Christopher Plummer (1929-2021): Captain out of a trap

Actor Christopher Plummer (1929-2021) was much more than Captain von Trapp, the role that he is most identified with. In a remarkable career of over seven decades, his dapper, upper-class screen persona belied the sheer range of his acting abilities and the tremendous subtlety and nuance at his command.

Published : Mar 04, 2021 13:16 IST

With his award for Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners” (2011) at the 84th Academy Awards on February 26, 2012.

With his award for Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners” (2011) at the 84th Academy Awards on February 26, 2012.

For most of his life, Christopher Plummer hated his role of Captain von Trapp in the evergreen film The Sound of Music (1965), even though it immortalised him in the world of cinema. He likened it to an albatross around the neck of his incredibly successful and diverse acting career. His dislike for the role was not completely unjustified, for it is unfortunate that a man of Plummer’s talent and versatility should be remembered mainly for a single role in a movie that continues to remain a hit even after 55 years.

While it is true that nobody but Plummer can be imagined in the role of the Nazi-hating father of seven children in love with their governess, he was also the devilishly charming jewel thief, Sir Charles Litton, in The Return of Pink Panther (1975); 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), the famous TV journalist Mike Wallace in The Insider (1999), Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009) and John Barrymore in Barrymore (2011); he was even a superb Sherlock Holmes a few times. Yet it cannot be denied that Captain von Trapp was the role that both catapulted him to superstardom and 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, the actress Elaine Taylor, to whom he had been married for the last 53 years, and daughter, the actress Amanda Plummer.

Christopher Plummer was perhaps the most underrated of the superstars of his generation, which included the likes of Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Donald Sutherland, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Jason Robards, among others. Yet he had one of the longest careers, winning accolades for his performances on the silver screen, television and the stage. At 81, he was the oldest actor to win an Oscar, for Beginners (2010), and at 88, the oldest to be nominated, for 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, most of his life he was content being a character actor. As he grew older, he chose small but crucial roles.

With 217 credits to his name (both screen and television), Plummer’s parts in big-budget films have often been overlooked by moviegoers. 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), as Jack Nicholson’s boss Raymond Alden in Wolf (1994). There were many such films, and in each of them he was outstanding. The size of the roles did little to alter his commitment to his craft. Mostly cast as urbane, suave and often villainous characters, Plummer brought in elements of rare sensitivity and honesty to the parts; however small the role, his presence on the screen was unforgettable. Mike Mills, who directed him in Beginners for which he won the 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, Christopher Plummer was the great grandson of John Abbott, Canada’s third Prime Minister. He was a brilliant musician and learnt classical piano as a child, but was also partial to jazz and was a close friend of the legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. Although the acting bug and the stage stopped him from pursuing music more seriously, he never completely abandoned playing the piano, and in several films, notably Elsa & Fred (2014) and Remember (2015), one can see Plummer himself playing the piano. In fact, he was known to mesmerise those around him at the studios with his musical skills between takes, and was particularly upset when a professional singer was used to dub his voice for the songs in The Sound of Music .

Theatre and television career

Gradually the theatre replaced music as the love of his life. “It’s what separates the men from the boys,” he once said. Throughout his career, he was never far from the stage, and was, in fact, a greater star of the stage then he was of the screen. He was hailed as one of the finest Shakespearean actors of his time, and universally lauded for his Othello, Iago, Lear, Hamlet, Prospero and Macbeth. 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 quite stopped doing Shakespeare roles. In fact, according to reports, just before his death, he was preparing to play King Lear on film. He was a major Broadway star, getting his first of five nominations for the Tony Award in 1959 for “J.B”. It was not until 1974 that he won his first Tony for best actor in the musical “Cyrano”; he would win again in 1997 for his outstanding performance as John Barrymore in “Barrymore”.

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. Much as he may have enjoyed light-heartedly dissing the part, it was also a role that he found the hardest to play. He once said: “It was the most difficult part I ever had to play. More difficult than King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth anything you can name because it walks and teeters on the brink of sentimentality to such an extent that it’s like walking on eggshells, and you have watch very carefully not to go over the top…”

The more the film industry tried to typecast him in the mould of the leading man, the more Plummer rebelled and chose character-driven roles and took refuge in the authenticity of the stage. But it was a difficult task, especially when one happened to have the looks of a Rudolf Valentino and the natural grace and panache of a Cary Grant. 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.

It would perhaps be convenient to compare Plummer with Rex Harrison, another great actor forever trapped in a role in an ever-popular movie (My Fair Lady), but Plummer was more successful than Harrison in breaking out of the mould. His magnificent portrayal of Shitty, the old derelict bum with a wheezing voice and a tattered top hat in John Boorman’s Where the Heart is (1990), is a case in point. What was often overlooked because of his dapper, upper-class image and oft-presented screen persona was the sheer range of his acting abilities, and the tremendous subtlety and nuance at his command. Like Richard Burton, he was first and foremost a stage actor, but unlike the great Welsh thespian, Plummer could leave behind the stage when in front of the camera. Like his contemporary Peter O’Toole, he had separate sets of skills, one for the stage and one for the screen. He could hold his own with the greatest of the stars of both these platforms and often walk away with a scene with aplomb. In The Scarlet and the Black, even with titans such as 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 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 Broadway. In 2007, he was nominated for a Tony Award for his final Broadway appearance, “Inherit the Wind”; in 2010, he played the role of Prospero in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” to wide critical acclaim.

Rediscovered at 80

Interestingly, it was only after he turned 80 that Christopher Plummer had another glorious run in the limelight. 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 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, becoming the oldest man to have ever been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. “It’s nice to be discovered again at this exalted age,” he said in an interview in 2015.

The years that followed until his death saw Christopher Plummer working almost continuously in television as well as blockbusters. 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 King Lear. Christopher Plummer had finally managed to escape from Captain von Trapp.

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