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Peter Ustinov: grasping the essence of "Charlie Chan"

"For years I played suspects. Now I've entered my detective period," says Peter Ustinov. And a busy period it is.Since last week, he's been on screen as the hero of "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen." Then he returns to the Belgian garb of sleuth Hercule Poirot -- last worn in "Death on the Nile" -- for another Agatha Christie outing, called "Evil Under the Sun."

Of course, Ustinov is an old hand at the acting trade, having won the Oscar twice, the Emmy thrice, and the Grammy once. But don't forget he is also a director (seven films) and an author (four books) and a playwright (19 plays, including "The Love of Four Colonels" and "Romanoff and Juliet") -- among other things.

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Ustinov plunges into every project with great glee. He thoroughly enjoyed playing Charlie Chan, and emerged with a long list of anecdotes which he tells in a long list of accents, impeccably tailored.

Meanwhile, his other careers are continuing apace. Between Poirot and Chan he essayed "King Lear" onstage, and his latest play is just going into rehearsal: Called "Overboard," it's about a dissident in the Balkans who mistakes the British Embassy for the American one, with "all the troubles that implies."

A novel is also due before long, about "celebrated American and Soviet scientists," and "about how one man, by intensely being himself, antagonizes everybody else because he won't play the game they're playing." It's called "The Equation," and also deals with human rights, which are "too nebulous to be treated as a point you can win. . . ."

In a recent interview here he talked of his Chan work.

Have you always dreamed of playing Charlie Chan?

Heavens, no. I would never have dreamed of it. But I was invited. I just had to say yes or no, and I happened to say yes.

Of course, I've always enjoyed Charlie Chan movies. They're shown all over the place -- you get them on German TV, for example, early in the morning. They even made lots of them in Europe. I saw "Charlie Chan in Berlin" the other day.

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Several actors have played Chan Before you -- Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, and J. Carroll Naish among them. Did you take another look at their work, to study their methods?

No, I remembered the old films pretty well.And I knew the most important thing is to keep as placid and serene as possible. Everyone does this in his own way -- mine is "stiff upper lid." The whole secret is, Chan doesn't react to anything. He sees the most absurd murder, and he says, "Most interesting!"

How about his famous Chinese accent?

I had to make the accent comprehensible, without making too much of a compromise. I tried to make it sound a little more Chinese than my predecessors. They used a kind of international pidgin sound. But the Chinese voice interests me. It's very far forward in the mouth, and has little recourse to diaphragm or breath control. It's very monosyllabic, pushed straight out forward.

So I tried to use that, while making myself as understandable as possible. And I always change my voice, too, in order to make any accent believable. That's terribly important.

How about the physical aspects of your portrayal? From the old Chan movies I saw on TV as a kid, I remember him as a lumpy sort of character, who just stood there and said things, and kind of blended in with the decor. How did you approach him?

At first, it's a problem playing Chan. You get the impression everybody else is having enormous fun, and you're locked in your room and not allowed to come out until it's over.

But in the long run, you realize that he's the steadying sail of this absurd craft. The fun comes from all the horrible things that happen around him, which he hardly takes notice of. There's a great contrast between reality and his endless politeness.

Once you've caught on to that, everything becomes enjoyable: Charlie Chan knows that any arrow or German shepherd aimed at him will miss its mark, because of some -- who knows what? And even if he does get flapped, he doesn't show it. . . .

You seem to take comedy quite seriously.

Absolutely.Laughter is of enormous value to the human race. It's a therapy. I don't know of any animals that can do that -- except hyenas, and they don't discriminate.

What is the essence of comedy?

Comedy is the ability to draw people's attention to something they've all seen, but haven't noticed. And then they laugh, because they realize it's absolutely true. People who do comedy see some sort of foible where others take things for granted, or look at things for a completely different reason.

In "Death on the Nile," you played Agatha Christie's hero, Hercule Poirot. He's another detective, like Chan; but he's quite different, isn't he?

Poirot gives more impression that he's being led down the garden path.By the end of that story, there are only a couple of suspects left to choose from. It's surprising he couldn't have stopped a few more murders, not to mention finding out who done it!

In any case, there's not much similarity between Poirot and Chan, except that they're both my shape.

Movie and novel detectives -- including Poirot and Chan -- always seem basically on top of the situation, even if they don't know the solution yet. They are never too shocked by the crimes themselves, as we might be in real life. They walk in, and see what's happened, and start analyzing. I'd be shaking for a week!

But the crimes in these cases are usually brilliant in conception, and quite fantastic. The murderers seem to foresee any kind of condition that may prevail. This is quite unlike life. I've noticed that in every detective picture there's always room for the police to park. And the crimes are dainty, too, in contrast with reality -- it's always a neat arrow shot through a ventilator shaft, by a killer who knew just where the victim would be sitting.

There's never the horrifying nature of real crimes. The closest you come are the cliches of the old detective stories: Somebody restrains the pretty heroine from going into a room, and says, "Don't go in there, my dear. It's Venable, the butler.Not a pretty sight." And of course, we never get to share that sight.

Do you regard either your acting or your writing career as more important or serious than the other?

Not more serious, in a flattering way. But the writing is definitely more mysterious. The idea of sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper, and filling it with words, and letting it become a habit until 400 pages are done, and discussing it with you a year later -- that's absolutely mysterious. I don't know how it got that far, or why anybody should have read it.

So I'm not a blase character. I can't say, "Most unfortunate the last book only sold 600,000 copies." It seems to me extraordinary that it sold one!

Your new play and novel both deal with international relations, among other things. Why have you been drawn to this area so often?

Because of the extraordinary misapprehensions on both sides of the world.

If you look at reality, you find it has nothing in common with what one is told by the media, either here or there. Of course, you see interesting articles now and then, but news is tendentious by its nature. I like reading American newspapers, once I know who they're aimed at, and can do my own subtraction for my own benefit. Some papers are vastly better than others. But all the news services are slanted in one way or another, as they must be, because their governments are slanted. As for that, look at the new diplomacy we're entering -- making the ambassador go around to the other door. It's as silly as the domestic problems of a Victorian household.

And in your work as an artist, you feel you can get below these pointless or deceptive surfaces to the human realities of our day?

Yes. The function of art is to penetrate beyond all this.

You see, all of us with disciplines -- whether we're scientists or artists or dentists -- have a second nationality, which is our profession. When you have a meeting between Western and Eastern dentists, they can forget all about nationalities, because they're frightfully interested in the new technique about molars! And it's vitally important to the world that this exists.

But does your discipline -- that of art -- really change the world?

You can never tell what effect you're having, because 20 years after you write something -- and after you've forgotten all about it -- someone comes up and quotes it to you, and says it's important to them.

Still, I'm not suggesting that artists can change anything. I am suggesting they can be like disobedient children, at least. There's an element of necessary subversion to them which is absolutely vital.I have no respect at all for artists and scientists who are subservient to instructions from governments, because I don't trust governments.

Besides, we humans all influence each other, and the Eastern countries aren't monolithic -- they know all sorts of things about our way of life. A British correspondent was picked up by a Russian patrol in the early days of the Afghanistan situation, and they were asking him about Paul McCartney's difficulties in Japan! McCartney was in trouble there, and the Russians all felt this was a great tragedy for a man of his artistic gifts. Things like this cross all international boundaries.

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