condemning them to spend the last hours of their life as unpleasantly as possible which is something quite different. We don't need these hideous rituals of glasses of brandy and games of chess with the warders and all that.

WALLACE: Nathan Leopold, who has just been paroled and will shortly leave prison said in his parole hearing at the end that he would much preferred to have been put to death rather than spend as long as he had... has in prison. But you feel that...

USTINOV: I wouldn't consider him an expert either because after all he didn't die.

WALLACE: Do you believe in an after life yourself?

USTINOV: I'm intrigued by the possibility of it, at the same time I'm perhaps more frightened by the thought of infinity than I am by the thought of a full stop.

WALLACE: American education in general, the $64,000 question in particular.

USTINOV: American education, I don't know much about because I haven't been educated... I was going to say here (LAUGHTER) perhaps at all. The $64,000 question is an inquisitorial arrangement. I found it quite fascinating except that I was probably almost the first to be kicked off the program for claustrophobia because the air conditioning arrangements in the booth were broken down and as you said that I'm rather big, I need a lot of air and a small boy had been spelling at great length before I got in there and using up an inordinate amount of breath and by the time I got in there was none left and I felt really as if I was voluntarily making an experiment for some American space ship.

WALLACE: Do you find that our preoccupation with the "$64,000 Question and Challenge", "Twenty-One", shows of that nature is because of the yearning to be better educated as people or simply...our preoccupation with getting rich quick?

USTINOV: Oh no, I think, with that kind of program, you mean? I think that knowledge as such has become a very, you can see that by the sale of magazines and I don't think that some of the magazines which are sold now would have had any following at all twenty years ago. I think this is a general world thing.

WALLACE: What kind of magazines are you talking about?

USTINOV: Well I mean even the standard of "Look" and "Life" and the kind of technical articles in there which is calculated to appeal to a mass audience would certainly have been baffling, I think, twenty years ago but Jules Verne on a much simpler level.

WALLACE: How do you account for the fact that over the past twenty years, we have determined that by golly we do want to learn a good deal more about the world around us.

USTINOV: Because I think in point of fact there has been such enormous strides that nowadays children are born accepting television. It's no longer an invention, and when you see a two year old child run up to a television set, angry that it isn't on...well I would never have dreamt of doing that when I was two years old because there was nothing to switch on.

WALLACE: Sex in general, Brigitte Bardot in particular.

USTINOV: Well sex in general seems to me to be so linked to personality that I find it really personally, that is,

relatively unattractive when it is done in an indiscriminate way and yearning look into an audience of a thousand people doesn't thrill me personally very much.

WALLACE: But again, while we're talking about preoccupations, the illiterate preoccupations with which we are seemingly all afflicted, the French BB, Miss Bardot...the English DD, Miss Dors... and the American MM, Miss Monroe, why have we become such patsies for such obvious assaults.

USTINOV: I don't know, I have no solution to offer at all. I've also seen the tendency to find let's say the famous tired businessman for whom certain musical shows cater. Apparently the tired businessman, I haven't met very many in that connection. Apparently they find a hundred chorus girls exactly a hundred times more attractive than one. I personally would tend to find one more interesting than a hundred because I just don't know where to look.

WALLACE: Are you interested in chorus girls, Peter?

USTINOV: No. (LAUGHTER) Not particularly.

WALLACE: Money. When I say money, what comes to mind?

USTINOV: Survival.



WALLACE: Well as a matter of fact, that probably is an indication of why you do as many things as you do as relentlessly as you seem to do them.

USTINOV: Well you see, I think that... I think it was Henry Wallace said that this was the century of the common man. I don't think it is. I think it's the century of the middle man, at the moment. The income tax instructions from various governments have become so complicated and they're written in such inferior grammar usually, that it's completely impossible to understand what they want you to fill up. So, you will have to hire a man on your side who talks the incomprehensible language. There's no guarantee that he's doing the right thing because you can't understand him either (LAUGHTER ). So that money means survival to me. It means the ability to pay the tax council, as well as the government.

WALLACE: American advertising in general, television commercials in particular?

