Even as he lay in bed fighting the illness that would take his life, Christopher Plummer was reciting Shakespeare to himself. He was going over his lines for a planned upcoming Canadian-produced film of King Lear, his friend and collaborator Des McAnuff said on Friday.
The stage and the words of stage poets were at the heart of Plummer’s life and art from beginning to end – and, as news of his death at 91 spread, theatre artists remembered a one-of-a-kind superstar who grew up alongside Canadian theatre and set the bar high for this country’s talent.
“We’re not going to see the likes of him again,” says McAnuff, the former Stratford Festival artistic director, who was working with Plummer on the planned “legacy project” of King Lear for Toronto’s Shaftesbury. “His training is such a unique runway that led to that magnificent creature that he was.”
That runway began with an acting debut playing Mr. Darcy in a 1945 Montreal high-school production of Pride and Prejudice, which was attended by Herbert Whittaker, then the theatre critic for the Montreal Gazette, later for The Globe and Mail.
Whittaker not only raved about Plummer’s performance to his readers: He personally recommended him as an actor to the Montreal Repertory Theatre.
Both Whittaker’s review and that introduction were favours that Plummer would remember his whole life, writing in his 2008 memoir, In Spite of Myself, " While most all local ‘crits’ were busy snappin’ at our ass / Dear Uncle Herbie made us feel that we could be world class!”
Canadian theatre was not yet world-class in Plummer’s youth, merely proto-professional. And, after a time working in radio and at forgotten stock companies, his career took him abroad.
But Plummer always came back to this country, all the way to his final full-length stage performance in the autobiographical show A Word or Two, which originated at the Stratford Festival in 2012.
Though Plummer auditioned for the first season at Stratford in 1953, he made his way to Broadway before he made his debut at the Ontario festival, in Henry V in 1956. That production has become legendary, largely because a young actor named William Shatner understudied Plummer in the lead role.
Plummer’s 1957 Hamlet was next at Stratford – and significant in inspiring a new generation of stage actors in Canada, notably Martha Henry, still one of the festival’s major stars. Henry saw Plummer’s melancholy Dane on a cross-border trip, and spent the drive home trying to figure out how he had made these strange words “sound like talking.”
Antoni Cimolino, current artistic director of the Stratford Festival, says Plummer brought something fresh to Shakespeare. “He spoke the classic text as someone you know might,” he says. “In the 1940s and ’50s, there would have been a more declamatory, stylized ways of doing the work and he didn’t do that for a moment.”
Both of Plummer’s performances that went on to win Tony Awards were, notably, given to Canadian audiences first. In 1973, Plummer passed through Toronto with the musical Cyrano on its way to Broadway acclaim. In 1996, Plummer would play another legendary actor, John Barrymore, in the premiere of Barrymore at Stratford before it also moved to New York and earned him a second Tony.
“Although a brilliant film actor, he was first and foremost a man of the theatre,” said the producer David Mirvish, announcing that lights would be dimmed at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Plummer’s honour.
While there was a near three-decade gap in Plummer’s appearance at Stratford between 1967 (in Antony and Cleopatra) and Barrymore, he renewed a close relationship with the festival in the 2000s. He starred in a 2002 King Lear that went on to the Lincoln Centre in New York. And McAnuff directed Plummer as Caesar in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra in 2008, then as Prospero in The Tempest in 2010, and then as himself in A Word or Two.
In this era, Plummer’s influence on another generation of actors was direct, as he worked alongside Nikki M. James, a future Tony winner herself who was Cleopatra to his Caesar, and Trish Lindstrom, who played his daughter Miranda in The Tempest. “He made himself accessible to me from the get-go, to not only create a real bond on stage, but off stage as well,” Lindstrom recalled. “He was constantly curious. constantly connecting.”
Canadian theatre losing someone of the scope and calibre of Plummer was “unreal,” she added. “It reminds me a bit of Lady Diana’s passing. ... He reached so many not only with his talent, but his deep, deep intelligence.”
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