If he had known that his obituary would begin with his most famous but least-loved role, Christopher Plummer might have shaken his handsome head, said something witty (and possibly profane), and laughed it off.
Mr. Plummer – who died on Feb. 5 at the age of 91, his friend and manager Lou Pitt says – will be remembered for his many stellar stage and film roles, and for being the oldest actor to win an Oscar, but his name will always, somewhat sadly, be bound to his starring role as Captain Georg von Trapp in the film that he called “S&M.”
His portrayals of Hamlet, Lear, Barrymore and Tolstoy were celebrated and awarded, but none was seen by so many people as his role in The Sound of Music, the 1965 hit movie musical whose undying popularity mystified Mr. Plummer. “It was not destined to be one of my favourite things,” he wrote in his 2008 memoir, In Spite of Myself.
Decades after playing the stolid Capt. von Trapp, he happened to catch a screening of The Sound of Music at a child’s party, and, touched by the children’s reaction, made peace with it: “Here was I, cynical old sod that I am, being totally seduced by the damn thing – and what’s more, I felt a sudden surge of pride that I’d been a part of it.”
Mr. Plummer, bon viveur and raconteur, certainly took pride in many things: His Oscar-winning role, at age 82, in the film Beginners. His facility with contemporary and classical roles, which led director Atom Egoyan to call him “the greatest stage and screen actor that Canada ever produced.” His undying love for the theatre, which brought him back to the stage at the Stratford Festival in The Tempest when he was 79, and three years later in his one-man show A Word or Two, Before You Go.
There were other things he was not so proud of, which he wrote about in his memoir: He was a poor husband to his first two wives, and a largely absent father during his daughter Amanda’s childhood. He certainly drank too much and strayed too far. And the fact that he once got a horse and a crow drunk – well, those were stories that made up a legendary life.
Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born on Dec. 13, 1929, in Toronto, though his family were prominent anglo-Montrealers, and he would spend his formative years in that city. His great-grandfather was Sir John Abbott, Canada’s first native-born prime minister, and his great aunt was Maude Abbott, a “jolly, bustling, rotund, generous lady” who was also a pioneering heart doctor.
His mother, Isabella Abbott, would divorce his father, John Plummer, soon after his birth, but the trauma was negligible: Young Christopher, an indulged only child, spent a happy childhood playing in Sir John Abbott’s huge mansion just outside Montreal.
After his parents’ divorce, he grew up with his mother, aunts and maternal grandparents in affluent surroundings where, he later wrote, “there was always a scattering of flappers about and numerous lounge lizards doing very little of anything.”
He was made to read Keats, Balzac, Gabrielle Roy and Stephen Leacock, developing a love of books that would form the basis for his hit autobiographical play, A Word or Two, Before You Go. Two other passions, drinking and playing piano, took hold early. His mother, who loved the arts, took him to see Rachmaninoff play; at Montreal High School, he was often kicked off the piano by a talented fellow student called Oscar Peterson. Seeing what those men could do at the keyboard persuaded Mr. Plummer away from a career as a concert pianist, though he would continue to play throughout his life.
For a bohemian youngster whose future was decided when he read a biography of John Barrymore, Montreal in the 1940s was paradise. He saw Donald Wolfit play Hamlet (“quel hambone”) and, at a party, Leonard Bernstein play the piano with his feet. A capacity for drink matched his capacity for work, and when he played Oedipus at the Montreal Repertory Theatre he showed up for one performance too drunk to go on stage. He was still in his teens.
In Ottawa, he joined the Stage Society for a salary of $25 a week, and spent most of his time in Hull, which had the benefit of not being Ottawa. One day the assistant stage manager told him that a man named Mr. Plummer had come backstage to see him. It was his estranged father: “We’d never met, never even seen each other!” They had dinner together, but, as Christopher would write, “It was all too late and we both knew it. Our paths would cross once or twice again in our lifetimes and then no more – no big deal, no sweat.”
An actor could make a decent living in those days doing radio plays, and Mr. Plummer did, alongside William Shatner and John Colicos. He even deigned to live briefly in Toronto, though that cold city was “a mausoleum of morality,” so he didn’t last long.
New York proved much more to Mr. Plummer’s liking. There he would find a home playing classical and contemporary roles on the Broadway stage, in live television plays (he once accidentally made his entrance through a fireplace).
He also met his first wife, actress Tammy Grimes, with whom he had a daughter, Amanda. Among the acting community there was no shortage of drinking companions, including George C. Scott and Jason Robards (whose wife, Lauren Bacall, would phone Mr. Plummer to track her errant husband). On one storied evening that was later shrouded in myth, Mr. Plummer and Mr. Robards invited a policeman and his horse into a Manhattan bar and proceeded to get both of them drunk. The horse’s tipple was Jack Daniel’s.
The drinking would nearly cost him two wives. The first was his girlfriend, journalist Patricia Lewis, badly hurt in a late-night car accident after an evening on the town in London (she had been driving with Mr. Plummer in the passenger seat, and after she recovered, they were briefly married). The second was actress Elaine Taylor, the great love of Mr. Plummer’s life, who told him, when he asked her to marry him, to cut down on the booze. “You’re falling apart,” she said. And so he did, after a fashion: He got rid of cocktails and switched to wine instead. Mr. Plummer married Ms. Taylor in 1970, and they remained together until his death.