USTINOV: Some of it's quite ingenious when you first arrive, if you're not used to it. You start learning the little tunes and after a time it begins to fall on a rather deader ear to me but then I have a certain amount of sales resistance in myself. I nearly always buy the products of companies that are about to go bankrupt.

USTINOV: I have a great reputation for motor cars, of buying the last one which is produced because I find that I'm very very... I regret the passing of the artisan and of the crank, and I find it much more easy to forgive a car which has been produced by an eccentric gentleman in the backyard, if it breaks down than if it's a car belonging to some vast organization.

WALLACE: American culture in general, Elvis Presley in particular.

USTINOV: I regret to say I've never seen Elvis Presley, except on stills. I've never seen him moving. But I don't think that there's any connection between American culture and Elvis Presley.

WALLACE: I'm glad to hear you say that.

USTINOV: And I think American culture in itself is very difficult to assess, because it's such an enormous country.

WALLACE: It's been suggested that we are a country of Philistines, and that we are perhaps a low-brow country.

USTINOV: I don't think so because even in the business in which I happen to know you're very well acquainted... which is the theater... you get the ironical situation, over here, where at some of the theaters that we are asked to play in seem very old by European standards and it's a rather depressing thought because they will gradually be taken over one after the other for different purposes and I can't see that any more will be built. At the same time, learned bodies all over the country have the most magnificent modern theaters designed by great Finnish and American architects, which are used perhaps twice a month for a reading of a lecture or something like that.

WALLACE: Fame and Peter Ustinov.

USTINOV: Well they're entirely divisible. (LAUGHTER).

WALLACE: But I think that you will agree that you have achieved in a period of... now how long is it that you've been here this last trip? Since you came with "Romanoff and Juliet"?

USTINOV: I've been here since about July, on and off... here and Canada.

WALLACE: So in a period of 6, 8 months, however long that is, quickly put together -you have achieved considerable fame - in this country.

USTINOV: Well, I think of course, that one must never lose sight of the initial ambitions that one had... or aims that one had. And that the... life itself to me is always more important than the artificial representation of life, and I can never become so fond of the theater that I forget that there is a life to be lived, which is... without which one can't write in fact because there has to be a section of one which is learning all the time.

WALLACE: You talk about writing... where in the world do you get time to write. You do so many other things...and I would think that to write anything of substance, would take virtually all of an ordinary human being's time. Now, maybe you're an extraordinary human being.

USTINOV: No, I'm not at all and I intend to take some time out . . . literally months out . . . just in order to indulge my favorite folly, which is writing.

WALLACE: Peter, on television in your acting, in your writing, your latest play your "Romanoff and Juliet" for example, you seem to take great relish in poking fun and sticking needles into peoples and issues. Why are humor, especially satire... why is satire so important to you?

USTINOV: Because any country that has really been in difficult straits, you can take difficult straits - I mean has become a festering point as far as the rest of the world is concerned. The first yardstick that that is happening is that their sense of humor vanishes. Nazi Germany had absolutely no humorist, and no humor. The humorous level of 'Crocodil' in Moscow is not particularly high. They're very savage cartoons, but they're not very funny.

USTINOV: I think that humor is one of the best safety valves that a country can have and I think that it always has been throughout history a terribly important thing, because also politicians tend to create extraordinary situations to ask people to do extraordinary things, to alter the balance of a country, to make appeals to the conscience and things like that, and they forget very often the basis from which one is started.

USTINOV: Now it's the duty, I think the function of a satirist, to continue to remind one of one's birthright... the fact that human beings can be stupid, that one mustn't be afraid of saying that they're stupid, if one thinks so, even if one's wrong, and continual ventilation is absolutely essential for a society to function.

WALLACE: Well, what distresses you? What makes you angry? What are you passionate about? The satirist from time to time, I feel, is more interested in the sound and fury that he makes than in the substance of what he is writing about. Oscar Wilde said "satire is always as sterile as it is shameful, and as impudent as it is insolent". Somebody said... I tried to find out who... "satire is the last resort of cowards". What are the issues, which you really worry about Peter?

