Posted by Jeff Stafford on December 13, 2008
On Friday, December 5th, I had the pleasure of being able to interview Christopher Plummer by phone about his new autobiography, IN SPITE OF MYSELF (published by Knopf). An actor of great range and versatility, Plummer has worked in every facet of the industry – theatre, television, radio and film – and we covered everything from John Barrymore to Plummer’s appearance in STAR TREK 6: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY with fellow Canadian William Shatner to unsung stage legends such as Laurette Taylor to THE SOUND OF MUSIC to his upcoming title role in Terry Gilliam’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS and much more.
TCM: What was the main reason that compelled you to write IN SPITE OF MYSELF?
Christopher Plummer: Well, I wanted to write about the old guard that had gone before television had come into play. All the great stars that I had worked with in the past because that really is history. Because they themselves have such links with the past that you feel like you know the past by knowing them. And I knew that a lot of young people – if they ever bother to pick up the book to read – will probably not know who the hell I’m talking about. But it doesn’t matter because anybody who’s interested in the arts, they should know and that’s why I wanted to tell those stories.
TCM: Well, it’s great to have accounts of all these theatre people because there are no film records of them.
CP: No, there’s not. Katharine Cornell, for example, only appeared in one movie. I think it was STAGE DOOR CANTEEN and she had a guest appearance like everyone else in that.
TCM: Your book fills me with regret at not being able to have seen some of these great people on the stage.
CP: Yes, I know, I know, and I was so lucky to have met them and some of them at the end of their careers. They were all still living that rich and extraordinary life that the theatre had in those days. Katharine Cornell, for example, was the last actress to have her own private train which we traveled in across the U.S. and Canada before hitting Broadway. It was like a fairy story.
TCM: I wanted to ask you about growing up in Canada. From your memoirs, it seems that music and theatre were your favorite arts as a teenager but there was little mention of cinema. There was one comment you made, “I shunned celluloid and adopted toward it a repulsively snobbish disregard.” I was curious where that attitude came from?
CP: (laughs) Well, that attitude came from almost everyone in the theatre in those days. Don’t forget that we still had an almost snobbish disregard for the cinema. The theatre was the senior art and the cinema was this kind of brash newcomer that had come in and made a lot of people famous without a hell of a lot of training. And here we were in a profession where you had to train otherwise you wouldn’t be tolerated. It was a very old-fashioned, extraordinary [attitude]…and it still hung on with a lot of Broadway actors in guys like Jason [Robards, Jr.] and George C. Scott. When I was on Broadway and they were my friends and they were a part of the rhythm of life in New York in the fifties, even they made movies to make money in order to be able to go back to the theatre and do great plays. That sort of stayed with me through the fifties and then you grow up and say, “C’mon on, the movies are [legitimate work]..” Secretly, of course, I was lying because I went to the movies all the time as a kid. I saw thousands of films. I became a sort of boring film buff when I was fifteen or sixteen. It all changed in the sixties and seventies and we began to revere the cinema. But I still held on to that truth about the theatre and the training. That holds true to today.
TCM: One comment you made in the book was that you read the John Barrymore biography, “Good Night, Sweet Prince” and that influenced you to want to become a stage actor.
CP: Oh yes, hugely. It was the first book about an actor I had ever read and – my god – I thought that if this guy could look that good and be that good on the stage and still be a drunk – god love him! That was my idea of absolute heaven. To be able to drink, act, look handsome…and get girls!
TCM: But you never had a chance to see him on stage did you?
CP: No, but I knew his daughter Diana which I write about in the book. And she was full of stories about her dad even though she didn’t know him that well either. But the little she knew of him she was obsessed by him and certainly shared a huge history of stories about him. I was very fond of Diana, such a self-destructive nature. It was a Barrymore disease, I guess, for awhile and she inherited it, I suppose. When I was in my sixties, I played him [John Barrymore] on the stage on Broadway and I somehow wish Diana could have seen me. I think she might have been proud of me. I hope so.
