Sunday, 26 May 2013

Peter Cushing's 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that Peter Cushing was born. In a career that spanned nearly fifty years, Peter Cushing would play everything from Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice to Sherlock Holmes to Air Commodore Colonel Raymond in Biggles (1986). Despite this he would become inextricably linked to the horror genre due to his many roles in Hammer horror films. Indeed, he is perhaps the actor most identified with the roles of Dr. Frankenstein (in Hammer's "Frankenstein" series) and Professor Van Helsing (in Hammer's "Dracula" series).  In the end perhaps only Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and his frequent co-star Sir Christopher Lee are identified with the horror genre as much as Peter Cushing.

Peter Wilton Cushing was born on 26 May 1913 in Kenley, Surrey. It was not long after he was born that his family moved to  Dulwich, South London. They returned to Surrey not long after the end of the First World War, settling in Purley. It was in an Art Deco house that his father built there that Peter Cushing spent the rest of his childhood. While Peter Cushing's father was a surveyor, the acting profession did run in his family. His grandfather on his father's side, Henry William Cushing, had toured with Sir Henry Irving (who fittingly enough is believed to have partially inspired the title character in Bram Stoker's Dracula). His father's sister (and hence his aunt) was Edwardian actress Maude Ashton. Growing up Peter Cushing was a fan of Western star Tom Mix, whose Westerns helped cultivate an interest in acting in film in the young Mr. Cushing.

As a young man Peter Cushing was definitely interested in the arts, not only acting, but drawing as well. By his own confession he was only a mediocre student, with Art being the only subject in which he excelled. At the Purley County Secondary School, Peter Cushing was an active participant in the school's dramatic productions. He not only painted the sets, but often played the lead in the plays produced there as well. As might be expected, Peter Cushing wanted to enter acting after his graduation from school, but his father was not in favour of the idea. Instead his father found him a job in which Peter Cushing's talent for drawing could be put to good use, as a surveyor's assistant at the Couldsdon and Purley Urban District Council's surveyor's office. Young Mr. Cushing did not particularly care for the job, although he remained with it for three years. In the meantime he continued to appear in the plays produced by Purley County Secondary School, as well as other amateur plays produced around Surrey.

Eventually Peter Cushing applied for a scholarship at  the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Although initially rejected, Mr. Cushing pursued a scholarship there until at last he was granted one after a meeting with actor Bill Fraser and a walk on role in  J. B. Priestley's Cornelius, in which he was little more than an extra. Mr. Cushing went from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to work in various repertories in cities such as Southampton in Hampshire, Rochdale in Greater Manchester, Lowestoft in Suffolk, Burnley in Lancashire, Penge in London, Scarborough in North Yorkshire, and Nottingham in Nottinghamshire. He settled at Peterborough, Cambridgeshire where he played over 100 parts with the repertory there over a two and a half year period. It was then that Peter Cushing did something that even  a few much more experienced English actors would have been afraid to do--he headed for Hollywood.

It was in Hollywood that Peter Cushing made his film debut in the 1939 production of The Man in the Iron Mask directed by James Whale. The following year he appeared in such films as Laddie (1940), A Chump at Oxford (1940) with Laurel and Hardy, and Vigil in the Night (1940). It was in 1940 that Mr. Cushing received his first lead role, in the short "The Hidden Master." "The Hidden Master" was part of the  MGM series of shorts The Passing Parade, which dramatised real life, yet strange events. In the short Mr. Cushing played Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive, better known as Clive of India. He appeared in another Passing Parade short, "Dreams", as well as the films Women in War (1940),  The Howards of Virginia (1940), and They Dare Not Love (1941).  With the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Cushing decided he wanted to return to England. He then moved to New York City where he performed in summer stock and even made his only appearance on Broadway (in The Seventh Trumpet in 1941) until he raised enough money to return home.

During World War II Peter Cushing could not serve in the British military, having been deemed physically unfit for duty. He did join the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA), an organisation founded to provide entertainment for the troops (not unlike the USO in the United States). In 1942 he toured military posts and hospitals with a production of Noel Coward's Private Lives. Eventually pulmonary oedema would force Peter Cushing to leave ENSA, and he would spend the next few years having trouble finding work. At one point he even worked for a Manchester silk manufacturer designing head scarves for women. Fortunately, the post-war years would be much kinder to him.

It was in 1946 that Lord Laurence Olivier was producing the American play Born Yesterday. Peter Cushing tried out for the role of Paul Verral in the play. He told Lord Olivier upfront that he could not do an American accent, and in the end he failed to do so. While Lord Olivier did not cast Mr. Cushing in the role, he was impressed with the actor's honesty and told him that he would remember him. When Lord Laurence Olivier was adapting Hamlet as a film, then, he cast Peter Cushing in the role of Osric. While they had no scenes together, Sir Chrisotpher Lee also appeared in the film as a spear carrier. It would not be long before they would become frequent co-stars and the best of friends.