USTINOV: I worry a great deal about the public being cheated. I mistrust speeches and appeals to the mob, to the mass of people, which seem to me unjustified, under certain circumstances.

WALLACE: Can you specify?

USTINOV: Well, we had a case in England... let's say... which didn't work, funny enough, and it was a grand occasion, which was the Suez crisis, which I thought was one of the most...in which it was assumed that the country would come to heel like a dog and follow, well it didn't. I think the powers that be at that moment, were horrified by the result. And it was a tremendous moment of pride that a country could adjust itself under those extraordinarily difficult conditions, without any sound or fury. And one could say exactly what one liked.

USTINOV: I mean, I said on television for instance at the time of Suez, that to my mind that Britain, at that moment was exactly like the hypocritical school-master who said "this is going to hurt me more than it does you" and found out to his horror that he'd been telling the truth (LAUGHTER), you know? And there wasn't even one angry letter from a crank.

WALLACE: It seems to me from doing some reading in Peter Ustinov, that you particularly like to take off at generals, and clergymen. For instance in "Romanoff and Juliet" you say "at the age of four with paper hats and wooden soldiers we 're all generals..."

USTINOV: ...wooden swords.

WALLACE: Did I say...

USTINOV: ...you said wooden soldiers. I never go as far as that.

WALLACE: ..."with paper hats and wooden swords we're all generals, only some of us never grow out of it". That's your point of view?

USTINOV: Yes. Because I think it's a fundamentally infantile activity, and I don't think it can last much longer.

WALLACE: Your countryman, Mr. Bertrand Russell... Lord Russell seems to agree with you..

USTINOV: Well, I'm very flattered, in that case.

WALLACE: As far as the clergy is concerned, you said... you write about a deaf Archbishop in "Romanoff and Juliet" from some rather obscure church. He is described this way " he only became Archbishop because he's entirely closed to the world of sound. It gave him an austere detachment from reality, which visibly enhanced his capacity for meditation." May I ask, - and please tell me if I may not - are you in any sense a formally religious man?

USTINOV: No, not really formally. I believe personally that people ought to be judged or - I don't think they should be judged at all -I mean one ought to feel towards people according to their behavior and not according to their beliefs. Because I think an Atheist who would help an old lady across the street is probably doing a more... I say Christian for want of a better word - but it should sweep over all religions because the aim of all religions is the same...He's probably doing a more Christian act than a highly religious person who's so wrapped up in his own thoughts that he didn't notice that the old lady was trying to get across.

WALLACE: We've been talking about - we've been talking, and I must call a halt for just an instant here, about your accomplishments. We've also done a little research into your failings, Peter. But after some research, we found out that you were a disappointment in at least two things... particularly as a soldier in the British Army...

USTINOV: ... you haven't done much research you know, (LAUGHTER)

WALLACE: ...and even earlier as a student, and you mentioned that yourself. Now in a moment I'd like to find out why you failed in both those occupations, and we'll get Peter Ustinov's answer in just 60 seconds.


WALLACE: Now then Peter, we understand that when you were in the British Army during the second world war, you were not considered a particularly distinguished military man.

USTINOV: You're putting it very mildly.

WALLACE: How come? What...

USTINOV: I went to an officer's school and I got the result 'on no account is this man to be put in charge of any others'. There is something which your research department has missed, but I'm supplying it for your information. I was not because for the same reason that I wasn't very good at school. It's very much like school anyway.

WALLACE: You reportedly drifted out of school in your teens in favor of entertaining in London cabarets.

USTINOV: Oh, well that's a bit of a sweeping...

WALLACE: Oh is it?

USTINOV: ...generalization. The only place I could find employment was in the London cabarets, something quite different.

WALLACE: But your inability to make yourself a good military man probably is accounted for by your insistence upon expressing yourself in your peculiar...

USTINOV: I was always saved from trouble by... becoming a kind of joke. Because when, you see, they did the thing which is typical of military method... they made me the runner of an experimental squad of something very mysterious which was designed to throw confusion into German ranks...called Battle Drill, which was a kind of formula for attacking the enemy. They made me the runner on the assumption that being an actor, I could remember long messages.