TCM: Did you ever see the film version of Diana Barrymore’s autobiography “Too Much Too Soon”? I was curious if Dorothy Malone captured what she might have been like?
CP: Yes, she wasn’t quite as flamboyant as Diana in life or on the screen. She was very good in it but I see Diana in other movies as herself and she’s sometimes good and sometimes a little theatrical because she hadn’t done that many films and was primarily a stage actress.
TCM: In terms of John Barrymore on film, is there a particular performance that you most admire?
CP: Well, it’s such a shame that we couldn’t see him when he was playing Hamlet on the stage, when he was in full control of his powers. I know that by the time he arrived on the screen he was kind of dissipated a bit..but I loved him in TWENTIETH CENTURY. I thought all of his theatricality was..given its true importance in that movie. And I liked his performance in a picture called MIDNIGHT. He was terribly good in that and I think he had a ball in MIDNIGHT. COUNSELLOR AT LAW, you can see every now and then, a touch of greatness in him. There are flashes of it, you know, as you watch it. There are certain scenes, particularly almost at the end, in that tension before he tries to commit suicide. And he’s on that telephone call to the ship. There are moments in there of such pain and reality that you say, “Hey, wait a minute that must have been part of what he was like as Hamlet.” So it crosses your mind. But then he goes back to being a ham. And one enjoys that in a way but there’s something sad about it. I thought his Mercutio [in ROMEO AND JULIET, 1936] was a little over the top. But I knew – god who played Benvolio in that? – Basil Rathbone played Tybalt and he told me that he and Reginald Denny, he played Benvolio…they had to support Jack while he did his soliloquy. So the director said “Look, just stay out of frame and just hold him still for christsake, will you, so he can get through this speech?” So what you see is Jack doing the great Queen mab speech alone, of course, but what you don’t see is Benvolio and Tybalt supporting him on either side. I mean, Basil Rathbone told me that story. Awful! (laughs)
TCM: With you being such a classically trained actor, I was curious about your opinion of “The Method” and Marlon Brando’s impact on the theatre world with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
CP: Listen, to me “The Method” is usually totally misunderstood. It doesn’t mean that you have to mumble and not be heard. It means that you use it when you’re in deep trouble, when you can’t bring your imagination to work then you try and have a sense memory of your own that can help and I think that’s true of any instinctive actor. You don’t have to go to a method school to learn that. But when Marlon came to the fore and became the second – actually – very real actor, the first being Montgomery Clift…Monty and Marlon Brando were the two supremely realistic actors on the screen at that time. And it was just wonderful to watch and you realized they knew how to treat the medium. The Medium needed that then.
CP: Now I’m going to switch back a few decades before that to an actor not a lot of people will know but an actor called Robert Williams who was one of the most realistic comedians the screen had. He made Cary Grant look like he was overacting. Robert Williams was the lead opposite Jean Harlow in PLATINUM BLONDE which was directed by Frank Capra. To watch Robert Williams act was like seeing a comic using the Method, long before the Method became famous with Marlon and Monty. So people were doing it already, that’s my point. Brando was great and I would have liked to use both my classical knowledge and Brando’s kind of wonderful imaginative reality and mix them up and that would have been the perfect mix for any artist.
TCM: I love the idea of actors playing characters in Shakespeare’s plays that you don’t ordinarily associate with Shakespeare such as Brando playing Mark Anthony in JULIUS CAESAR or Jack Palance in the same play which you talk about in your book.
CP: Well, that is a true story you know and I’ll never forget him [Palance] throwing his costume offstage in a rage because the critics hadn’t recognized that he had worked very hard. And they were miserable to him. However, I do redeem Jack and I became very fond of Jack but it wasn’t easy in the beginning because he was a pretty forbidding fellow. That stare would freeze anybody in their tracks. But I became very fond of him because there was a vulnerability about him. He redeemed himself as Caliban [in Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST]. He was terribly good as Caliban. He used all of his sort of hissing (makes vocal sounds like Palance)…and the thing he did in westerns. He used that and it worked. Raymond Massey was Prospero, he was Caliban. So he redeemed himself and I think the critics came back and praised him for that, which they should, because they were very unkind to him in JULIUS CAESAR.
