Christopher Plummer: The Last Great Leading Man

Christopher Plummer: The Last Great Leading Man

Christopher Plummer is playing Prospero at Stratford, and although he’s 80 years old, he wants you to know this isn’t his swan song 

Act your age: Plummer at the opening night of Stratford’s As You Like It in June. “Learning great roles really helps your memory when you’re old,” he says (Image: Christopher Wahl) 

At the Oscars last March, Christopher Plummer waited for Penélope Cruz, up on the glittery stage, to open the big white envelope. He was nominated in the best supporting actor category—his first nomination after appearing in nearly 120 movies over a six-decade-long career. He’d played an elderly, crazily bearded Tolstoy opposite his long-time friend Helen Mirren in The Last Station. He is 80, and although his face is drawn, he still projects the look he did at 35, when he portrayed Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music, a face that seemed to be saying of the feel-good family show unfolding around him, “Can you believe this shit?”

Cruz announced the award would go to Christoph Waltz, the Austrian actor who played the ruthless SS colonel in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Though Plummer smiled the requisite smile when the camera flashed on him, that face still retained its imperious mien. So Oscar voters preferred Nazi scum to a literary lion. Plummer was philosophical about the loss—a nomination at 80 was something. Most of his old acting comrades were dead. At least he was here, a survivor from another age—a coup, given how hard he’d lived his first 40 years.

See a slideshow of Christopher Plummer’s life and times »

Lately he’s worked with the fever of a man facing an immutable deadline. In addition to The Last Station, he was the voice of the villainous Charles Muntz in last year’s animated hit Up; he lent heft to the director Terry Gilliam’s latest, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus; and he’s just wrapped an indie family drama, Mike Mills’s Beginners, in which he plays Ewan McGregor’s father.

A month after the Oscars, I met Plummer in New York at the famous oak-panelled bar of the Algonquin Hotel, an old haunt of his, to talk to him about his next role. He wore a resplendent camel blazer and a festively striped shirt, every inch the archetypal grand old man of the stage. He was a few weeks away from beginning rehearsals for The Tempest at the Stratford Festival. Playing Prospero—a deposed duke who uses his magical powers to take revenge on his enemies and manipulate his beloved daughter—is considered one of the greatest challenges in theatre and often the cap to long, illustrious careers.

Plummer will arrive (as he always does) at the first rehearsal with his lines memorized. His preparations also have him thinking of his age. “The thing about learning all these great roles—it really does help your memory when you’re old like I am,” he told me. “The terror of losing your memory—I don’t think there’s anything more terrifying in life.” He’s been mulling over some of his lines and is casually rewriting where he sees fit. “There are some awful ones,” he said, “that sound like some bad French-Canadian English.”

He is the star of Stratford this year, no question—his is the face on all the brochures. Sales to the Shakespeare plays are up 27 per cent compared to last season. He’ll appear four times a week for the duration—that’s almost 50 performances. It’s a long play (five acts, as much as two and a half hours), and Prospero is onstage for most of it. It’s difficult and exhausting. “I detest the life of the theatre—Jesus, the energy it takes,” he says. “But there’s nothing like that immediate response. I need assurance as a person; I need the audience’s affection.”

Playing Prospero is also a test. Although he doesn’t want this to be his swan song, he does want to do the definitive Prospero—nothing less will satisfy him. He’s hoping to bring this Tempest to London or New York, having taken the King Lear he did at Stratford in 2002 to the Lincoln Center, where he garnered rave reviews. Plummer portrayed Lear as the victim of a stroke. “I made him slur his speech,” he says, “and this sort of monster patriarch gradually gets shorter and shorter.” His performance wasn’t as full of grand gestures as the late William Hutt’s last Lear—Plummer is a subtle actor, a minimalist—but his monarch had more authority.

We have accepted him as a cardinal and king, as Caesar and CEO throughout his career because he has that impossible-to-counterfeit belief in himself that certain people have. He’s a top dog, not an underdog. “I’ve never understood why critics go on about majesty,” Plummer tells me. “ ‘So-and-so had an air of majesty when he played Lear.’ It’s not something you can put on.” You either have it or you don’t. And Christopher Plummer has it.

With Hutt’s death, Plummer now stands alone as the male actor who most embodies the spirit and tradition of Stratford. His career has taken him to England, the U.S., Russia, France, Morocco and Spain, but throughout, Stratford has remained his pole star. He took each of his three wives there, christened his only child, Amanda, in a Stratford church. (She played Joan of Arc in The Lark at Stratford in 2005.) He knows the Festival Theatre as well as anyone. His rituals are to pace nervously an hour before his opening night performance and to use the backstage peephole each evening to survey the audience before making his entrance.

