Actor. Gentleman. Scientist. Vampire Hunter. Time Lord. Detective. Imperial Badass.
“The most professional actor I have ever worked with. He’s highly regarded all over the world as a brilliant actor, and deservedly so. If they knew what we got up to on the set in every film we’ve made… the imitations that I used to do, the dances that he used to do… ” – Christopher Lee.
There is one reason why horror movies no longer appeal to me. They are certainly a barren and soulless place without the late great Peter Cushing (1913-1994). Best remembered for producing the definitive versions of Baron Frankenstein and Van Helsing for Hammer horror films, he was an actor of exceptional range and skill.
Before he made his indelible mark on the horror genre, he had appeared in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and had leading roles in a string of TV adaptations including Pride and Prejudice, The Winslow Boy, and most notably in the live dramatisation of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is the latter production which inspired the producer Michael Carreras to invite him to to star in the film destined to change his life forever…
In 1957, he appeared in Curse of Frankenstein, playing the notorious scientist totally different to the pained and remorseful character envisaged by Mary Shelley. Cushing’s Baron Frank was a cruel and cunning piece of work, who is prepared to push a visiting professor to his death just to get a head. The monster was played by fellow horror maestro: Christopher Lee. It not only marked the establishment of a formidable partnership, but a lifelong friendship.
Its stupendous success led to another interpretation of an infamous gothic character the following year. Dracula (1958) certainly gave the opportunity for Lee to create a career-defining performance, but in Van Helsing, Cushing was calm and collected, sensitive yet determined, and ultimately presented an admirable adversary. It’s amazing to consider now how energetic both roles were: the gripping climax in which Van Helsing runs the length of a banqueting table, tears down the curtains and lunges at a sunstruck Dracula with two silver candlesticks pressed together to form a crucifix is said to have deen devised by Cushing himself!
“When he did Sherlock Holmes, he went to a very famous teacher of the violin so that he knew how to hold it… When he was making The Mummy, he went to the hospital and and sat in with operations. He was very meticulous…” – Joyce Broughton (his secretary).
Peter Cushing could adapt to any role. In 1959, he played Sherlock Holmes in Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Directed by Terence Fisher, many Holmes afficianados consider Cushing’s detective as the definitive article.
In 1965, the success of BBC’s Doctor Who led perhaps inevitably to the big screen. In order to maximise transatlantic appeal, Cushing was cast in place of William Hartnell, playing the Time Lord as an endearing grandfatherly figure in Dr Who and the Daleks. Its phenomenal success led to a sequel: Daleks’ Invasion of Earth: 2150 AD. (1966).
Other distinctive roles included: The Mummy (1959), and H. Rider Haggard’s She (1965). In an attempt to emulate hammer’s success, Amicus Productions joined the horror bandwagon, involving Cushing’s invaluable services. Some of the most notable films included: Dr Terror’s House 0f Horrors (1964) in which he dealt tarot cards foretelling the fate of passengers on a train; and The Creeping Flesh (1972) whereby a horrific skeleton from the jungles of Borneo “will be resurrected when the gods shall weep.”
“The boots they gave me [to wear as Grand Moff Tarkin] were far too small. I said to George: ‘…whenever possible, could you please shoot me from the waist up?’ He very kindly agreed… I was really wearing carpet slippers. That is why Moff Tarkin was so hostile… his feet were killing him” – Peter Cushing.
The passing of his beloved wife Helen in 1971 devastated him. In subsequent years, he made movies of a distinctly lesser quality; this was a concerted attempt to keep his mind occupied as he adjusted awkwardly to a crushing existence of loneliness.
In one of his more entertaining roles, he appeared as a delightfully daffy professer in At The Earth’s Core (1976), alongside trusty fantasy stalwarts: Doug McClure (“a very dear chap”) and Caroline Munro (“so sweet”). Absolutely hilarious, he was gifted with such dialogue as: “A rhamphorynchus! In this day in age! How extraordinary!”
Maybe George Lucas was a Hammer fan? This would help explain Cushing’s appearance in the original Star Wars (1977) as Grand Moff Tarkin: a brief, yet deliciously malevolent turn. No other actor could lace the phrase: “You may fire when ready” with such bloodcurdling doom!
Nevertheless, in real life, Peter Cushing was a kind and gentle fellow, always approachable, and never said a harsh word about anyone. Although honoured with an OBE in 1989, Peter Cushing never won any movie accolades; yet surely he has topped most horrorfans’ and movie-goers’ polls and – as new generations discover the various gems of his amazing career – he will continue to do so.
Perhaps the last words should be left to the maestro himself:
“The tremendous affection that people shower upon me, and the interest they take in my work, touches me so deeply…
“To think that young people are still interested enough in me to write about me and see my pictures is pretty marvellous!”