Christopher Plummer: ‘The Sound of Music’ star who was at his best in classic works of theatre

The actor will be remembered for his role in the hit musical but he was a prolific stage performer

Alan Strachan
Thursday 11 February 2021 17:07
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As Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film
As Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film

There was often, with Christopher Plummer, the suggestion of an actor born out of his time. He venerated the stage greats of the past, particularly those with a whiff of self-destructive danger – Kean, Booth and John Barrymore – while as he established his name in a vibrant 1950s New York his after-hours companions included Jason Robards Jr and George C Scott, fellow hard-living personalities with many marriages between them.

Plummer was at his best in the big roles of the repertory – Richard III, Iago, Antony and Cyrano de Bergerac – but while his career also included some fine screen work (mostly later in life) he was only too aware that he would be best remembered for one earlier film, the mega-grossing The Sound of Music.

Always proud of his Canadian roots, Plummer had a family background distinguished if no longer affluent on both sides, with strong connections to McGill University. He was an imaginative only child (his parents parted after a brief marriage and Plummer barely knew his father), educated at Montreal’s best schools. Drawn to music – he was a talented pianist – and the theatre, the teenage Plummer became a precocious habitué of Montreal’s bars and lounges – featuring the likes of Oscar Peterson, Mabel Mercer or Art Tatum – and a keen member of the city’s amateur theatre groups. He had played roles including Oedipus (in Cocteau’s La Machine Infernale) and Shakespearean juvenile leads, often for Montreal’s Open Air Shakespeare Company, before turning professional.

Between 1950 and 1952 Plummer played in a remarkable variety of roles, initially for the Canadian Repertory Company. His apprenticeship brought him into contact with some major talents; he was directed in an iconoclastic Cymbeline (as Posthumus) by the great émigré Theodore Komisarjevsky while other promising actors in the company included William Shatner (decades later Plummer joined the Star Trek enterprise for one film), John Colicos and Donald Harron.

This was combined with a vast amount of work on radio. Under the civilised Andrew Allan, the CBC Drama Department then enjoyed a genuine golden era, broadcasting Shakespeare, Restoration comedy and adaptations of Dickens and Conrad, all of which found parts for Plummer’s malleable, rich voice.

At the end of this period, coinciding with his mother’s death, Plummer felt “at this stage in my own country I’d gone as far as I could”. He enjoyed another repertory spell in Bermuda, then preserved in the colonial amber of the past; the theatre, housed in Hamilton’s Bermudiana Hotel, often presented guest stars from Hollywood or Broadway aristocracy – Franchot Tone, Constance Cummings, Ruth Chatterton – and Plummer was cast in everything from West End shows to modern American classics.

Finally taking himself to New York, Plummer made a swift impact in what were heavy times in Manhattan for theatre, television and radio alike. Live television was a crucible of exciting younger talent; Plummer’s remarkable agent, Jane Broder, soon landed him an impressive launch in the most prestigious sponsored drama series of the time, Studio One.

On the set of ‘The Lark’ with Julie Harris

Countless television roles followed – from soap opera to playing opposite Sylvia Sidney in Dark Victory, and alongside Robards and Julie Harris in A Doll’s House – in a hectic period for Plummer, enjoying New York’s night life and living, often beyond his means, at the Algonquin Hotel, with a tab at Sardi’s.

Plummer’s first Broadway success was with director Guthrie McClintic and legendary actor Katharine Cornell when he played Count Zichy in Christopher Fry’s The Dark is Light Enough (1955), a romantic verse tale of an ageing Hungarian countess saving a young deserter’s life.

As the theatre began to change in New York, so too a new dynamism was transforming regional theatre in the US and Canada. Plummer was eager to be part of this, enthused by the creation under Tyrone Guthrie of the Stratford, Ontario venture in Tanya Moiseiwitsch’s thrust-stage auditorium, subsequently adapted for Stratford, Connecticut.

Plummer was part of the inaugural season at the latter (1955), not the happiest of experiences, opening with an under-rehearsed, awkwardly designed Julius Caesar and an only marginally better The Tempest; he played a passionate Mark Antony as well as Ferdinand.