It’s hard to believe now, but his relationship with the festival almost didn’t happen. Although he’d racked up considerable stage experience by the early 1950s, including some major work in New York, he wasn’t asked to become part of the first Stratford season in 1954, because, as Plummer remembers it, he was branded “a womanizer, a libertine, a drunk, totally irresponsible, undisciplined, a black influence on any company.” None of this was totally off the mark. He’d almost lost an early job with a touring company because of an epic binge. He was, he admits, a skirt chaser of the first order, but so what? Worse was his tendency to treat fellow actors as competitors for the limelight. Never­theless, when Michael Langham took over the festival in 1956, he decided to take a chance on Plummer, casting him in Henry V. Langham takes credit for putting Plummer on track. “Chris became a star, a major leading actor in the classical theatre at Stratford,” he says on the phone from his home in England. “Chris has a natural comic gift, which we used later in Much Ado About Nothing. He’s also always had a readiness to experiment.”

Plummer tends to return to Stratford to cleanse his artistic palate after playing a Klingon lord or a spy

When Plummer first appeared at the festival, plays were still being put on in a big-top tent. He once demanded that a train stop blowing its whistle because it kept spoiling one of his speeches, and the railway complied. He was the Henry V Stratford chose to take to the Edinburgh Festival in the ’50s (where Mary, the Princess Royal, came backstage to show him the correct way to wear the king’s ceremonial garter). At Stratford, he’s played Macbeth, Mercutio, Benedick, Hamlet and Cyrano, as well as Lear. He did a one-man show portraying his childhood idol, John Barrymore—which the producer Garth Drabinsky took to New York, winning Plummer one of his two Tonys.

Over the decades, the festival reached out to Plummer whenever it wanted to reconnect with the international theatre world, of which he was a leading member. For his part, he has tended to come back to cleanse his artistic palate after doing TV or movie schlock: a Klingon lord in Star Trek VI, or a season of playing a spymaster on the campy (but lucrative) television series Counterstrike, or, say, to put behind him a certain musical film—he’s been known to refer to the movie that made him famous as The Sound of Mucus.

From the start, Stratford has gone through nativist and internationalist phases. The big West End stars Alec Guinness and Irene Worth were brought in for the first season to make an occasion of it and to set the artistic bar. And later world-class players like Maggie Smith would be invited to put the repertory company to the test, as well as get bums in seats. Between 1994 and 2007, under artistic director Richard Monette, the priority was on promoting actors from within the company. Certain standouts emerged—Seana McKenna, Lucy Peacock and Peter Donaldson, to name three—but there was also an artistically mediocre, excessively commercial feeling to many seasons (Monette controversially made musicals a regular presence on the Festival stage). When the Royal Shakespeare Company decided to put on all of Shakespeare’s works in 2006, it invited companies from around the world to visit, but not Stratford.

Des McAnuff, Stratford’s current artistic director, was hired in 2006 as one of three ADs who were to put the Shakespeare back in Stratford. But his two colleagues walked, the recession hit, and this year he’s programmed three crowd-pleasing musicals and the kid-friendly Peter Pan. His populism shouldn’t be surprising: McAnuff is one of the world’s leading proponents of the jukebox musical—he helped create The Who’s Tommy and Jersey Boys—and he staged a bravura version of West Side Story at Stratford last year. When it comes to classical theatre, for artistic as well as fiscal reasons, he likes to cast Broadway-calibre names (he directed Plummer in 2008 in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and is directing him again this year in The Tempest). His strategy seems to be working: the festival, like Plummer, has new life.

If it’s true that actors use the dramas of their personal lives for inspiration, Plummer will never run out of material. After his inaugural Stratford season, he set up house with his first wife, the actor and cabaret singer Tammy Grimes, in Greenwich Village. Theirs was a good-time relationship, and the impetus for the marriage (formalized in a friend’s enormous castle in Colorado) was the baby on the way, Amanda. Plummer walked out on Grimes during her labour to go get drunk. “Coward that I am, I’m afraid I couldn’t take any more and left,” he says.

Grimes and Plummer grew apart, and she kicked him out within a couple of years. The child of an absentee father himself—his parents split when he was very young—Plummer would never play the paternal role to Amanda.

Like Plummer, Prospero is a character who wrestles with many demons, some of his own creation

After Grimes started seeing someone else, Plummer began dating Henry Fonda’s statuesque ex, Susan, squiring her to the era’s power restaurant, Orsini’s. They dined with two of its power couples: his best friend, Jason Robards, with the sultry Lauren Bacall; and Laurence Olivier with Joan Plowright, the less glamorous but more level-headed replacement for Vivien Leigh as Olivier’s leading lady. These were the circles in which he moved. He took tea with Katharine Hepburn at her house on East 49th Street (“Meeting her is like being hit by a warm sirocco,” he once said). His Don Bevan caricature went up at Sardi’s (“You want to sit near it, but not too near it”). He went to parties at Gloria Vanderbilt’s apartment and was regaled by Truman Capote’s stories of the old South, while assorted men fell for Marilyn Monroe, and Leonard Bernstein played the piano—with his left foot.

