Remembering Christopher Plummer

Christopher Plummer in 2014.

By Steve Vertlieb: Christopher Plummer was among the greatest actors of his, or any other generation of classical artists and performers. His grace, dignity, and commanding demeanor on both stage and screen commanded the respect and allegiance of both collaborators and admirers throughout his remarkable seventy-year career. His mesmerizing artistry demanded respect upon whatever theatrical stage that he chose to appear, while his remarkable appearance was often startling to behold. He was astonishingly handsome, a truly charismatic performer whose finely chiseled features belied a gift of performance that had often risen to ethereal heights. He was a gifted Shakespearean actor whose brilliance and magnetism sublimely transcended both stage and screen.

Christopher Plummer in 1959. Photo by Carl Van Vechten – Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain

A frequent guest in the early days of live television, Plummer played Mike Connor (a role played previously by James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story, and Frank Sinatra in High Society) in a 1959 production of the celebrated Phillip Barry play in which his brash reporter squires the haughty Tracy Samantha Lord, played by actress Diana Lynn. Plummer essayed the roles of “Cyrano De Bergerac” in 1962, and “Hamlet At Elsinore” in 1964 for the small screen, but his enduring celebrity would soon develop in a larger medium. The actor appeared prominently in Samuel Bronston’s 1964 epic The Fall of The Roman Empire as Commodus.

However, it was his casting as Captain Von Trapp in the superb 1965 film translation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music that brought him to international fame and recognition. Appearing opposite both Julie Andrews and revered actress Eleanor Parker, Plummer virtually stole the film in the role created by folk singer Theodore Bikel in the original Broadway production. Plummer’s deceptively understated interpretation of a deeply private aristocrat troubled by the gradual loss of old world values, while valiantly resisting the repugnant occupation of Hitler’s Nazi bullies, brought startling dignity to a now legendary screen role and performance. While Julie Andrews lit up the screen with her joyous performance as his adorable Maria, it was Plummer whose quiet dignity and strength brought the beloved motion picture to its powerful resolution and victory.

John Huston’s classic 1975 filming of The Man Who Would Be King paired Plummer with actors Sean Connery and Michael Caine. As author Rudyard Kipling, the actor once again dominated the screen in a memorable performance that easily shared screen dominance with his legendary co-stars.

In a startling change of pace, Plummer portrayed one of the most malevolent villains in modern screen history. As a chillingly deranged criminal stalking Elliott Gould in the Canadian thriller The Silent Partner in 1978, Plummer proved that his often charming persona could provide a deadly counterpoint in this remarkable film.

The aristocratic actor would have seemed the perfect choice to essay the role of Sir Arthur Conan Coyle’s legendary consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes…and so, in 1979, the actor assumed the trappings of the classic character, playing opposite James Mason as Doctor Watson, in Murder By Decree. Plummer lent considerable skill to his compassionate performance as Doyle’s singular detective in a rare, yet defining characterization in which the definitively clinical sleuth lets down his guard, allowing an emotional moment of hitherto unsuspected sensitivity and deeply human awareness.

It was in 1980 that Richard Matheson’s romantic fantasy novel Bid Time Return was turned into a deservedly revered film translation. Somewhere In Time features tender performances by leads Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour as lovers struggling to find one another across a sea of time and space, while Christopher Plummer as an autocratic martinet stands troublingly in their path. Accompanied by composer John Barry’s rapturous, cherished musical score, Plummer’s performance as William Fawcett Robinson is that of a deeply scarred, ultimately fragile remnant of an age that has, perhaps, cruelly left him behind … a wounded warrior clawing at the past in order to salvage his dignity and painfully crumbling control.

Plummer as the Klingon General Chang.

In 1991, director Nicholas Meyer delivered the final salutation to the original Star Trek cast with Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country. Featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, De Forrest Kelly, George Takei, James Doohan, and Nichelle Nichols reprising their classic roles for the final time, the “undiscovered” star of the film was, undeniably, the great Christopher Plummer chewing up the scenery in as delicious a Shakespearean performance as might be imagined. As Chang, the evil general menacing the Enterprise crew, the actor delivers a joyous tour de force with wonderful abandonment and classically trained glee, virtually stealing the film with grace, wit, and menacing charm.

As the actor matured, transitioning into roles befitting his now advancing age, he assumed a comfortable ease in which his performances became ever more flawless and beloved. Opposite actor Russell Crowe in The Insider (1999), a true story having occurred within the CBS Television News Division, Plummer delivered a superb, understated, Oscar-nominated performance as journalist Mike Wallace in what must surely have been among his most respected and beloved characterizations.

In 2001, Plummer starred in a television adaption of On Golden Pond, as the embittered elderly spirit portrayed by Henry Fonda in the long-remembered motion picture version of the award-winning play. It was a role that he would play repeatedly in one form, shape, or another in the years left to him.

Plummer won his first and only Oscar for his wonderful performance in Beginners in 2010 as a dying father not quite finished with providing unsettling surprises for his long suffering family. In 2012, in Barrymore, he played John Barrymore in a bittersweet recreation of the actor’s troubled final years.

Having reluctantly replaced actor Kevin Spacey in the role of billionaire J. Paul Getty, in All The Money In The World, Plummer gracefully essayed one of his most powerful, if villainous, Oscar-nominated portrayals as the cold, calculating oil magnate whose passion for profit eclipsed his tenuous feelings for family and loss.

Plummer once again played an alternately calculating, yet hilarious octogenarian in the hit film production of Knives Out in 2019. It would be among his final film roles.

Christopher Plummer passed away on Friday, February 5, 2021. His roles and performances, along with his near legendary grace, culture, and impeccable class, elevated this noble thespian to reverential heights of international respect and admiration.

He lent Shakespearean dignity to each of his increasingly remarkable performances, becoming the eloquent voice and virtual persona of “Hamlet” in countless screen and stage incarnations. His was the defining voice of classical performance. His loss is mourned….His legacy celebrated. He was an actor for the ages. Rest Well, Sweet Prince.