Christopher Plummer, possibly the greatest actor alive, cheerfully acknowledges that he long ago wearied of talking about “The Sound of Music,” the 1965 musical that made him a movie star. But he’s too gracious to make people stop bringing it up.
“Of course I am sick of ‘The Sound of Music,’ but it is inevitable people will ask about it,” Plummer says by phone from his winter home in Palm Beach, Fla. “And they have to. The gory truth is it’s probably the most famous thing I’ve done. I don’t think Clark Gable enjoyed very much being thought of as Rhett Butler, but you have to bear your cross.”
The whole story, including how Plummer, already a radio, TV and theater star in 1965, “behaved appallingly” on the set of “The Sound of Music,” is just one of the rich anecdotes in his autobiography, “In Spite of Myself.”
Widely reviewed when it came out in the fall, the book is already among the very best Hollywood memoirs, alongside David Niven’s “The Moon’s a Balloon,” Lauren Bacall’s “By Myself,” or Errol Flynn’s “My Wicked, Wicked Ways.”
“I was terribly surprised by the reviews,” says Plummer, who wrote without benefit of a ghostwriter. “I was pleased I was taken somewhat seriously as a writer. It flatters me to no end. I’d love to be able to write well.”
Plummer has known almost everyone in theater and movies since the late 1940s - from Judith Anderson and Tyrone Power to George C. Scott and Peter Falk to Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and Heath Ledger - and he fills the book with dish. “There’s a lot of naughty stuff,” he says with undisguised delight.
“I’ve always had a good memory,” says Plummer, 79. “I can still learn reams of dialogue. I never kept a diary, which would be rather embarrassing and cut into one’s drinking time. I said, how am I going to remember? But I didn’t find it difficult at all.
“Just say the words ‘Peter O’Toole’ and you have five stories right off the bat. That’s why I love the book. It brought back all these wonderful, colorful friends. If I’d known a lot of distinguished and dull people I don’t know what I would have done.”
Beautifully written in what is instantly recognizable as Plummer’s voice, “In Spite of Myself” is, he says, a romance. “It’s my fairy story, if you know what I mean. A series of stories and adventures from an incurably romantic life. And when it hasn’t been a true romance, I’ve tried to create it.”
Despite his towering stature, Plummer opens the book with the line, “I was brought up by an Airedale,” and the caption beneath of a photo of himself as an unsmiling boy in a jacket and tie reads, “Me as a repulsive youth of indeterminate age.”
“One has to strike a humorous tone if you try to write your own life,” Plummer says. “You have to be as self-deprecating as possible.”
Born in Montreal in 1929, Plummer grew up in a distinguished family. His mother’s branch - “the Scottish side,” he calls them - can trace its lineage to 563 A.D. His family helped found McGill University, and provided business leaders, a chief justice, a mayor of Montreal, and Canada’s first native-born prime minister, Sir John Caldwell Abbott.
But Plummer’s parents divorced when he was young, and the family lost its money - an experience he calls “incredibly valuable.”
“How awful it would be to be soft all your life,” Plummer says. “I would not have found the anger to be an artist of some kind had I not seen a change of fortune. I learned a lot about my family’s character. They treated their demise with no self-pity. There was something rather touching and Chekhovian about it.”
Plummer writes frankly about his drinking, although he stopped in early midlife when his third wife, the actress Elaine Taylor, threatened to leave him. Yet he does not apologize for his love of booze, which he says also contributed to his art.
“Drink certainly loosened me,” Plummer says. “I was inhibited in a strange way. I liked the daredevil creature I was trying to be. I was never a melancholy drunk, though I’m told I was quite obnoxious. I drank for fun and release. And we had fun. By the time I met my present wife, I was overdoing it. And I looked ghastly.”
Surveying his film career - Plummer has been in more than 100 movies, from “Stage Struck” in 1958 to “The Last Station,” due out this year, in which he plays Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy - he can name a few favorite roles. One came in “The Insider” (1999), an intense true story of a tobacco company whistleblower betrayed by CBS and “60 Minutes.” He played TV newsman Mike Wallace with verve and verisimilitude.
“It was one of the better roles,” Plummer says. “My fellow artists - Al Pacino and Russell Crowe and the director Michael Mann - were superb.”
Another favorite is 1975’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” directed by John Huston and starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Plummer plays writer Rudyard Kipling, on whose short story the movie is based.
“I did take a special pleasure in Kipling,” says Plummer, who has revered the writer since childhood. “That was a beautiful script that Huston and Gladys Hill had written. The truest to Kipling of any movie I’ve seen. All the others are gung-ho and all that, but this one had a true Kipling original atmosphere to it.”
When it comes to his stage work, Plummer cannot name a favorite. Nominated for seven Tony Awards, he’s won twice: for “Cyrano” (1974) and “Barrymore” (1997). The notoriously harsh theater critic John Simon once called him “the greatest actor in the English language.”
Although Plummer has lived in the United States most of his adult life - his permanent home is Connecticut - he retains his Canadian citizenship.
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