12 July, 2008

Peter Cushing

Peter Wilton Cushing was an English actor, known for his many appearances in Hammer Films, in which he played Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, amongst many other roles, often appearing opposite his close friend Christopher Lee. A familiar face on both sides of the Atlantic, he appeared in the original Star Wars film and the Doctor Who films.

Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, England, the son of Nellie Marie née King and George Edward Cushing. He was raised there and in Dulwich, South London. Cushing left his first job as a surveyor's assistant to take up a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After working in repertory theatre, he left for Hollywood in 1939, but returned in 1941 after roles in several films, one of them A Chump at Oxford (1940) appearing alongside Laurel and Hardy. His first major film part was as Osric in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948).

In the 1950s, he worked in television, most notably as Winston Smith in the BBC's 1954 adaptation of the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, scripted by Nigel Kneale. Cushing drew much praise for his performance in this production, although he always felt that his performance in the existing version of the play — it was performed twice in one week and only the second version survives in the archives — was inferior to the first. During many of his small screen performances, Cushing also starred as Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC's 1952 production of Pride and Prejudice and as King Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux in 1955. He also went to Shoreham College for 1 term

His first appearances in his two most famous roles were in Terence Fisher's films The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). Cushing will always be associated with playing Victor Frankenstein and Van Helsing in a long string of horror films produced by Hammer Horror. These provided him with 20 years of steady employment despite being of often middling quality. Although talented as an actor, he admitted that career decisions for him meant choosing roles where he knew the audience would accept him. "Who wants to see me as 'Hamlet'? Very few. But millions want to see me as Frankenstein so that's the one I do." He also said "If I played Hamlet, they'd call it a horror film."

Reportedly, he thought The Blood Beast Terror (1968) to be the worst film in which he participated. A shade under 6' tall and wiry, with a mane of increasingly iron-grey hair and an unemotional, meticulous delivery, he had an energetic onscreen presence. He often performed his own stunts.

Cushing was often cast opposite the actor Christopher Lee, with whom he became best friends. "People look at me as if I were some sort of monster, but I can't think why. In my macabre pictures, I have either been a monster-maker or a monster-destroyer, but never a monster. Actually, I'm a gentle fellow. Never harmed a fly. I love animals, and when I'm in the country I'm a keen bird-watcher," he said in an interview published in ABC Film Review in November 1964.

In the mid-1960s, he played the eccentric Dr. Who in two movies based on the television series Doctor Who. He made a conscious decision to play the part as a lovable, avuncular figure, as a conscious effort to escape from his perceived image as a "horror" actor. "I do get terribly tired with the neighborhood kids telling me 'My mum says she wouldn't want to meet you in a dark alley'." he said in an interview in 1966. He also appeared in the cult series The Avengers and then again in its successor, The New Avengers. In 1986, he played the role of Colonel William Raymond in 'Biggles'. In Space: 1999, he appeared as a Prospero-like character called Raan.

He was one of many stars to guest on The Morecambe and Wise Show — the standing joke in his case being the idea that he was never paid for his appearance. He would appear, week after week, wearily asking hosts Eric and Ernie, "Have you got my five pounds yet?" (A ludicrously low price for an artists fee, even in the 1970s). When Cushing was the subject of This Is Your Life in 1989, one of the guests was Ernie Wise ... who promptly presented him with a five pound note, but then, with typical dexterity, extorted it back from him. Peter was absolutely delighted with this, and cried: "All these years and I still haven't got my fiver!"

Cushing played Sherlock Holmes many times, starting with Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the first colour Holmes film. Cushing, who resembled classic Holmes portrayer Basil Rathbone, seemed a natural for the part, and he played the part with great fidelity to the written character -- that of a man who is not always easy to live with or be around -- which had not been done up to that point. He followed this up with a performance in 16 episodes of the BBC series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1968), of which only six episodes survive. Finally, Cushing played the detective in old age, in The Masks of Death (1984) for Channel 4.

In 1971, Cushing withdrew from the film Blood from the Mummy's Tomb when his wife died. He and actress Helen Beck had been married since 1943. The following year, he was quoted in the Radio Times as saying "Since Helen passed on I can't find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be united again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition. You have my permission to publish that... really, you know dear boy, it's all just killing time. Please say that."

Six years later, his feelings were unchanged: "When Helen passed on six years ago I lost the only joy in life that I ever wanted. She was my whole life and without her there is no meaning. I am simply killing time, so to speak, until that wonderful day when we are together again."

In his autobiography, he says he attempted suicide the night that Helen died, by running up and down stairs in the vain hope that it would induce a heart attack.

In 1986, Cushing appeared on the British TV show Jim'll Fix It. His "wish", "granted" by Jimmy Savile, was to have a strain of rose named after his late wife. Cushing's letter to the show, in copperplate handwriting, was shown, as was the identification and naming of a rose named "Helen Cushing".

In 1976, he was cast in Star Wars, which was shooting at Elstree Studios, Borehamwood, London. He appeared as one of his most recognised characters, Grand Moff Tarkin despite having originally been considered for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Cushing found accepting the role in a science fiction fantasy easy. "My criterion for accepting a role isn't based on what I would like to do. I try to consider what the audience would like to see me do and I thought kids would adore Star Wars."

Costuming difficulties resulted in an endearing piece of trivia about Star Wars. He was presented with ill-fitting riding boots for the Moff Tarkin role and they pinched his feet so much that he was given permission by George Lucas to play the role wearing his slippers. The camera operators filmed him above the knees or standing behind the table of the conference room set. Also, during filming of Star Wars, a star-struck Carrie Fisher found it hard to deliver her lines to him and seem terrified in the presence of a charming, polished man who smelled of 'linen and lavender' when in their first scene together, her character speaks of Cushing's as having a 'foul stench'.

After Star Wars, he continued appearing in films and television sporadically, as his health allowed. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer but without surgery managed to survive several years, though his health was precarious.

In 1989, Cushing was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He retired to Whitstable, where he had bought a seafront house in 1959, and continued his hobby of bird watching, and to write two autobiographies. Cushing also worked as a painter, specializing in watercolors, and wrote and illustrated a children's book of Lewis Carroll style humor, The Bois Saga.

His final professional engagement was as co-narrator of Flesh and Blood, the Hammer Heritage of Horror, produced by American writer/director Ted Newsom. As co-narrator, Cushing thus took his "last bow" with friend Christopher Lee, the BBC and Hammer Films. The narration was recorded in Canterbury near Cushing's home. The show was first broadcast in 1994, the week before Cushing's death from cancer in a Canterbury hospice, aged 81.

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