The early Fifties would see Peter Cushing working frequently, most often on various BBC television programmes. He played Mr. Darcy in a 1952 mini-series based on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. He also appeared in the mini-series Epitaph for a Spy. He frequently played in the various productions on BBC Sunday-Night Theatre. He also appeared in such television productions as When We Are Married, The Silver Swan, The Noble Spaniard, The Browning Version, and The Winslow Boy. Despite his frequent appearances on television, Peter Cushing also appeared in several films in the early to mid Fifties, including Moulin Rouge (1952), The Black Knight (1954), The End of the Affair (1955), and Alexander the Great (1956).

Peter Cushing was still appearing frequently on television, in productions such as Home at Seven and The Winslow Boy, when his career would change forever in the late Fifties. It was in 1957 that he starred in his first Hammer film and also his first horror film. The picture was The Curse of Frankenstein that cast Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein and Sir Christopher Lee as The Creature. The film proved to be a hit in both the United Kingdom and the United States and it was soon followed by Hammer Films' adaptation of Dracula (1958), in which Peter Cushing played Dr. Van Helsing and Sir Christopher Lee played the title role. If anything , it proved even more successful than The Curse of Frankenstein. Not only would The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula spark a series of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" films respectively, but they would launch Hammer Films as the foremost maker of horror films in the Fifties and Sixties.

While the Creature had always been the undisputed star of Universal Pictures' series of "Frankenstein" films, in Peter Cushing's hands it was definitely Victor Frankenstein who was the star of Hammer's "Frankenstein" movies. Peter Cushing's Frankenstein was a much more dynamic figure than Colin Clive's Frankenstein in Universal's Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).  Mr. Cushing played Victor Frankenstein as a man of not a little confidence and one who exuded a good deal of authority.  And while Mr. Cushing's Frankenstein could be ruthless, this was tempered with a combination of both charm and cunning that made what could be a reprehensible character oddly attractive. Peter Cushing played Victor Frankenstein in five more Hammer films, making him one of the actors most identified with the character.

Peter Cushing's Dr. Van Helsing in Dracula would be as innovative as his Frankenstein. Universal's Dracula (1931) portrayed Professor Van Helsing as an older gentleman who seems as much of a mystic as he is a medical doctor. By sharp contrast Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is a Victorian scientist, a man of science who used reasoning and not magic to combat the threat of vampirism. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing was also a man who was still very much in his prime. He is in constant movement, not adverse to jumping atop tables, swinging from ropes, and running nearly everywhere. Peter Cushing's Van Helsing was not simply a man of science, but a man of action as well. Peter Cushing played Dr. Van Helsing or one of his descendents in a total of five films.

Of course, Peter Cushing appeared in far more horror films than the "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" movies. At Hammer Films he appeared in such films as The Abominable Snowman (1957), The Mummy (1959), The Gorgon (1964), and others. He also appeared in horror films produced by other studios besides Hammer. For what may have been Hammer's chief rival, Amicus, he appeared in The Skull (1965), Torture Garden (1968), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), and others. For Tigon Pictures he appeared in The Blood Beast Terror (1968), Scream and Scream Again (1970), and The Creeping Flesh (1973). From the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies the bulk of Peter Cushing's work was in the horror genre, and he was nearly always busy.

While most of Peter Cushing's career was occupied by the horror genre from the mid-Sixties to the mid-Seventies, he still played other sorts of roles. Most notably, Mr. Cushing played Sherlock Holmes several times in his career. He first played the role in Hammer's production of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959). He played the character again in the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes in the Sixties. He played the character one last time in the 1984 television film Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death. Peter Cushing also played the role of Doctor Who in two films based on the hit BBC TV programme Doctor Who: Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966). The two films strayed quite a bit from the TV show, not the least of which was in giving the lead character the last name "Who (in the TV series he is only known as "The Doctor")". Peter  Cushing also played such roles as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960),  the Reverend Dr. Blyss in Captain Clegg (1962), Major Holly in She (1965), and John Meredith in Some May Live (1967).

Of course, Peter Cushing also continued to appear on television. Most notably he guest starred in The Avengers episode "Return of the Cybernauts" as the brother of the creator of the nearly indestructible and extremely dangerous robots known as Cybernauts. He also guest starred on such shows as ITV Television Playhouse, Comedy Playhouse, Great Mysteries, The Zoo Gang, Space: 1999, and The New Avengers. He would make a number of memorable appearances as himself on The Morecambe & Wise Show, showing up from time to time demanding that the comedy team pay him the £5.00 they owe him for a guest appearance on the show.