TCM: I’ve noticed that you’ve played some of the same characters over and over again on stage and in film – Oedipus Rex, Cyrano – and was curious if you liked replaying the role at different points in your life as you got older because you brought a different perspective to the character and got a new idea of how to approach him? Or was it something else?
CP: Oh, god no. You’re exactly right. Also, different people in different countries. I did Benedick [Much Ado About Nothing] twice, once in Stratford in Canada, and once in Stratford-on-Avon in England with totally different people, casts, and all that. Hamlet, you know, I’ve done twice. And Hamlet you can never do well enough until you are my age. For instance, I think I’d be terrific as Hamlet now because I’ve learned so much since that I could put it into Hamlet. Do you know what I mean? I don’t think anybody can play that part and be the right age for it. It’s not possible that anybody could be so witty, urbane, moving, touching, wise, all the things that Hamlet is…princely, cultured, way beyond his years. How can you do all that until you’re old enough to have the technique in which to make it look all so simple? Everybody has to work so goddamn hard when they play Hamlet and I’m just as guilty as anybody else.
TCM: Yes, it would be hard to accept a 20-year-old actor as a character like King Lear.
CP: Yes, in a sense, because you would look right – he was about 26 – and I played him when I was 26 or 27. And then the next time I played him I was 30 and still looked ok. The booze hadn’t gotten to me yet. (laughs) And I was better the second time. Of course. You learn more in the interum. And now I think I’m ready but sadly the movies have killed that you see because now they want you to look the part. Edwin Booth, the great American actor of the 19th century, played Lear until he was 65 or certainly into his sixties, and with long, white hair and nobody complained. He was wonderful in it.
TCM: Now one play I wanted to ask about was THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN where you played Pizarro on the stage but in the film version of it you played the Inca King Atahualpa. Was that a different transition to make?
CP: Yes, but I kept thinking when I was Pizarro on Broadway..I kept watching young David Carradine who was playing Atahualpa, the Inca king, and making all sorts of weird sounds. It was wonderful stuff he was doing. And I kept thinking if this was ever a movie, THAT’S the film part. He doesn’t have much dialogue. All he does is come on and make these weird noises and look strange and wonderful. And those poor Pizarro has all these speeches to make, which in the theatre work great but on screen they’re too long. You’d have to cut them. So I said Atahualpa for me. And then Bob [Robert] Shaw put it together with some other people and said would you want to come and play Atahualpa? And I said yes, absolutely. No, I had a fascinating time playing both those characters because I think Peter Shaffer wrote a play that was way ahead of its time although it was a hit in both London and New York. But it didn’t quite hit the mark with its story about diverse cultures needing each other…societies dependent on one another. I think a few years later it would have worked better.
TCM: There is a photo in IN SPITE OF MYSELF of William Shatner with the caption reading, “My rebellious understudy,” and wanted to know about your experiences together in theatre in Canada.
CP: No, in radio. We grew up in radio together in Montreal in both French and in English. So there was a lot of work going on. But rebellious understudy, by that I meant that Bill Shatner, who was my understudy, when he went on, he broke all the rules. He did everything I didn’t do. So he was totally different from me in every single way. Even from sitting down to standing up. So I knew he was a rebel. And I knew that he was going to be a star.
TCM: So that must have been a fun reunion when you starred together in STAR TREK 6: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY?
CP: Oh, god yes. It really was fun. I enjoyed that and it was a good script too, a funny script.
TCM: And now it’s time for a few inevitable SOUND OF MUSIC questions. Did you ever have an inkling while you were filming it that it was going to be the huge boxoffice hit it became?
