GENEVA - Sir Peter Ustinov, a brilliant wit and mimic who won two Oscars for an acting career that ranged from the evil Nero in "Quo Vadis" to the quirky Agatha Christie detective Hercule Poirot, has died. He was 82.
Ustinov, a renaissance man whose talents included writing plays, movies and novels as well as directing operas, also devoted himself to the world's children for more than 30 years as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF.
He died of heart failure Sunday night in a Genolier clinic near his home at Bursins in Swiss vineyards overlooking Lake Geneva, close friend Leon Davico told The Associated Press.
"He was a great man. He was a human being. He was a unique person, someone you could really count on," said Davico, a former UNICEF spokesman.
Born in London on April 16, 1921, the only son of a Russian artist mother and a journalist father, Ustinov claimed also to have Swiss, Ethiopian, Italian and French blood - everything except English.
Ustinov delighted in national differences and frequently referred to them in his works and public appearances. He was - as he noted proudly in his autobiography "Dear Me" - conceived in St. Petersburg, Russia, baptized in a village near Stuttgart, Germany, and reared under a succession of Cameroonian, Irish and German nurses.
His imposing figure, variously described as resembling a teddy bear, a giant panda or a Georgian frontage, began 12 pounds at birth and stayed with him throughout his career.
Ustinov made some 90 movies and also wrote books and plays. He directed films, plays and operas. His narration of Tchaikovsky's "Peter and the Wolf" won him a Grammy.
Among his film roles were a nomad in the outback who befriends a family in "The Sundowners," a one-eyed slave in "The Egyptian," Inspector Poirot in "Death on the Nile," and Abdi Aga, an illiterate tyrant with pretensions of learning in "Memed My Hawk."
Ustinov won best supporting actor Oscars for the role of Batiatus, owner of the gladiator school in "Spartacus" (1960), and as Arthur Simpson, an English small-time black marketeer in Turkey who gets caught up in a jewel heist in "Topkapi" (1965).
His Nero - the Roman emperor who presided over the throwing of Christians to the lions - won him a Golden Globe for best supporting actor in the 1951 movie "Quo Vadis."
He also won three television Emmys, portraying the English lexicographer Samuel Johnson in "Dr. Johnson" and Socrates in "Barefoot in Athens." In "A Storm in Summer," his Emmy came for playing an aged Jewish delicatessen owner in Long Island at grips with racial prejudice in the shape of a proud black youth.
He directed, wrote the screenplay and starred in the 1962 movie "Billy Budd."
He was performing by age 3, mimicking politicians of the day when his parents invited Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie for dinner.
His first attempts at acting were in the disguise of a pig in a dramatized nursery rhyme, as Friar Tuck of Robin Hood fame and as one of three nymphs tempting Ulysses from an Aegean beach. "Ulysses wisely passed us by," he recalled.
He was educated at the prestigious Westminster School, but hated it.
Ustinov left Westminster at 16. He appeared in his first revue and had his first stage play presented in London in 1940, when he was 19.
Ustinov turned producer at 21 when he presented "Squaring the Circle" shortly before he entered the British army in 1942.
If his plays had a continuing theme, it was a celebration of the little man bucking the system.
One of his most successful was "The Love of Four Colonels" which ran for two years in London's West End. Davico, who was starting his career with UNICEF, asked Ustinov to join the U.N. children's agency as a goodwill ambassador after seeing the play.
Ustinov later became a staunch advocate for UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. "He never said no to anything UNICEF or the rest of United Nations asked him to do," Davico said.
Davico said Ustinov recently attended a UNICEF event despite needing a wheelchair - sciatica gave him trouble walking, and diabetes left him with 30 percent vision and foot problems.
Ustinov's long service as a United Nations goodwill ambassador led U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to joke that Ustinov was the man to take over from him.
He later set up a foundation dedicated to understanding between people across the globe and between generations.
"I think knowing people is the best way of getting rid of prejudices. When I was young, I was brought up in an atmosphere which was just loaded with prejudices," he said in 2001.
Michael Winner, who directed Ustinov as Poirot in the 1988 movie "Appointment With Death," described the actor as a "marvelous man, a great wit, a great raconteur, a man of the world."
"He was a very good actor but he wasn't used as an actor as much as he should have been because he became famous as Peter Ustinov," Winner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Ustinov treated getting older the way he treated everything else in his life - as another experience to be added to his repertoire of anecdotes, quips and material for books.
When he turned 60 in 1981, Ustinov was asked if he was tempted to take things a little easier. "I only feel 59," he said.
"But what really surprises me," he added, "is that I don't say many different things now than I did when I was 20. The only difference is that having white hair means that people tend to listen now while they never did before."
It was an attitude that stayed with him as he turned 80.
"Why should one slow down? I don't quite understand it," he said in an interview with The Associated Press in 2001.
Ustinov's son Igor, a noted sculptor, said his father even viewed his own mortality with humor. Responding to an interviewer who asked what Ustinov would like to see inscribed on his tombstone, he reportedly said: "Keep off the grass."
When he was knighted by the Queen of England in 1990, his main worry was how to reply to the invitation from Buckingham Palace.
"The invitation said, 'Delete whichever is inapplicable: I can kneel - I cannot kneel.' But there was nothing for those who can kneel but not get up," Ustinov recalled.
But he remained active until close to his death, playing himself in the 2003 TV movie "Winter Solstice."
In other late roles, he was the voice of Babar the Elephant, portrayed a doctor in the film "Lorenzo's Oil," and in 1999 appeared as the Walrus to Pete Postlethwaite's Carpenter in a multimillion-dollar TV movie version of "Alice in Wonderland."
Ustinov was married three times, and is survived by his four children and his third wife.
He had one daughter with his first wife, Isolde Denham, from whom he was divorced in 1950 after a decade-long marriage.
He married Suzanne Cloutier in 1954. They had two daughters and a son - Igor. The couple divorced in 1971, the year they moved to Switzerland.
Ustinov married his third wife, Helene du Lau d'Allemans, in 1972.
Funeral arrangements were not available.