We’ve seen so much of Christopher Plummer in recent years, playing Dickensian villains, Spike Lee schemers and menacing political operators, it’s as if Hollywood suddenly discovered the man’s secret.
“Villains, pirates, cheats, that’s the real me, you see,” he says with a hearty laugh. “Captain Von Trapp may be my most famous role, but he’s a goody-two-shoes side of me that no one, friends, wives, has been able to find. No matter how hard they look.”
Plummer is 50 years and some 150 films and TV shows into a screen career that’s a decade younger than an even more storied one on the stage. But only now has he truly escaped from the role that defined him for so long, his place in that beloved musical that he half-jokingly nicknamed “S & M”: “The Sound of Music.” And only now has he “mellowed” about playing the handsome but prickly Capt. Von Trapp in the 1965 film.
“I’ve never disliked the movie,” he says from his home in Connecticut. “I just found my own role in it rather boring and disappointing. I resented, very much, being remembered for that and not all of the other more worthwhile things that I did before.
“But that’s life. You can’t fight city hall. Or Rodgers & Hammerstein. Still, even at my darkest ‘S & M’ moments, I am grateful to it for putting bodies in the seats for whatever I do in the theater. “
Plummer, who turns 79 Saturday, still has stories to tell, and not just on stage and screen. His new backstage memoir, “In Spite of Myself” (Alfred A. Knopf), is winning great praise for its candor and wit, “a rich, ribald, old-fashioned name-dropper,” Entertainment Weekly called it. The actor recalls being fired by the great stage actress Katherine Cornell, being overweight and prone to tantrums (“pampered” and “arrogant”) while filming “The Sound of Music,” the funny debacle of filming “Waterloo” with Russians, the challenge of “The Man Who Would Be King” with Connery, Caine and John Huston.
“I’ve spent my life remembering lines, and that memory training helps a great deal. As I went back and recalled say, Kate Reid, for example, a great actress who became a great friend of mine, I’d think of Kate and about 20 other stories would pop into my head. The anecdotes snowball ...
“My family trained me to love poetry, to appreciate its cadence and rhythm. I learned Shakespeare that way, so by the time it came to playing the roles, I was ahead. I could go back to any Shakespeare role I’ve played and it wouldn’t take long at all to recall the lines, even now.”
He just finished a triumphant “Caesar and Cleoptra” in Stratford, Ontario, with hopes of taking that to Broadway. And before that, he’d finished two films, “the latest of them about the Tolstoys, with Helen Mirren as the Missus and me as Leo in the last years of their rather stormy marriage. A good script we shot in Germany, and I found it fascinating, because while we know ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina,’ there’s so little about Tolstoy the man that people know, even less that’s been about him on the screen. I was keen on putting on that long beard, which took hours. I’m hoping that film has a future.”
As for him, the future couldn’t be brighter. Finally landing the right smattering of Hollywood movies and roles in indie films, Plummer is now most concerned with imparting some sense of the vanished world he came up in, a world of greasepaint “now all but gone.”
“I’m terribly lucky to have grown up in that era, of touring shows and summer stock, rubbing shoulders with legends,” Plummer says. “If you want to get into acting, you might want to know what it once was. I thought I’d write about that world, because personalities like that just don’t come along anymore.”