Christopher Plummer, one of the greatest actors in the English-speaking world, turns ninety today. And the fact that he is currently in a hit film, Knives Out, is probably as good a present as he might wish for. Having been nominated only two years ago for his third Academy Award as a frightening J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World, and winning in 2012 for his marvelous performance as a septuagenarian who comes out of the closet in Beginners, there are few actors who have been at it longer, or been as consistently good. Though he has given over two hundred performances on the big and small screen, beginning with a small role in a 1953 version of Othello for Canadian television, Plummer’s first love has always been the theatre — and for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing him on stage over the years (as I have), are the richer for it.
Christopher Plummer: A Lion in Winter
His stage work unofficially began in 1946 while still in high school, when, at age seventeen he played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Sixty-eight years later, at age eighty-five, he performed in what has been his last theatrical engagement (to date), a one-person play of his own creation: A Word Or Two. I saw it when it made a stop in Los Angeles at the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, where I made sure I was in the front row. No cheap seats for me when it’s Christopher Plummer alone on stage. I wanted to be up close in order to take in every gesture, every tiny flick of an eyelash … and did I get my money’s worth! I reveled in the exhilaration it brought him while sharing his favorite poetry and monologues from classical theatre with an enthusiastic audience.
Plummer reveling on stage in A Word or Two (2014).
“My parents were marvelous,” he told an interviewer for Playbill in 2012. “I was very lucky — I grew up in a very well-read home — and we were taught the value of books. Our family used to read aloud to each other sometimes after dinner. It was kind of an old Victorian custom, and it was great to be a part of that. They taught me reading could be fun as well as enriching.” In his early years as an actor, Plummer was lucky to work for the Canadian Broadcast Company. “I grew up in radio, at the same time when Orson Welles was being such a radio star,” he recalled. “God! we had some wonderful people to emulate and to learn from. In Toronto in the mid-to-late ’40s, the radio had an extraordinary high standard. It was perhaps some of the best radio dramas being done in the world … I joined that company, which was thrilling when I was about 19, and Orson Welles would come up every now and then and be a guest-star … It was wonderful. I miss that medium so much.”
With all the theatrics of a radio play, I saw Plummer in 1998, again up close and personal at the Ahmanson, where he gave a brilliant performance as John Barrymore in William Luce’s Barrymore. This was the part for which he won the second of his two Tonys (his first was in 1973 for portraying Cyrano in a musical of Rostand’s classic play). As Barrymore, Plummer was perfectly cast as the suave matinee idol, once an actor of international renown, nearing the end and down on his luck, due to his decent into alcoholism. At one time close to as fabled a drinker as Barrymore himself, Plummer used every aspect of his life as an actor (and tippler) to evoke pathos without ever turning maudlin. It was a master class in technique married to intense honesty, with just the right amount of panache (a Plummer specialty).
My other great experience seeing Plummer on stage was as Iago opposite James Earl Jones’s Othello in a 1982 Broadway production that garnered Plummer some of the best reviews of his career, especially from Frank Rich, who in his New York Times review wrote: “Mr. Plummer, a sensational actor in peak form, has made something crushing out of Shakespeare’s arch-villain. He gives us evil so pure — and so bottomless — that it can induce tears. Our tears are not for the dastardly Iago, of course — that would be wrong. No, what Mr. Plummer does is make us weep for a civilization that can produce such a man and allow him to flower. We weep because the distant civilization that nurtured Iago is all too similar to the one that has given us a Hitler or two of our own.”
[Can’t help but think of our current political situation while reading that paragraph, can you?]
Plummer and James Ear Jones in an electrifying Othello (1982).
A review like Rich’s is one you live your whole life for as an actor. And what is so great about Plummer, is that he got notices like that time and again, although it didn’t start so auspiciously. His Broadway debut in January 1953 in The Starcross Story, opened and closed the same night. His first successes were in the classical vein, from where his roots began; an arena he always returned to, performing the world over. His Shakespearean characterizations, beginning in 1956 at Stratford, Ontario as Henry V, would eventually cement his standing. From then on, he never turned away an opportunity to take on some of the finest roles in the canon: Hamlet, Leontes, Benedick, Mercrutio, Bardolph, Macbeth, Marc Anthony (in both Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra), Richard III, Prospero and King Lear, which he portrayed at both Stratford and on Broadway at Lincoln Center in 2004.
A quartet of Shakespearean roles: Top left clockwise (Henry V, Hamlet, Benedick and Lear).
Of course, no summary of Plummer’s work can leave out his Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film of The Sound of Music, for due to the immense popularity of that film, more people have seen him in that role than probably all his others combined. He took the job for the money, not out of any great desire to play the part, never dreaming it would become one of the most popular motion pictures ever made. Thankfully, he’s come round to embracing it after many years of tossing it under the bus, in acknowledgement of how much the movie means to its legions of fans, myself among them. He’s positively magnetic in the part, and his on-screen chemistry with Julie Andrews is undeniable.
In the gazebo in The Sound of Music (1965)
But if for some reason, his Captain Von Trapp is all you may know him from, start seeking out some of Plummer’s major performances and treat yourself to a binge-festival. With an IMDB list of more than 200 film and TV credits (currently), let me narrow it down a bit: For starters, his Academy Award winning performance in 2010’s Beginners; Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station (also Oscar nominated); as Mike Wallace in 1999’s The Insider… and going back a ways, his Kipling in The Man Who Would be King (1975). In fact, if you stumble onto anything in which his name appears in the credits, you would do well to wait for his entrance. He rarely disappoints.
There is also the autobiography Plummer published in 2008, In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, filled with so many funny anecdotes that you feel as if he couldn’t possibly keep topping himself. Yet he does, because (after all), that’s Christopher Plummer.
This column is a re-working of one written and published on Plummer’s 88th birthday two years ago.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also sign up to follow me here, and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.