Returning to Broadway, Plummer appeared in Jean Anouilh’s version of the Joan of Arc story as The Lark (1955), translated by Lillian Hellman at her most redoubtable, taking charge of rehearsals somewhat more than the nominal director, Joseph Anthony. His Earl of Warwick, virile and pragmatic, made a major impact opposite Julie Harris’s ethereal Maid.

Stratford, Ontario, first saw Plummer in 1956 when he played a memorable King in Henry V, in his hands an angry young rebel disinclined to abandon his wild life only to grow up at Agincourt. Michael Langham, who always handled Plummer well, wed French-Canadian actors as the French (Jean Gascon a formidable Constable) and cleverly adopted the staging for its showing (Plummer’s first UK appearance) at the Assembly Hall for the Edinburgh Festival.

An old friend from television, Sidney Lumet, cast Plummer in his first major film, Stage Struck (1957), a creaky backstage romance with Plummer as a Broadway writer-director showing too much of the smug manners which afflicted some of his early screen work. He was then much more committed to the stage, rejecting a tempting contract from David O Selznick and returning to Ontario for what proved an annus mirabilis (1957). He gave a richly reflective, deeply regal Prince, particularly moving in his scenes with the porcelain-delicate Ophelia of Frances Hyland, in Langham’s highly romantic Hamlet, following with a markedly contrasting maladroit beanpole as Aguecheek in Twelfth Night. Other memorable Ontario work included a gloriously complacent Benedick, discombobulated by love, in Much Ado About Nothing and an unexpected pickled firecracker as Bardolph in Henry IV, Part I, with Robards a dangerous Hotspur and Plummer’s first wife, Tammy Grimes, as Mistress Quickly.

Accepting his Oscar in 2012

After consolidating his Broadway reputation as Nickles (the Devil Character) in poet Archibald MacLeish’s ponderous biblical allegory JB (1958) – which was a surprising critical success – Plummer finally was lured to Avon and the original Stratford. He made a striking impression in Richard III (1961), a glitteringly venomous, malevolent scarab-beetle, happily reunited with Edith Evans as Margaret (Plummer had much enjoyed working with her in Anouilh’s Time Remembered for US television). He remained with the fledgling RSC for Anouilh’s Becket (Aldwych Theatre, 1962) as Henry II, creating a magnetic demigod.

Peter O’Toole’s withdrawal from a planned Ontario Cyrano de Bergerac,when Lawrence of Arabia filming overran, landed Plummer the part in a favourite play under Langham (1962).

The ability to handle big roles was confirmed by a bravura Plummer performance in the title role of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (New York, 1963). Tony Richardson’s production – if less than subtle with a Jule Styne score – seemed often more a Broadway musical, but did capture some of Brecht’s nightmarish cartoon world and Plummer, ringing remarkable vocal and physical changes, was both hilarious and spine-chilling as the Chicago hoodlum-Hitler. Sadly, the play only had a brief run.

In one of his finest performances, he tackled Anthony opposite Zoe Caldwell’s Egyptian queen in Anthony and Cleopatra (Stratford, Ontario, 1967). Both were magnificent, flinging themselves with total commitment into two of the most challenging classical roles, cresting the rolling tides of the verses; Plummer was particularly moving in Anthony’s moments of self-flagellation in despair and shame.

Bad luck returned, however, when Plummer joined the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier for what should have been a glorious London season. It all went awry; first, cast (literally) as Coriolanus, Plummer was caught up in a bizarre mix-up when he discovered that he would be playing not Shakespeare’s anti-hero but in the version by Brecht. Plummer left that production and instead struggled with the laboured comedy in a dreadful Olivier version of the Giraudoux/SN Behrman Amphitryon 38 (1971), which left a fine cast adrift in a hideous set of white pillars and filmy gauzes like a huge Pearl & Dean advertisement. There was some consolation when he remained with the National to play an icy-voiced Danton in a sharp, tightly focused Danton’s Death (1972) under Jonathan Miller.

