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Christopher Plummer - An Obituary

Christopher Plummer – Actor

 Born December 13, 1929; died February 5, 2021 


 Christopher Plummer, who has died aged 91, was an Oscar winning actor whose embodiment of suave and urbane sophistication made him a captivating presence on both stage and screen. This was evident in what is probably still his best-known role, as Captain von Trapp in the big screen version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (1965). While the taciturn authority that eventually gave way to avuncular compassion partly defined him in one of the biggest box office smashes ever, Plummer’s range had infinitely much more to offer, as he knew only too well.


As a reluctant matinee idol and heart-throb, Plummer actively resisted the film’s worldwide acclaim, dismissing it as ‘S&M’ and ‘The Sound of Mucus’, and not taking part in the film’s fortieth anniversary celebrations. He eventually softened, however, recognising the film’s appeal enough to appear with the rest of the cast on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2010.


As Plummer made clear in his tellingly titled memoir, In Spite of Myself (2008,), much of his disdain towards the film came by his own admission from a youthful arrogance, and a snobbery that suggested such fripperies were beneath him. Either way, his onscreen charm translated to being able to sell out theatres to a swooning fanbase who went to see Von Trapp, but left having witnessed something arguably even better, and in the flesh to boot. 


Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to John Plummer and Isabella (nee Abbott). His father sold stocks and securities, while his mother, the granddaughter of Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Abbott, was secretary to the dean of sciences at McGill University. Plummer’s parents separated not long after he was born, and he was brought up largely by his mother in Senneville, Quebec.


Plummer initially planned to become a concert pianist, but acquired a love for theatre from an early age. He began acting while studying at the High School of Montreal after seeing Laurence Olivier play the title role in his 1944 film of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Plummer signed up as an apprentice with the Montreal Repertory Theatre, also the training ground for William Shatner, who Plummer would go on to work with in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), when he played a Klingon commander.


Plummer performed an impressive array of classical stage roles from the off, beginning at the Stratford Theatre Festival in Ontario, prior to later seasons with the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company in London. At Stratford, he took on Henry V himself in a 1956 production that visited Edinburgh. He later played Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the title roles in Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac, and in 1967 was Mark Antony to Zoe Caldwell’s Cleopatra.


With the RSC, he was Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, and played the lead in Richard III. There were numerous appearances too on Broadway. He was Warwick in Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (1955), and played the title role in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1963)


Plummer won a first Tony award in 1973 for his turn in Anthony Burgess’ musical, Cyrano, and was acclaimed as Iago in Othello (1982).


On film, Plummer made his big screen debut in Stage Struck (1958), playing writer Joe Sheridan in Sidney Lumet’s Broadway set opus. Highlights of his numerous film credits included The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Aces High (1976), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Barrymore (2011). He was reunited with his Sound of Music co-star Julie Andrews for a TV film of On Golden Pond (2001).


Beyond his natural charisma, there was always a sense toothat Plummer was enjoying himself. This was the case off stage as well as on. Plummer was of a generation of leading men who liked to play as hard as they worked, and he caroused with other A-listers to uproarious excess. A bender with Tyrone Power saw him contract hepatitis, while one time he even ended up in a bar with both a policeman and his horse. 


Plummer married three times; to actress Tammy Grimes, from 1956 to 1960; to journalist Patricia Lewis, from 1962 to 1967; and to actress Elaine Taylor, from 1970. The pair met while filming Lock Up Your Daughters! (1969) in Kilkenny, Ireland.


Latterly, Plummer played assorted elder statesmen with aplomb in something of a late flourish. He played King Lear at Stratford in 2004, and was Oscar nominated for his performance as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009). He won one for best supporting actor the following year in Beginners (2010). Plummer played a retired museum director who tells his son, played by Ewan McGregor, of both his terminal cancer and a gay relationship. The same year, at Stratford, Ontario, he played a wild haired Prospero in The Tempest.


Plummer was nominated for another Oscar for his depiction of J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (2017), Ridley Scott’s dramatisation of the fallout from the kidnapping of the oil billionaire’s teenage grandson. At 82 and 88 respectively, these made Plummer both the oldest ever Oscar winner and nominee.


In 2019, Plummer played the mystery writer patriarch of a wealthy family in Knives Out, while his final on screen performance came in The Last Full Measure (2019). He is set to be heard posthumously in animated feature, Heroes of the Golden Masks.  Through his voice alone, Plummer is likely to convey the same gravitas that carried him through a long and distinguished career.


He is survived by his third wife, Elaine Taylor, and his daughter from his first marriage, actress Amanda Plummer.

The Herald, February 10th, 2021




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