CP: Well, I do mention in the book that during the last two days of shooting in California where we did most of the interiors people started coming to visit the set. Journalists would turn up, actors would turn up. Shirley MacLaine was there a lot because she was making a movie next door and…there was suddenly a strange interest in the thing which I thought very mysterious. And I remember Julie [Andrews] saying to me, “I have a feeling that we might be famous.” And of course we had no idea the bloody thing was going to take off like it did. But I begain to have an inkling that something was afoot in California toward the end.
TCM: And after THE SOUND OF MUSIC was a hit, did you receive a lot of screenplays with characters similar to the Captain Von Trapp character?
CP: Yes, that’s sort of why I decried my role as the Captain a lot. I don’t decry the movie because it was a very well made movie.
TCM: But you wisely turned all of those scripts down.
CP: Well, not all of them. I did some of them because, you know, you have to make a living. But my type of roles are sort of uptight, urbane, sophisticated young men…sort of boring and dull. People don’t have any imagination in this business, do they? I can do comedy. I can do all sorts of things. Why are they giving me this uptight crap? So I was so happy when I arrived at a certain age and I could become a character actor and be free of all that nonsense.
TCM: One person you mention in your book that I love and have only seen rarely on screen but he’s always wonderful is Michael Kidd. Of course he’s more famous as a choreographer but you worked with him on your musical Cyrano and he was so great in IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER with Gene Kelly. What are your memories of him?
CP: Oh, Michael Kidd was a gem. I mean I haven’t heard anybody say anything about Michael Kidd that wasn’t absolutely magical for them. Fred Astaire was over the moon about Michael Kidd when he worked with him as a choreographer. I was when he did Cyrano. He was absolutely wonderful the way he moved that whole evening. And his taste in it was extraordinary. He had a lovely human taste about everything. I’ve put his name down every year on a ballot to be honored, you know, by the Kennedy Center honors. And now he’s gone and he’s never been honored. To me, he was one of the very original, great choreographers of our history. It was Agnes DeMille and Michael Kidd. He did the original GUYS AND DOLLS, the movie version of it, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS…I mean, I can’t believe that he has not been honored in the way he deserved to be. Yeah, I loved him. He was a great guy and he was the kind of guy who would say to you (imitated his voice), “Oh, I don’t want that done, please” – he was so modest. And he shunned the limelight. Maybe that was why.
TCM: One of my favorite directors that you worked with – Anthony Mann – had moved into big budget films at the time you made THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE with him. Your chapter on the making of that film was fascinating and would make a great film as well. But I was curious, since he was fired from SPARTACUS a few years before that, if you felt he had gotten in over his head with directing these epics? Having worked with him closely, do you feel it was harder for him to manage these big productions or that his style had changed from his earlier, more intimate noirs and westerns?
CP: Well I loved working with him and don’t think so at all. I think THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE was wonderfully directed. It looked wonderful, it moved well. The only problem with THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE was that the script wasn’t very good. It was badly written because there was a huge conglomerate of writers on it that had come out of every hole in the wall. I don’t know how they managed to stay in one room – one cigarette smoke filled room – as they all penned with very mundane script with a huge and wonderful cast. A terrific director. And I thought EL CID was an absolutely wonderful epic. That had classic porportions to it in its simplicity. No, I don’t think so at all. I think Anthony Mann was a very, very unsung versatile director who could do the epic drama as equally well as he did film noir and westerns. He was good at all three. And you know the funny thing is he was one of the few Hollywood directors that I’ve ever met who adored the theatre because he started in the theatre.
TCM: I didn’t realize that. As a director or actor?
CP: I think as an actor. But I didn’t mention that in my book because I wasn’t sure if he was a director or an actor but I do know that he started in the theatre as a young man.
TCM: I’m going to jump ahead to something more recent, your performance as “60 Minutes” Reporter Mike Wallace in THE INSIDER. Was that intimidating to play someone who is still quite active and visible in their profession and would probably see your performance?