USTINOV: They didn't have the imagination to look at me properly (LAUGHTER)and to realize that by the time I got to the person that I was supposed to deliver the message to, I was so out of breath, that I couldn't deliver the message for some minutes. By the time I got my breath back, I'd forgotten the message as anybody else would.

WALLACE: We've mentioned that you've written plays and novels, you've directed, you've acted - mimic, story teller - you've been highly successful in all these occupations, but, few people, I think you will agree, have called you "great", at any of them. In a sense that Lawrence Olivier is a "great" actor, or that Shaw was a "great" playwright. Does it worry you that you are only a . . . minor genius? I'm quite serious now, about this.

USTINOV: I'm quite serious too. It doesn't worry me at all. Because naturally I hope to get better and better, that's my real aim. Shaw didn't start writing until 45 or 46 . . .

WALLACE: What did he do . . .

USTINOV: ...which is wise of course, but then if you're going to do that, you have to be sure that you're going to live to 95 or 96.

WALLACE: The point that I'm after here though Peter, is this... is it possible that you refrain, that you do all of these myriad activities...that you engage yourself in acting and directing and writing some things of not tremendous consequence, because you're afraid to make the big bet...because you're afraid to settle down and really put the blinders on?

USTINOV: No - because I'm not ready for it, or I haven't been ready for it. And I think that human beings are very much like wine, and that they have got to mature in their own time. You can't hurry them up, but I think that there comes a point when you change gear, and when you have to indulge in some pretty rigorous self-discipline -and decide exactly what you're going to do. But then I think the younger years of your life are bound to be set aside for trying a lot of different things.

WALLACE: You say the younger years of your life - you're a man of 36 - do you contemplate shifting gears in the foreseeable future?

USTINOV: I'm shifting - there are things happening under the floorboard all the time, which I don't know about.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this - do you ever sit down and think - what I mean by that is... I think a lot of us kind of wander, in a sense, exist through life, vegetate through life...do you ever - and mind you, I don't condemn you if you don't, I just wonder, do you ever sit down and think?

USTINOV: Yes, I do and it's pretty depressing sometimes, so then I start writing quickly in order to take my mind off it. Yes, but it's becoming more and more difficult in a country which is so well telephoned as yours, or even ours perhaps.

WALLACE: Final question. If you had any American counterpart it’s the extraordinarily gifted Orson Welles perhaps, it's an awful question to put and ask for an answer in fifteen seconds, how would you compare yourself to Orson Welles?

USTINOV: I don't see any connection at all. I admire him enormously. But I think that his enormous talent is based on a visual appreciation and a highly dramatic appreciation of things, whereas my faults are nearly all in complicating the actual literary texture of the thing excessively. And I haven't got the visual imagination that he has. Perhaps I may develop something in its place.

WALLACE: Until that comes along, what Peter Ustinov has will do very nicely, and I thank you so much for taking the time, and I heartily recommend to our audience that they...who have the opportunity, go and see Peter Ustinov currently starring in his own play, "Romanoff and Juliette". Especially in our time, humor has been used as aspirin to soothe the headache of reality, not so in the hands of Peter Ustinov, he wields humor and satire as scalpels to lay bare fairly gently what he regards as cowardice, pomposity, and sham. In just a moment I'll bring you a rundown on next week's guest. A man who, in all seriousness, thinks that he is one of the great geniuses of our age.


WALLACE: Next week we go after the story of a fantastic personality called by some a madman, described by himself as a genius...you see him here, he's Salvador Dali, the stormy modern artist who's captured the world's imagination with his nightmarish paintings of worm eaten ruins, limp watches, melting telephones and women with crutches sprouting like branches from their bodies. If you're curious to know how Salvador Dali answers the charge that he has made deliberate lunacy a paying proposition... why he says he's a genius...why he courted his wife by smearing himself with blood and fish glue - we'll go after those stories next week.

WALLACE: Till then, for Parliament, Mike Wallace, good night.

ANNOUNCER: The Mike Wallace Interview has been brought to you by the new high filtration Parliament. Parliament, now for the first time at popular price.

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