UNICEF mourns death of Goodwill Ambassador Sir Peter Ustinov
GENEVA/NEW YORK, 29 March 2004
UNICEF today mourned the death of the actor and writer Sir Peter Ustinov, who died early Monday in Switzerland at the age of 82. Sir Peter was a uniquely effective and beloved UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for more than 35 years.
“The children of the world have lost a true friend in Sir Peter Ustinov,” said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. “Sir Peter had a magical way with children and an inimitable way of making their problems matter to people all over the world. He was one of UNICEF’s most effective and beloved partners, a man who exemplified the idea that one person can make a world of difference.”
Born in London in 1921 to Russian, German, French and Italian ancestry, Sir Peter said he had “automatic loyalty to something like the United Nations.” Though he achieved international acclaim as an actor, producer, playwright, novelist and racounteur, Sir Peter will be remembered as much for his work on behalf of children as his contribution to the arts. Among countless awards and honors, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of his artistic and humanitarian achievements in 1990.
“When Sir Peter said, at the age of 77, that he was ‘not a person who retires very easily,’ it may have been one of his greatest understatements,” Bellamy said. “There are few parts of the globe where Sir Peter did not travel to meet with and advocate for children, and few communities that were not made better by his attention.”
Appointed a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in 1968, Sir Peter fulfilled the voluntary position with his customary zeal. His travels on behalf of UNICEF took him to China, Russia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Kenya, Egypt and Thailand, among other countries.
Sir Peter lobbied governments to recognize the rights of all boys and girls. He lent his stature, persuasiveness and sophisticated wit to countless events that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for UNICEF’s progammes to ensure that all children survive and thrive through adolescence.
Sir Peter hosted scores of international television specials and benefit concerts for UNICEF, always artfully blending entertainment and education to bring worldwide attention to the issues facing the world’s children. He did it with humour and aplomb. Hosting his first gala, at Paris’ Odeon Theatre in 1969, he didn’t miss a beat when a Polish National Ballet dancer portraying a mountaineer accidentally chopped his microphone cord. Sir Peter simply continued as planned, shouting at the audience for the rest of the evening.
Sir Peter spoke eight languages, but his true gift was the universal language of childhood. If he couldn’t speak directly to children, he would make them laugh any way he could, even if it meant – and it often did – getting down on all fours and making uncannily life-like animal noises.
“Sir Peter could make anyone laugh,” Bellamy said. “His one-man show in German was the funniest performance I have ever seen – and I don’t speak a word of German.”
Sir Peter didn’t visit children to observe them, but to engage them. He played ping-pong with children in Egypt, rode bicycles with them in Kenya, vaccinated them in China, and danced with them in Cambodia and Thailand.
The films of Sir Peter’s historic 1986 visit to child health and education projects in China and 1993 visit to hospitals, shelters and care facilities in Russia alerted millions of people to the plight of children in both those countries.
During decades of meeting with and advocating for the world’s neediest children, Sir Peter maintained what appeared to be endless energy and optimism.
“Sir Peter never lost his belief that the world could change, and that even children living in the most heartbreaking conditions could see a better future,” Bellamy said. “We will miss him terribly, but will keep his memory alive the best way we know – by emulating his unwavering commitment to give children everywhere the life they deserve.”
by Carol Bellamy