Today we are shining a spotlight on one of the most respected and revered stage and screen stars of the last several decades who is known the world over for not only his stirring and commanding dramatic performances and touching and rib-tickling comedies on film, but also for his iconic roles on the stage playing Shakespeare, performing in straight drama and also musicals - and, perhaps, beloved most of all for his essaying of Captain Von Trapp in the celebrated Robert Wise film adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Tony Award-winning THE SOUND OF MUSIC - the elegant, graceful and eminently gifted Christopher Plummer. Looking back at a career spanning nearly seven decades, today we will focus on Plummer's most important and most fondly remembered roles to date - ranging from Sidney Lumet's STAGE STRUCK in 1958 to his Shakespeare stage work, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER, TV's THE THORN BIRDS, and, of course, his Academy Award-winning turn in last year's BEGINNERS - with a look ahead to the exceptionally enticing new Fathom in-cinema presentation of Des McAnuff's Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of THE TEMPEST starring Plummer as Prospero, in movie theaters nationwide on June 14 - in what the 83-year-old actor has promised will be his final Shakespeare performance onstage. So, if there were ever a time to take a look back at one of the most remarkable Broadway/Hollywood crossover stars of the last century or the current one as he reaches yet another peak in a career populated with many highpoints, now is certainly the time! After all, as the oldest Oscar-winner to date, a midsummer night's dream has evidently quite quickly turned to a winter's tale - but with sound and fury signifying very, very much, as we will see.
More information about Fathom's in-theater presentation of THE TEMPEST is available here.
His Brave Spirit
Inspired to enter the field of acting after viewing Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Shakespeare's HENRY V, Christopher Plummer set out on the journey that would not lead him to Oscar glory until more than sixty years later with a two-year stint with the Canadian Repertory Company from 1948-1950, where he studied and performed in many of the classics of the canon - most notably, in Shakespeare's CYMBELINE. Following his time in Canada, he spent a year with the Bermuda Repertory Company and in 1953 he made his Broadway debut in THE STARCROSS STORY. While his Broadway debut was short-lived (it closed on opening night), as was his follow-up in the 30-performance quick-closer HOME IS THE HERO in 1954, by 1955 he only had to suffer one more flop - THE DARK IS LIGHT ENOUGH - before he could finally take part in a hit production on the Great White Way; and what a hit the Julie Harris revival of Anouilh's THE LARK unquestionably was (even winning Harris a Tony Award for her central role). While NIGHT OF THE AUK was another short run, Plummer then teamed with super-director Elia Kazan on the Broadway premiere of the1958 Pulitzer Prize-winning J.B., for which Plummer was nominated for a Tony Award and Kazan went on to win one along with the production itself winning Best Play. Plummer's somewhat spotty record continued insofar as the success of the shows he was associated with throughout the 60s, while his choice in roles always showed intelligence and a particular shrewdness - and, really, when is Brecht's ARTURO UI ever a hit (except perhaps with a movie star like Al Pacino in the title role)? Furthermore, a risky experimental theatre piece the likes of which Peter Shaffer's THE ROYAL HUNT OF THE SUN undoubtedly was proved to be a masterstroke in his career, for not only did Plummer win rave reviews for his stage performance, but he also succeeded co-star and stage lead David Carradine in committing the lead role of Atahualpa in the experimental theatre piece to celluloid in 1969 - making the leap, once again, from stage to screen.
Consistently surprising in his selection of parts and wholly unpredicatable in his ever-expansive exploration of many genres - both now and then - Plummer created two of his most beloved and well-remembered roles to date in musicals - one onscreen in the 1960s and one onstage in the 1970s. Many might go so far as to argue his most significant contribution of all may be the former. Indeed, what can be said about Plummer's work opposite Julie Andrews in the well-earned family film staple that is the phenomenon of THE SOUND OF MUSIC movie that has not already been said? "Edelweiss" says - and sings - it all, really. A bonafide film classic - and one of the best movie musicals ever made. Plus, to top that, Plummer took to the stage in a lead role in a musical in 1973 with the Anthony Burgess adaptation of CYRANO DE BERGERAC, titled CYRANO. Winning the Tony Award for Best Actor In A Musical, Plummer returned later that same year to Broadway playing none other than Anton Chekov in a Neil Simon adaptation/examination of Chekhovian short stories called THE GOOD DOCTOR - showing yet again his command of the role in any and all theatre works of many different styles and means. Shakespeare to Brechtian drama to experimental theatre to the classics to new musicals onstage and family-friendly tuners onscreen, the 1960s and 1970s were a particularly fertile and fruitful time for the multi-talented and ever-intriguing crossover star.
In the 1980s Christopher Plummer continued cementing his reputation, this time once and for all, as one of the finest Shakespeare interpreters of our age - perhaps, of all time - and, many would argue, the greatest Canadian Shakespeare actor ever, coming as a result of not only his career up until that point and his many solid credits, but, most of all, because of his roles in two tremendous Shakespeare productions on Broadway during that decade - in OTHELLO and MACBETH. His respective co-conspirators in those deathly dark and bristlingly bleak tragedies? None other than two of the greatest Shakespeare actors now or ever: James Earl Jones and Glenda Jackson. Sharing the stage with Jones in OTHELLO, Plummer conjured up an Iago for the ages - one of the most fascinating and complex of any Shakespeare villain, with an actor able to plump the depths - and it won him yet another Tony Award nomination for a dramatic role. His work on the West End stage - as well as many international stages - ranged from the bumbling Benedick in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING to the tyrannical title role in RICHARD III to eventually taking on the role that originally inspired him to become an actor in the first place, HENRY V, by 1981. Plummer continued his streak of co-starring with the top talents on Broadway and in Hollywood and around the world in the 1990s, as well, particularly his well-reviewed portrayal of a Pinter protagonist in NO MAN'S LAND with none other than theatre icon Jason Robards. Yet, the stage role of Plummer's career - at least the role of his stage career in the 20th century - would not arrive until just three years before the millennium.