Shortly after his split from Grimes, he put New York behind him and spent the bulk of the ’60s in England. Although he did some good work there—getting plum roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company (opposite the likes of Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave and Peter O’Toole) and winning the London Evening Standard Award for his performance in Jean Anouilh’s Becket—these were not his glory days.

Plummer began to see an entertainment journalist, Patricia Lewis, and on one of their early dates, she smashed up her little Triumph convertible in front of Buckingham Palace, with Plummer in the passenger seat. She shattered her jaw, got a blood clot on her brain and fell into a coma—it didn’t look like she’d live. A lesser man might have (after a decent interval) exited, but Plummer was stalwart, and when she recovered, her hair not yet grown in, her jaw not fully healed, he married her. Again, the marriage didn’t last.

One good thing did come out of the decade based on the other side of the Atlantic. On a forgettable film shoot in Ireland after the breakdown of his second marriage, he met Elaine Taylor, the woman everyone, including Plummer, credits with saving him from his own worst excesses. She dropped her middling acting and dancing career—she’d danced in the corps of the London Festival Ballet and appeared in the Bond film Casino Royale and alongside Bette Davis in The Anniversary—to be with him and is the one person who can make the genial old cynic choke up. They’ve been together for 40 years. They own a mansion in Weston, Connecticut, and generally travel together for his work. She is his de facto personal manager, making sure he gets to his appointments, watching his diet, monitoring how much wine he drinks—she got him off the hard stuff—and answering e-mails for him. “What did she ever do to deserve me?” he says. “She’s so beautiful, she could have wed a king. Instead, she married a ham.”

A few days into his seven-week rehearsal period for The Tempest, I visited Plummer in Stratford. He was in a grumpy mood, perhaps because of the intensity of those rehearsals. He’d strained his back and blamed the theatre’s concrete floors. “You’d think they’d have done something about those by now,” he said.

We ran into Taylor in a hall of the Festival Theatre, and she volunteered to get her husband’s things from an upstairs office where he’d left them. “I’m not utterly feeble,” he complained pathetically, but he knew his back was shot and accepted her offer. Plummer and his wife have been installed by the festival in a house in Stratford. In off hours, she serves him gourmet meals. “She can cook a French dinner that tastes like a French dinner but isn’t fattening,” he says. “For a while, I had a spare tire, which wasn’t good.” Or they go to their favourite haunts, Rundles and Bijou. Plummer is used to the best of everything. He wears Turnbull and Asser shirts and bespoke Savile Row suits, and once owned a garnet-and-black Rolls-Royce Corniche.

Our meeting took place in the members’ lounge of the Festival Theatre. He looked at his watch conspicuously several times, and the interview was as choppy as our first was smooth. Something of the imperious Baron von Trapp persona appeared when he mockingly dismissed a question about what he learned while acting for the Royal Shakespeare Company. There’s still a danger to Plummer, a do‑not-cross-this-line.

He’ll need some of this for Prospero—particularly for the character’s vengeful moments early in the play. “The man is a magician,” Plummer says of the character. “Someone hit the nail on the head when they called The Tempest a great deal of poetry and a lot of machinery. We need to see the magic.” It’s a showy interpretation he’s delivering on the Stratford stage. McAnuff has brought in the renowned American set designer Robert Brill and costume designer Paul Tazewell. Special effects stud the production, and a magic coach taught the cast tricks.

One of McAnuff’s objectives at the festival is to make casts less lily-white than they were under Monette. “When you have school groups coming from Markham or Brampton,” he says, “they should see something reflective of today’s Canada on the stage.” The new actors he’s recruited have been uniformly adept—most notably, the black New York actor Nikki James, who gave an excellent performance as Cleopatra opposite Plummer. The obvious chemistry between Plummer and James was what made the production of Caesar and Cleopatra so memorable—and justified McAnuff’s seemingly odd decision to invade the turf of the Shaw Festival. “We had the same relationship off the stage as on,” James says. “He was my mentor. I was frightened of him at first, but we began to work well together, and then he insisted that I take equal bows with him, which he didn’t have to do. Every night before the show he’d pop by my dressing room just to see how I was doing—every night. I don’t think that’s normal for bigger stars.”

James was supposed to play Ariel to his Prospero this year but withdrew because of an illness in her family. Plummer is happy with her replacement, though: Julyana Soelistyo, another American with some Broadway on her résumé. “She’s half-Indonesian and half-Chinese, which is a wild mixture,” he says. “She’s tiny, unbelievably cute, and she’s going to be extraordinary.”

Like Plummer, Prospero is a character who wrestles with many demons, some of his own creation. He spends much of the play seeking revenge on a world that has mistreated him. Only belatedly does he find some peace and wisdom.

When I ask if Plummer still feels he has any demons left to conquer, he forgets the twinge in his back and becomes expansive. “Oh God, life would be so dull without any of them left,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m still as insecure as ever. That’s why you’re on the stage, still. That’s why you’re throwing this wounded creature that you are in front of the public.”

See a slideshow of Christopher Plummer’s life and times