The other great love of his life was the stage, despite the fame and acclaim that films brought him. “I never understood Hamlet till I saw Chris’s Hamlet,” said Michael Caine, who starred alongside Mr. Plummer as Horatio in a BBC production of Shakespeare’s play. In 1982, Walter Kerr of The New York Times called Mr. Plummer’s Iago ’the best single Shakespeare performance to have originated in this continent in our time.”
Indeed, it was love of the stage that led Mr. Plummer to his most famous film performance: He would insist that he only took that celebrated role in S&M because he wanted to stage a musical version of Cyrano de Bergerac, and needed to learn to sing.
Having been cast as the humourless Captain von Trapp, Mr. Plummer proceeded to pout his way through the shooting: “My behaviour was unconscionable,” he wrote, sheepishly, in his memoir. Here he was, an award-winning theatre professional of 34, singing about flowers alongside children dressed in curtains. “I’ll admit it,” he wrote. “I was also a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theatre roles.”
But the professionalism and good humour of his co-star Julie Andrews changed his attitude (they would remain lifelong friends).
He found a patient mentor in director Robert Wise, even when Mr. Wise became horrified that Mr. Plummer’s love of schnapps and pastries caused him to bust out of his uniform: “My God,” Mr. Wise told him. “You look like Orson Welles.”
The film’s stars could not have known the cultural snowball they launched with The Sound of Music and, even if he despised it, Mr. Plummer acknowledged and even celebrated its various incarnations and anniversaries with grim good humour. Fortunately, his subsequent work on stage was celebrated enough that he could look back with magnanimity.
Although he found a happy home in the U.S. and Britain – his first British role, as Henry II in Becket, won him an Evening Standard award for best performance – Mr. Plummer had a special affinity for the Stratford Festival in Ontario. After unsuccessfully auditioning for director Tyrone Guthrie’s initial Stratford season, Mr. Plummer returned over six decades to prove that initial judgment wrong. He was a fiery Henry V, though he was briefly felled by kidney stones and upstaged by his understudy, William Shatner. Playing Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra felt particularly familiar: “The libertine, with his wenching, drinking and gourmandizing, was fairly familiar territory for me,” he later wrote. During his early summers in that sleepy Ontario town, he made a pet of a whisky-drinking crow, and turned down a lucrative film contract from Hollywood mogul David O. Selznick.
In 2011, after having played Lear and Prospero, he starred in the one-man play Barrymore, and with A Word or Two still on the horizon, Mr. Plummer was given a lifetime achievement award by Stratford: “You always feel you’re going to die the next day after you’re given a lifetime achievement,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of lifetime achievements and I’m still alive so to hell with that theory.”
This attitude – that the only proper place for an actor to pop his clogs is on stage, in the middle of a soliloquy – would mark the later part of Mr. Plummer’s life. “Nobody retires in our profession. We just go on till we drop,” Mr. Plummer told Zoomer magazine in 2015.
His film roles in particular became juicier and more illustrious after his scene-stealing turn as Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider. In 2015, Atom Egoyan directed Mr. Plummer in the twisty Holocaust revenge drama Remember, a movie in which the actor is in almost every scene.
An Oscar-nominated role as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station in 2009 was followed by the prize itself, when he won a best supporting actor Oscar in 2012 for Beginners, in which he played a man who reveals his homosexuality after the death of his wife. The 82-year-old actor, the oldest Oscar winner in history, came onstage at the Academy Awards ceremony, looked at the statuette and said, “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”
He received another Oscar nomination in the supporting actor category in 2018 for his performance as billionaire J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In the World. He accepted the role after Kevin Spacey, who was originally cast to play Getty, was accused of sexual misconduct.
Over Mr. Plummer’s long, prolific career he earned two Tonys, two Emmys and a Genie Award. He was also named a companion of the Order of Canada.
Remarkably, in 2019, the year Mr. Plummer turned 90, he appeared in no fewer than three feature films, including the hit Knives Out, and the TV series Departure. The show began production on its second season last fall, with Mr. Plummer shooting scenes from his home.
Mr. Plummer’s wife, Ms. Taylor, told The New York Times that before his death he had been preparing to star as Lear in a film directed by Des McAnuff, former artistic director of the Stratford Festival. She also said Mr. Plummer’s death was caused by a fall.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Plummer leaves his daughter, Amanda.
“As T.S. Eliot measures his life with coffee spoons, so I measure mine by the plays I’ve been in,” Mr. Plummer wrote in his 2008 autobiography, In Spite of Myself.
A ribald and often profane account of an actor’s life, the book features memorable cameos from Peter O’Toole (dropping his trousers to show off his camel-riding welts) to Orson Welles (filming in the heat of Greece, the great man offered that “Christ on his cross did not suffer as I am suffering now”).
At the end of the memoir, Mr. Plummer turned his philosophical eye on a life lived if not always well, then at least to the full. An actor to the end, he gave himself the best exit lines: “As I creep deeper into the twilight, it is not so much the fear of dying that disturbs me but the sudden awareness that I’ve just begun to live and how dreadfully I’m going to miss it all when I’m gone. If only I might linger by painting myself into the landscape so I could always see the beginning of the day.”
At the top of this obituary, you saw a mosaic of Christopher Plummer's many roles over the decades:
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