May 26th marked what would have been the 100th birthday of Peter Cushing, a thespian whose efforts on stage as well as screens both big and small left such a mark on viewers that it often seems as though he’s always been a part of popular culture. This is not entirely inappropriate, as popular culture was virtually always a part of Cushing himself, from the comic strips he was creating at five years of age to the Tom Mix movies which thrilled him as a youngster to the plays in which he appeared at Purley County Secondary School in Sussex, England.
These moments in Cushing’s life are but a scant few of the fascinating facts to be found within a new biography of the actor—Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, by David Miller—but aside from his various credits over the course of his lengthy career, what’s most impressive about Cushing’s life is how fearless he was in his efforts to pursue his dream of acting.
Not that it was easy, mind you…although it would be problematic for any young man to try and make his way in a profession once one of his parents has dismissed it as unworthy, which is how Cushing—through his father’s wranglings—ended up as a surveyor’s assistant, a job which he endured for three years, according to Miller, “by going to the most extravagant lengths to avoid doing any work.” Given his tendencies toward depression, which led to more than one thankfully failed suicide attempt, it’s a wonder Cushing even lasted long enough to earn his big break, particularly when one considers that his interview for an acting scholarship at the Guidhall School of Music and Drama ended with him hearing the words, “Take him away! His voice offends me!”
So how did the man who would go on to play Professor Van Helsing, Baron Frankenstein, a human version of Doctor Who, and Grand Moff Tarkin finally manage to make a name for himself as an actor? The same way most actors do: persistence.
To rise above his accent, Cushing practiced his diction and learned to project his voice properly, which eventually resulted in his entrance into Guildhall. When he failed to find work as a full-time actor, he settled for a job as an assistant stage manager, but the pay was so poor that it only covered the cost of his room and board, leading him to literally scavenge for meals. Still, he was working in his field, which was half the battle, and he continued that work around the whole of England, eventually earning a spot amongst the Court Players at the Theatre Royal Nottingham. Before long, his confidence was such that he was off to America to further his fortunes.
Things soon took off for Cushing in America as well. After arriving in New York, he traveled to Hollywood, where he made his film debut in James Whale’s 1939 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s “The Man in the Iron Mask” and, in short order, appeared alongside none other than Laurel and Hardy in A Chump at Oxford. Although he subsequently made a significant impression as a result of his work with Carole Lombard in Vigil in the Night, Cushing’s desire to return home in the wake of Great Britain declaring war on Germany, meant that his time in Hollywood proved comparatively brief. Upon returning to New York, however, his efforts to earn the money for his voyage home provided him with still more opportunities in the theater, including a very brief—we’re talking nine days here—run on Broadway.
Although Cushing’s return to England found him returning to the theater and doing a bit of radio work as well, his life effectively changed forever in 1947, when Laurence Olivier cast him as Osric in his motion picture adaptation of Hamlet. The theater work continued, but within a few short years, Cushing was a full-time film (and occasional television) actor. Yes, his career suffered the same ups and downs as all who tread the boards, his dramatic flair and his undeniable onscreen presence provided him with a wealth of opportunities over the course of his 47-year film career…some good, some underrated, and some just plain bad.
Using the wealth of information he accumulated while writing “Peter Cushing: A Life in Film,” we asked author David Miller to help us sort out which is which.
Three Must-See Cushings
Horror of Dracula (1958)
David Miller: As Van Helsing, Cushing’s performance is central to the entire operation: as Christopher Lee’s Dracula gets a few scant minutes of screen time, it is Van Helsing who establishes the mythology and the very tangible threat of the vampire. Cushing also makes Van Helsing a very real character with little gestures and idiosyncrasies—rubbing his neck when he’s cold, looking around when he’s bored—and the thrilling climax, as the heroic vampire-hunter forces Dracula into a shaft of sunlight, is all the more satisfying knowing that it was Cushing’s idea to use candlesticks to make the sign of the cross.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
DM: Playing the role of Baron Frankenstein for the fifth time, Cushing had honed the character to a glittering razor-sharpness. Though Frankenstein is a masterpiece of distilled evil, Cushing makes him a powerful anti-hero, and we are constantly in the unlikely position of rooting for him against the idiot policemen that dog his steps. Shot through with late-60s pessimism and with a very downbeat ending, Cushing gives a master class in screen acting.