A long-standing ambition was realised when Plummer appeared in a Broadway musical, all the sweeter given that it was a version of Cyrano de Bergerac (New York, 1973), with book and lyrics by novelist Anthony Burgess. Plummer was splendid, in full control of all the character’s panache (winning him a Tony award) in Michael Kidd’s exuberant staging, but the score never quite matched the ambition of story or performances. By contrast, Neil Simon’s beguiling Chekhov adaptations, The Good Doctor (New York, 1973), saw him equally effective in wry, understated vein.

Movies, with their opportunities to satisfy his love of travel, fine food and cars, had begun to play a more significant part in Plummer’s career. He was cast alongside Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and James Mason in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). This looked often breathtaking in massive sets (populated by hordes of extras) grander than Rome could possibly have been but was hamstrung by a cloth-eared script. Plummer was allowed to soar over the top as Marcus Aurelius’s wayward son and successor, Commodus, his performance recalling both Olivier and his ocular and vocal tricks in Spartacus and Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo.

Similar excess marred Lord Foppington in a mirthless Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) and the Plummer smirk also seemed too much in evidence in both Inside Daisy Clover (1965) as a controlling Hollywood mogul and in The Sound of Music (1965). Clearly he was uncomfortable as the martinet single-father Captain Von Trapp thawed by Julie Andrew’s ex-novice.

Better scripts and, possibly, a revised respect for the medium, resulted in some subsequent impressive screen work from Plummer, not least his Kipling, watching and advising his two runaway soldiers (Michael Caine, Sean Connery) in John Huston’s fine film of The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Some of the jobs were certainly taken mainly for their locations and/or the money (for two days’ work on 1967’s The Night of the Generals he was paid with a new Rolls-Royce), but other top-flight movie work included Mike Nichols’ Wolf (1994) with Plummer as Michelle Pfeiffer’s plutocratic father and, outstandingly, his appearance as Mike Wallace, a TV journalist covering a tobacco-industry scandal, in The Insider (1999) with Russell Crowe as the whistleblower and Al Pacino as Wallace’s producer.

Plummer’s later theatre work similarly was stamped by an ease inside a totally assimilated technique, vocal power and stage amperage undiminished by age. Classical work included two Shakespearean Broadway appearances – a sardonic Iago, mining a profitable vein of comedy, opposite James Earl Jones’s Moor in Othello (1982) and an attempt at Macbeth (1988), a troubled production under various directors, with Glenda Jackson his lady.

In ‘All The Money In The World’ with Mark Wahlberg

Once more with his old friend Jason Robards Jr in Pinter’s No Man’s Land (New York, 1994) both were at the peak of their powers, Plummer playing the seedy, ingratiating Auden-ish Spooner, in a finely nuanced production. He also worked again successfully with Jonathan Miller on King Lear (New York, 2004), unerringly charting Lear’s downfall to the heart-stopping close, his delicate-playing here suggesting the aftermath of a stroke.

For many, Plummer had his finest hour on stage alone (but for a crucial prompter figure) when he reincarnated his old idol John Barrymore in Barrymore (New York, 1997). Taking place on stage where, in civilian clothes, the once-great actor is attempting to rehearse his Richard III for a comeback, the play weaves the classical passages with reminiscences of a colourful rackety life. Going into areas well beyond a clever impersonation of “the great profile”, Plummer could draw on all the weaponry acquired in a long and varied career to evoke, most hauntingly, a vivid, expansive, funny, charming, recklessly self-destructive and deluded personality, but also curiously dignified, even heroic.

In 2012, Plummer won an Oscar for his role in Beginners, but his performance as J Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World (2017) earned him the greatest praise in his final years. Just before the film’s scheduled release, he replaced Kevin Spacey, who had been accused of sexual misconduct, in reshoots that cost millions. Plummer received an Oscar nod for his efforts. In one of his final roles, he featured alongside Daniel Craig in hit murder mystery Knives Out (2019).

He is survived by his third wife, Elaine Taylor, whom he married in 1970, and his daughter Amanda, from his first marriage to Tammy Grimes.

Christopher Plummer, actor, born 13 December 1929, died 5 February 2021

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