Peter Cushing continued to be busy in the late Seventies. In fact, the decade gave him what may have been his most famous role besides Van Helsing and Frankenstein, that of Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977). He also appeared in such films as Trial by Combat (1976), The Uncanny (1977), and Arabian Adventure (1979), as well as a 1980 Hallmark Hall of Fame production of "A Tale Two Cities" and an episode of Hammer House of Horror. Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982, Peter Cushing's career slowed considerably in the Eighties. He guest starred on Tales of the Unexpected. He also appeared in the films Mystery on Monster Island (1981), Black Jack (1981), Top Secret! (1984), and Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1984). His last appearance on television was fittingly as Sherlock Holmes in the TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Masks of Death. His last appearance on film was in Biggles in 1986, as Air Commodore Colonel William Raymond.

Peter Cushing died at the age of 81 on 11 August 1994. The cause was the prostate cancer with which he had been diagnosed twelve years before.

To this day Peter Cushing remains one of the best known horror actors of all time. In fact, along with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Sir Christopher Lee he remains one of the actors most identified with the genre. That having been said, Peter Cushing differed from Messrs. Karloff, Lugosi, Price, and Lee in that he never played a monster. While they did play other roles, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Sir Christopher Lee were best known for the monsters they played (Mr. Karloff for Frankenstein's Creature and The Mummy; Bela Lugosi for Dracula; and Sir Christopher Lee for Frankenstein's Creature, Dracula, and The Mummy). In some respects his career was very much like that of Vincent Price. In their horror films neither Peter Cushing nor Vincent Price played monsters, but instead mortal men who either created monsters, fought monsters, or sought revenge for perceived wrongs.

Of course, while Peter Cushing and Vincent Price never played monsters, it would be a mistake to think that their careers were the exactly same.  Vincent Price may well be best known for playing a succession of psychopaths and sociopaths, from Professor Henry Jarrod in House of Wax (1953) to Frederick Loren in House on Haunted Hill (1959) to Matthew Hopkins in Witchfinder General (1968) to Dr. Phibes in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972). On the other  hand, Peter Cushing may be the only one of the "Big Five" horror actors who is best known for playing a heroic role. Dr. Van Helsing in the "Dracula" films was not a monster or even a maker of monsters. He was instead a slayer of monsters, a man of science who had dedicated his life to ridding the world of vampires. Van Helsing was not the only heroic role Peter Cushing played either. He also played the hero in The Mummy (1959), Island of Terror (1966), The Blood Beast Terror (1967), The Vampire Lovers (1970), and other films.

It is a testament to Peter Cushing's talent that his best known role besides that of Dr. Van Helsing is not a hero at all, but instead an anti-hero at best and a villain at worst. Both Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein are scientists. Both study areas that most men of reason would avoid. It is there that their similarities end. Unlike Van Helsing, Victor Frankenstein makes monsters rather than slays them. And while Van Helsing has a definite code of morality to which he adheres, for Victor Frankenstein science is a means and an end to itself. He will rob graves, lie, cheat, and even commit murder to accomplish what he means to do. The fact that Peter Cushing could play both Van Helsing and Dr. Frankenstein and be convincing in both roles is a testament to his talent as an actor.

Of course, Peter Cushing's career consisted of more than just Hammer Films, and he played a wide variety of different roles throughout his career. Mr. Cushing's Sherlock Holmes was among the first in which the great detective was portrayed as somewhat anti-social, pre-dating such similar modern portrayals as the TV series Sherlock and the films Sherlock Holmes (2009) and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011). He played a somewhat friendlier and avuncular Doctor Who in the two films based on the TV programme in the Sixties. Over the years Peter Cushing played such roles as Osric in Hamlet, Winston Smith in the 1954 BBC adaptation of  Nineteen Eighty-Four, Richard II in a TV adaptation of Richard of Bordeaux, Marcel de la Voisier in Moulin Rouge, and Otto Wesendonk in the film Magic Fire (1955).  Although best known for his horror films, Peter Cushing had a diverse career that covered a good number of different genres of films.

It is because of Peter Cushing's immense talent as an actor that many of his films remain popular 100 years after his birth. He was in many ways a singular actor. He was a horror actor who never played a monster and among whose best known characters was a hero who fought monsters. He was an actor who played in a wide array of films and television productions, from the decidedly low brow to the decidedly high brow. He played some of the best known literary characters and yet made them all his own. Peter Cushing was and will remain utterly unique.

1 comment:

Carley Johnson said...

Wowzer! Thank you SO much for this great tribute to Mr. Cushing!