CP: Well, it was kind of dangerous and I like danger because, you know, I think you have to go in where angels fear to tread. And I met Michael and have even been interviewed by him. And I watched him when I was a youngster…and he was barely a youngster too then…as the angry young man of television. So I didn’t have to do much research because I remembered very well how his voice sounded…and how he attacked everybody and was an extraordinary, probing commentator. No, that was wonderfully challenging and greatly helped I was by Michael Mann [the director] who kept me from imitating him. He insisted that I put some of my own personality into the Mike Wallace character which is correct..because otherwise that’s just a simple imitation of the man and that’s cheap. So he guided me very well though that and I admired him. And of course my friendship began with Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, both of whom I admire enormously. It goes without saying about Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, who is probably the most talented leading man that Hollywood has had in a long time.
TCM: In 2005 both you and your daughter Amanda were both nominated for Emmy awards in separate television productions. Have you ever worked together on stage or in film or have any plans to?
CP: No, we never have and I do want to very much. One avoided it for a while because it looked like we were pushing the family. You know, “Oh yes, I’ll team up with my daughter and I’ll get my grandmother to play all the other parts.” So we avoided it and I think there is a sort of shyness about being related that can sometimes interfere with your work or with your freedom in your work. But now I think I would love to and there are a couple of plays that I am very much thinking about doing with her. Because I admire her enormously. She’s a very original talent. She’s extraordinary.
TCM: There’s a little independent film you made in Canada in 1978 that I’m quite fond of called THE SILENT PARTNER with Elliott Gould and Susannah York. You are very frightening in that film. At the time I saw it, it seemed like Canada was developing into a very active filmmaking location with lots of directors like David Cronenberg and Darryl Duke emerging.
CP: Yes, The Canadian film industry was beginning. It started mostly in Montreal and the French film industry had started even before that in Montreal – the French-Canadian film industry – and they’d done some wonderful local movies which were shown in several French speaking countries such as France for example. And several of them were prize winning movies but then the English followed suit. I starred in an earlier Montreal movie, THE PYX, which I did with Karen Black. That was sort of the beginning of this new resurgence in English filmmaking. Then THE SILENT PARTNER came along several years later with Darryl Duke directing. He was a very talented director. And that script was written by our friend who is now a very big Hollywood director – Curtis Hanson. He was a very young guy then and had written a script – a really fascinating script. My wife’s idea was to put me in a Chanel dress in the last scene – that was Elaine’s idea – and I took it to Darryl and he said, “Oh, god, I don’t think our friend the writer is going to like that” but he said, “I love it” and finally I think we won both of them over. It did work. It was a great idea.
TCM: I’m curious if you’ve ever had the desire to direct after so many years of film and stage experience?
CP: I’ve sort of collaborated on some of the television productions I’ve done particularly one-man shows such as Nabokov…Vladimir Nabokov, a wonderful writer. I did a one-man show on him [Nabokov on Kafka, 1989) for television which I loved doing because he was such a fascinating creature. So I've directed a little bit and directed on stage but I would rather go on being an actor. The agony of being a movie director - I don't envy them. I really don't because they spend at least two years of their lives and unless you're a hugely popular director with final cut and there are very few now that have that. You work hard and put your life into it and what happens? Some committee comes along and changes it all, particularly in the movies. And I think my god, I'm not going to do that. By the time this guy's in his third year of being cut by a committee, I've made 25 plays as an actor. I mean I can work so much harder and quicker. So I modestly remain an actor.
TCM: In terms of your current projects, is the new Terry Gilliam film, THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS completed yet?
CP: No, he's waiting for all sorts of insurance problems to be cleared because of Heath Ledger's death. And although Heath Ledger was replaced by three actors as you know - Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell - which is terrific replacing, my god. There are still some monetary problems over insurance. Otherwise, it's almost ready to be released. And poor Terry has gone through torture.
TCM: He seems to go through torture on all of this movies.
