Screen and stage legend Christopher Plummer passes away

Published : February 06, 2021 19:38 IST

Christopher Plummer at the world premiere of “All the Money in the World” in December 2017, in Beverly Hills, California, United States. Photo: JORDAN STRAUSS/AP

Christopher Plummer with the Oscar for the Best Supporting Actor for his work in “Beginners” at the 84th Academy Awards on February 26, 2012. Photo: JOEL RYAN/AP

As Sherlock Holmes, during the filming of “Murder by Decree” (1979). Photo: Getty Images

Before making his musical debut on Broadway in “Cyrano” in 1973. Photo: JERRY MOSEY/AP

It is a little sad that a man of Christopher Plummer’s talent and versatility should be remembered mainly as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, a film that continues to remain a hit even after 55 years. While it is true that it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Plummer in the role of the Nazi-hating father of seven children in love with their governess, it is unfortunate and unfair to imprison him in that role simply because the movie refuses to wane in popularity even after several generations. Christopher Plummer was also the devilishly charming jewel thief Sir Charles Litton in The Return of Pink Panther (1975); he was the cold and cruel Nazi colonel Herbert Kappler in The Scarlet and the Black (1981); the evil Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby (2002); the bank robber-turned-spy in the action adventure Triple Cross (1966); he was Arthur Wellesley to Rod Steiger’s Napoleon in Waterloo (1970); Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who would be King (1975); Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009); John Barrymore in Barrymore (2011); and he was even a superb Sherlock Holmes a few times. And he hated the role that catapulted him to superstardom but, at the same time, typecast him for almost all his life. “Don’t these people ever see another movie?” he once said in jocular exasperation.

On February 5, Plummer’s remarkable career that stretched over seven decades came to an end with his death. He was 91 and is survived by his wife, actress Elaine Taylor to whom he had been married for the last 53 years, and daughter actress Amanda Plummer.

Among his legendary contemporaries in Hollywood that include the likes of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland and others, Christopher Plummer was perhaps the most underrated of the superstars of his generation. Yet, he had one of the longest careers, winning accolades for his performances on the big screen, television and the stage. At the age of 81, he was the oldest actor to win an Oscar (Beginners, 2011), and, at 88, the oldest to be nominated (All the Money in the World, 2017).

Even though his role of Captain Von Trapp established him as a leading man and a heart-throb, he played character actors most of his life, and as he grew older, he chose small but crucial roles. With 217 credits to his name (both screen and television), his roles in big-budget films have often been overlooked by movie-goers. Yet, he was there as Aristotle in Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004), as the psychiatrist Dr Rosen in A Beautiful Mind (2001), as the ruthless tycoon Arthur Case in Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006), as Dr Goines in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) and as Jack Nicholson’s boss Raymond Alden in Wolf (1994). There were so many such films and in each one of them he was outstanding. The size of the roles did little to alter his commitment to his craft. Mostly cast as an urbane, suave and often villainous character, Plummer brought in elements of such rare subtlety and nuances that only artistes of the highest calibre could wield; and however small the role, his presence on the screen was unforgettable. Mike Mills, who directed him in Beginners for which he won an Oscar, said: “I marvelled at his intense curiosity, hunger to make something vulnerable and his need to challenge himself.”

Born Arthur Plummer in 1929 in Toronto, he was the great grandson of John Abbott, Canada’s third Prime Minister. The theatre was his first love—“Its what separates the men from the boys” he had once said; and a fact that is often overlooked is his hugely successful stage career. He was, in fact, hailed as one of the finest Shakespearean actors of his generation. From 1955 when he appeared on stage as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar at the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre until the end of his life, Plummer never completely stopped doing Shakespearean roles. In fact, according to reports, just prior to his death he was preparing himself to play King Lear on film.

Plummer also worked extensively in television. From 1953 until he got his first big screen role in Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck in 1958, Plummer made his bones on the stage and on the small screen. Though he bagged the role of Commodus in Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), it was The Sound of Music the following year that made him an international sensation. It was also a movie that, as he himself put it, followed him around “like an albatross”. Numerous great movies followed—Night of the Generals (1967), Oedipus the King (1968), Battle of Britain (1969), Waterloo (1970), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Man who would be King (1975)—but the shadow of Captain Von Trapp was difficult to shrug off.

He had the old-school debonair charm of a Cary Grant but without the massive box office appeal of Grant. Plummer was, in fact, more in the mould of Rex Harrison, another great actor forever trapped in a role in an ever-popular movie (My Fair Lady). But he could hold his own on the screen and on the stage with the greatest of them. In The Scarlet and the Black, even with titans like Gregory Peck and John Gielgud sharing the screen with him, it was Plummer’s role of the obsessive Nazi officer that one remembers the most.

There was no dearth of work for him even as he grew older. From big budget blockbusters to television films, there was always some role or the other for Christopher Plummer and, alongside, there was also a huge demand from the stage and the Broadway. In 2007, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his final Broadway appearance in Inherit the Wind; and in 2010, he played the role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s Tempest to wide critical acclaim.

Interestingly, it was only after he turned 80 that Christopher Plummer had another glorious run in the limelight and stardom. In 2010, he received a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Last Station (2009) and in 2011, he won the Oscar for the first time for his performance as an old, gentle widower, coming out of the closet after spending a lifetime in a marriage in Beginners (2010). He was 82 at the time. “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?” he joked at the awards ceremony.

In 2011, he reprised his award-winning stage role of fellow-Canadian legend John Barrymore in Barrymore. In 2014, he teamed up with the legendary Shirley MacLaine in the quiet romantic comedy Elsa & Fred; and in 2017, he replaced Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World for the part of the cold-hearted J. Paul Getty, the billionaire oil tycoon who refused to pay the ransom for his kidnapped grandson’s release. Plummer received another Oscar nomination for the role in the movie, becoming the oldest man to have ever been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

The years that followed until his death saw Christopher Plummer working almost continuously. He was the dope-dealing old free-spirit Jack in Boundaries (2018); the wealthy mystery novelist and family patriarch Harlan Thrombey in the whodunit Knives out (2019); he acted in a television series Departure; and was also apparently preparing to play Lear. Christopher Plummer had finally managed to escape from Captain Von Trapp.