Christopher Plummer never hid his dislike of The Sound of Music

Nobody combined charm and menace better than the late Canadian Oscar-winning actor

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in a promotional portrait for The Sound Of Music, 1965. Photograph:  Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in a promotional portrait for The Sound Of Music, 1965. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

 

Christopher Plummer, who has died in Connecticut at the age of 91, accumulated, over seven decades, all the honours an actor could wish for.

As long ago as 1961, he appeared as Richard III for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Close to 50 years later, he became the oldest person ever to win an acting Oscar — a record he still holds — when he took the best supporting prize for Mike Mills’s Beginners.

Along the way, he worked with John Huston, Spike Lee, Michael Mann and Ridley Scott. In 1968, he was invested as Companion of the Order of Canada. 

Yet he will always be first associated with a project about which he was equivocal. 

Following its release in 1965, Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music passed out Gone with the Wind to become the highest grossing film in history. Plummer starred as the stuffy Austrian Captain who, as the Nazis loomed, allowed Julie Andrews’s governess to make a singing troupe of his charming family.

It was rumoured that Plummer, feeling the material a little beneath him, referred to the movie as “The Sound of Mucus,” but, on its 50th anniversary, reuniting with Andrews, Plummer spoke tolerantly — if not exactly warmly — about Rodgers and Hammerstein’s confection.

“This is sort of a fairy story brought to life,” he said. “And in a world that is so horrific — we know what’s going on now, it’s inconceivable — it’s the last bastion of innocence in a very cynical time.”

Gallery

Christopher Plummer: A career in pictures VIEW NOW
Plummer plays the role of Satan in JB, 1959. Photograph: AP Photo
Plummer plays the role of Satan in JB, 1959. Photograph: AP Photo
Christopher Plummer in New York in 2011. Plummer, the prolific and versatile Canadian-born actor rose to celebrity as the romantic lead in perhaps the most popular movie musical. Photograph: Chad Batka/The New York Times
Christopher Plummer in New York in 2011. Plummer, the prolific and versatile Canadian-born actor rose to celebrity as the romantic lead in perhaps the most popular movie musical. Photograph: Chad Batka/The New York Times

Born into a well-off family, he was raised by his mother in a desirable suburb of Montreal. He began acting in high school after watching Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film of Henry V and, by 1956, he was delivering his own famously idiosyncratic version of that role at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.

He was the first Canadian that the legendary Tyrone Guthrie selected to lead a production at the event. Not yet 30, thanks to striking Edwardian features and a honeyed voice that danced across iambic pentameter, he could claim to have become the North American equivalent of his idol Olivier.

But Plummer had his own idiosyncratic gifts. He went on to bring a new danger to Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.

His film career began in 1958 when Sidney Lumet offered him a decent part opposite Henry Fonda in Stage Struck. He was never again short of work. Plummer didn’t hold back about his views on The Sound of Music.

As late as 2010 — though still full of praise for his old friend Julie Andrews — he was happy to wheel out the objections. “I was a bit bored with the character,’’ he told The Boston Globe. “Although we worked hard enough to make him interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse. And the subject matter is not mine. I mean it can’t appeal to every person in the world. It’s not my cup of tea.’’

More than a few actors of Plummer’s theatrical stripe got a little left behind by the 1960s. In that same interview with the Boston paper, he expressed characteristic boredom with some of the incoming cultural changes.

“Drinking was particularly fun and fashionable in the 1950s,” he said. “Drugs started to creep in and do their rather remote work in the late 1960s and 1970s … And then in the 1980s and 1990s everyone started to get terribly serious – drinking water all the time, or taking drugs. Poor old booze took a back seat. I’m glad to see it’s coming back these days, particularly in the young – at least they’ve got good taste.’’

Plummer in the 1983 miniseries, The Thorn Birds. Photograph: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Plummer in the 1983 miniseries, The Thorn Birds. Photograph: Walt Disney Television via Getty Images
Plummer in the title role in King Lear, New York, 2004. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Plummer in the title role in King Lear, New York, 2004. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There was, however, always a place in the theatre for an actor who looked and sounded like Christopher Plummer. He won his first Tony in 1974 for the musical Cyrano and another in 1996 for his portrayal of the famously tempestuous actor John Barrymore.

Stewart Grainger once complained that, like other chiselled performers, he grew into an old leading man rather than, as is more often the case, a useful character actor. Plummer had no such problem. He moved from a memorable role in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country to a famous revival of Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land on Broadway.

Nobody was better at combining patrician charm with a simmering hint of menace. Those latter qualities were in evidence when, towards the close of 2017, he delivered a performance that will forever stand as a landmark in cinema.

Following revelations concerning Kevin Spacey’s behaviour in the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo convulsion, Ridley Scott cut that actor’s performance as John Paul Getty from his film All the Money in the World and, mere weeks before release, inserted Plummer into the role. The miracle of acting and technological wizardry helped the Canadian to his third and final Oscar nomination.

There were ups and downs in his personal life. Following the dissolution of his four-year marriage to the actor Tammy Grimes, he was allowed little access to their daughter Amanda Plummer — later to give acclaimed performances in Pulp Fiction and The Fisher King — but they established friendly relations decades later. She was his only child. He has remained married to Elaine Taylor, his third wife, since 1970. Plummer died at home following a fall.

“He was a national treasure who deeply relished his Canadian roots,” Lou Pitt, his friend and manager, said. “Through his art and humanity, he touched all of our hearts and his legendary life will endure for all generations to come. He will forever be with us.”

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