CP: Oh, I know and I adore Terry because he has such a wild, wild imagination. And I keep saying to him, you know, it's so much easier Terry if you just scrap the movie and make the documentary.
TCM: That's what they did about his La Mancha film.
CP: That's right....which I loved that documentary. It was just wonderful. So that's coming out this year. And I just finished a movie with Helen Mirren who I adore about Tolstoy and his wife [THE LAST STATION]..and a very good script by Michael Hoffman which we made in Germany last winter and spring. That should be coming out soon and I’m looking forward to that because I think there was some depth in that and some fun. And the Tolstoys have not been written about that very much on the screen as a family. Order the television serial.
TCM: I noticed you have another new project on your slate, a film version of Shaw’s CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA.
CP: Yes, we did it this summer up in Stratford, Canada with a wonderful young Black actress named Nikki James who looks sixteen..just the age that Shaw imagined her to be in his play and we’re going to bring it to New York which we’re trying to negotiate right now. It’s a very funny play and a very timely one too. The references to the Egyptian takeover brings a response from the audience. You can hear them thinking “ah ha Iraq” which immediately springs to mind.
TCM: One last question: In terms of all the great Broadway and theatre actors you’ve known and worked with, is there one that you’d love to introduce to somebody who knew nothing about the theatre? Or more than one?
CP: Yes, it can’t be one. It started in France because I grew up watching French cinema and French theatre and we got a lot of French theatre in Montreal you know that came over from Paris and our own French theatre. I would say one of the most exciting French actors was Pierre Brasseur. He did the most extraordinary work. If you saw him as Keen, he just electrified the house. They all had the grand manner of the theatre which you don’t see anymore. And he was also marvelous in – you remember his performance in LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS [Children of Paradise]? He played the great ham actor Frederick Lemaitre and wiped the floor with everybody. He was so funny. That sort of acting I would say influenced me greatly. Of course, Laurence Olivier. When one was young one was influenced by him. Wonderful way with Shakespeare. He made it so attractive as well as Shakespearian. And He made it attractive for the world so Shakespeare was given a huge resurgiance by his movie HENRY V. He influenced a huge generation of actors which I was one. And soon you get to kick the habit and become your own master. Even beefy old Donald Wolfit was a great King Lear. I mean I saw him on the stage and he was extraordinary. When I played King Lear many, many years later I’m afraid I stole some things from Donald Wolfit. I thought “Oh boy, I didn’t do him justice” but he was wonderful too. The people I would have loved to have seen were Laurette Taylor who I understand from everyone who worked with her that I knew was the greatest actress that America ever produced. She was so real when she came on that you thought she was giving a documentary performance. You’d thought she’d come in straight off the street. She was that real that Anthony Ross who played the gentleman caller in Tennessee Williams original productio of THE GLASS MENAGERIE of which Laurette Taylor starred in told me that on the stage she would suddenly turn to you and say something by Tennessee Williams but say it with such reality that you thought she was speaking to you in confidence.
TCM: I wish we had more time to talk but I know you have another interview scheduled with NPR coming up so thank you again for your time and I hope your book is a huge success. It’s full of wonderful and amazing stories and the people you’ve known and worked with! Just remarkable.
Interview conducted by Jeff Stafford
IN SPITE OF MYSELF is available in all major bookstores now.
Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.
Actors Alfred Hitchcock Bela Lugosi Bette Davis Blu-Ray Boris Karloff Buster Keaton Cary Grant Charlie Chaplin Citizen Kane Comedy Dracula DVD Elizabeth Taylor Film Film Noir FilmStruck Frankenstein Fritz Lang Hammer Films Hammer Horror Horror horror films Horror Movies Humphrey Bogart James Bond James Cagney Joan Crawford John Ford John Huston John Wayne Joseph Losey MGM Movie movies Night of the Living Dead Orson Welles Peter Lorre Psycho Roger Corman Screwball Comedy Steve McQueen The Exorcist Warner Archive Westerns