Tales from the Crypt (1971)
DM: Cushing won a French Fantasy award for his performance in this excellent anthology film, based on the famous EC horror comics. As Grimsdyke, a gentle old junkman who is persecuted by his wealthy neighbours and driven to suicide but eventually exacts a terrifying revenge from beyond the grave, Cushing basically wrote the part for himself from scratch, making something heartrendingly poignant from the old man’s story. Working closely on many of the scenes with director Freddie Francis, Cushing—along with make-up artist Roy Ashton—created one of the most memorable zombies in film history.
Three Neglected Cushings
The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957)
DM: Cushing plays the philosophical explorer John Rollason in Hammer’s powerful adaptation of a long-lost 1954 TV play. (Cushing originally starred in the play, which may have helped bring him to Hammer’s attention.) The script by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale is a heady brew of scientific speculation presented in almost documentary style by director Val Guest. Rollason is investigating the legend of the yeti, and Cushing’s playing of the film’s climax in a cave on the mountainside as the explorer discovers the secret is breathtakingly moving in its simplicity.
Horror Express (1972)
DM: Not just Cushing, but Lee as well, the two still friends after 15 years, here playing Doctor Wells and Professor Saxton, two Victorian boffins transporting a frozen caveman from China on the Trans-Siberian Express. The Neanderthal comes back to life, of course, and eventually becomes a murderous shape-shifting entity passing from one passenger to the next. Anyone could be the monster, even Cushing and Lee, leading to Cushing’s spirited defense, “Monster? We’re British, you know!”
A Tale of Two Cities (1980)
DM: Cushing’s last really satisfying role, playing Dr. Manette, who is released from imprisonment in the Bastille after many years and reunited with his daughter Lucy, played by a young Alice Krige. There is an obvious affection between the pair, making for a genuine and sensitive performance. In his best scene, Cushing enthusiastically rouses the revolutionaries to save the life of Lucy’s fiancée, and he is borne aloft on the shoulders of the mob.
Three Grim and Grisly Cushings…and Not in a Good Way
I, Monster (1970)
DM: A substantial part for Cushing in this penny-pinching remake of Jekyll and Hyde as the solicitor, Utterson, but the production was hampered by a woolly script and an insistence on using a 3D process that didn’t work and was dropped halfway through filming. Director Stephen Weeks did his best, and Christopher Lee is impressive in the Jekyll/Hyde roles (renamed Marlowe/Blake to dodge the copyright held by MGM), but Cushing, sadly, is often marooned near the edge of the frame, looking immaculate in his Edwardian costume but with absolutely nothing to do.
Mystery on Monster Island (1980)
DM: Cushing plays William T Kolderup, the wealthiest man in America, in Spanish director Juan Piquer Simon’s chaotic adaptation of a Jules Verne story. Cushing only appears for a few minutes at the beginning, then pops up again at the end. The rest is a coming-of-age tale for Kolderup’s nephew Jeff, who gets stranded on the Monster Island and has to fight dinosaurs, pirates, and seaweed monsters. It would have been so much better if Cushing had been fighting the monsters, too.
Sword of the Valiant (1982)
DM: Cushing clearly didn’t hold a grudge against Stephen Weeks, as he joined the director’s lavish re-telling of the legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in 1982. But alas, again, Cushing gets nothing to do in the role of Seneschal, reduced to running around after John Rhys-Davies as the loony Lord Fortinbras. The film also features Sean Connery, resplendent in a twiggy beard as the Green Knight, but for Cushing fans this muddled mythological melodrama is barely worth seeking out.
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