It takes a truly great actor worth the weight of his resume to successfully play another truly great actor - especially onstage - so, for most, the idea of Christopher Plummer playing John Barrymore in BARRYMORE, a two-person play about the well-regarded American star's life and career written by William Luce in 1996, particularly pertaining to his final role in the 1920 Broadway production of RICHARD III, was not that much of a stretch. Yet, the gravitas that Plummer brought to the role would be enjoyed and experienced the world over as he toured the show throughout the end of the decade and into the new, winning him his first Tony Award for a play in the process. As he entered his sixties and seventies, Plummer continued to commit himself to remaining a stage animal first and foremost and provided 21st century audiences with a thrilling KING LEAR in 2004 and a moving Henry Drummond in INHERIT THE WIND in 2007. Jovially and eloquently exhibiting Plummer's rapscallion wit and rascally disposition, Plummer's INHERIT THE WIND co-star Benjamin Walker - who Plummer is currently re-teaming with on the new Stephen Frears film Muhammad Ali'S GREATEST FIGHT, currently in production - shared a particularly insightful and revealing anecdote about the caustic and always-on veteran when he recently participated in my InDepth InterView column. Walker recounted with a laugh, "When we were in INHERIT THE WIND, he was a great mentor - to the point where he'd even give me notes onstage." Further prompted, he relayed a telling tale, "Well, one night, in one of the big courtroom scenes where I have a big outburst and I stand up, he said to me, [Christopher Plummer Impression.] 'OK, tonight, give us some real balls!' So, I stood up and I railed at the judge and did my scene, and, then, I sat down and looked over at him and he said, 'Well, there's always tomorrow night.'"
One-night flops in obscure play revivals to sold-out runs in original musicals, Plummer has done it all on Broadway and also created a treasure trove of notable film performances as well - lest we forget his charismatic turn in the record-breaking 1970s TV miniseries super-hit THE THORN BIRDS; nor his role opposite Peter Sellers in the comedy classic THE RETURN OF THE PINK PANTHER and his Roman emperor in the swords-and-sandals epic THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Then, there are his turns in SOMEWHERE IN TIME, MALCOLM X, DOLORES CLAIBORNE, Terry Gilliam's 12 MONKEYS and Michael Mann's THE INSIDER. So, too, do we have some superb recent roles in this new century to constantly remind us why Plummer is among the best in the business, now or ever: Ron Howard's A BEAUTIFUL MIND, Spike Lee's INSIDE MAN, Oliver Stone's ALEXANDER Terrence Malick's THE NEW WORLD, and, of course, his Oscar-nominated performance as Leo Tolstroy in THE LAST STATION, not to mention his highly acclaimed BEGINNERS Oscar bid (and well-earned subsequent win).
So, now, with his role of Prospero in the 2011 Stratford Shakespeare Festival's THE TEMPEST broadcast nationwide to movie theaters for all to experience from a front row seat, Plummer returns to a play he first participated in on a professional stage nearly sixty years ago - as Ferdinand in a 1955 American Shakespeare Festival production of THE TEMPEST - and brings it all full-circle; or, out of respect for the Bard, full-orb. How far Plummer has come, yet he has evidently ended up precisely where he has always belonged - giving voice and giving life to one of Shakespeare's best roles, performing some of the most magnificent poetry ever written in a truly innovative and striking meta-media new way. In a career filled with so many fine films and so many memorable stage turns, we should expect no less from a master like Mr. Plummer.
"My brave spirit! / Who was so firm, so constant, that this coil / Would not infect his spirit?" Christopher Plummer's diligence and care in crafting a career spanning all genres and all mediums, while always retaining an air of grace, dignity and refinement while doing so - that's who.
Full Fathom Five
So, now, by way of a passage from Ariel's Song in THE TEMPEST, "Full fathom five" - let's look at the five absolute highlights of Plummer's career onstage and onscreen thus far, as recounted above.
First, here is Plummer in Des McAnuff's THE TEMPEST, opening June 14.
Now, see Plummer's film debut in Sidney Lumet's STAGE STRUCK from 1958.
Following that, here is Plummer in the title role of BARRYMORE, now a 2012 feature film.
Since no Plummer clip collection would be complete without this, here is trailer for the 2010 Blu-ray of THE SOUND OF MUSIC.
Lastly, here is the trailer for BEGINNERS, for which Plummer won a 2012 Best Featured Actor Academy Award.
Stay tuned to BroadwayWorld because next week we will be taking an even more comprehensive look at clips from Christopher Plummer's career, with a focus on his award-winning performances onstage and onscreen, as we come ever closer to THE TEMPEST in movie theaters on June 14.