‘Peter Cushing’ Was No One Trick Pony, As Some Might Think

I love me some Peter Cushing. Like many fans of classic horror and sci-fi movies, I stumbled upon the Hammer Horror series sometime in my teen years, and that string of excellent films is burned indelibly in my brain: Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula, The Mummy, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and many others. These films all featured the Lennon& McCartney of British horror film actors, Peter Cushing—who generally played the intellectual characters like Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes—and Christopher Lee, who tended to get saddled with the monster roles, though in some cases such as Dracula, those roles could be meaty indeed.

Ironically, my earliest onscreen encounter with Cushing—the earliest that I recall, at least—was in one of his later roles, as his career was winding down. In the original Star Wars, he plays a small but substantial role as Grand Moff Tarkin, a man who is capable of exerting a degree of control over Darth Vader. This is no small feat, and the fact that the scene is convincing rather than silly is a testament to the acting abilities of Cushing, aided considerably by his skeletally sunken cheeks and uber-precise diction.

After that encounter, my 14-year-old self began noticing Cushing in all manner of roles, but generally limited to horror flicks and garish science fiction. That Cushing’s career was anything but so limited has much more to do with my limited taste in film than any limitation in his choice of roles.

David Miller’s new book, Peter Cushing: A Life in Film will likely do much to dispel the notion that Cushing was a one-trick pony. In fact, his career spanned decades of involvement in theater, television, film and even fine art—he was an avid painter of watercolors—and roles included everything from Shakespeare to literary classics to “prestige” pictures to, yes, monster movies from Hammer.

By all accounts he was a gentle and kindhearted man, a perfectionist in his art and a hugely devoted husband. It’s a pity, then, that this biography is so devoid of the man’s presence. There’s a great deal of factual information here, as page after page chronicles film and television appearances right down to the fees paid for each performance. But there is very little here about the man behind those performances.

There’s plenty of useful information here, of course. Miller is a meticulous devotee of facts, and anyone wishing to clarify details of Cushing’s career has a valuable resource in this volume. Beginning his career with small roles in the theater, Cushing caught the eye of Laurence Olivier—not a bad eye to catch—who then cast him in his productions of plays such as Richard III and The School for Scandal. From there it was a small leap to the BBC’s weekly television plays, which were broadcast live and so amounted to stage plays performed in front of millions.

It was the BBC adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that provided Cushing with his first substantial leading role, and the reviews were positive. After that there was no looking back: movies followed, including 1955’s Alexander the Great starring Richard Burton, and 1957 cult favorite The Abominable Snowman (great movie, by the way).

Apart from the filmography, though, there’s not much depth in this book. Cushing’s early life and upbringing is summarized in two pages; in short order we move on to Cushing’s early stage career, his flirtation with Hollywood, and his return to Britain at the outbreak of World War II. Hints of family discord are touched upon—Cushing’s father disapproved of the son’s vocation—but scarcely more than a sentence or two delineates what must have been a painful struggle for the sensitive actor.

Similarly, Cushing’s famously precise enunciation is mentioned in passing as a result of a concerted effort to lose his country accent. This is potentially a fascinating window into the man’s character, but nothing more is said of it. His lifelong marriage and devotion to Helen is mentioned often, but we are told of it rather than actually witnessing it, if you will.

The book excels in photographs, both color and (mostly) black and white. There are stills from obscure Cushing appearances in such films as 1939’s Laurel and Hardy vehicle A Chump at Oxford and from many of the BBC teleplays which remain unavailable to the modern viewer. To a lesser degree there are candid shots, as well, moments of backstage relaxation or private times with Helen.

Readers wishing for an overview of Cushing’s professional career will likely be satisfied with the depth of detail contained here; the man was in hundreds of movies, or so it feels, and they are all meticulously chronicled. Those of us wishing for a bit of insight into the man himself, however, are likely to go away dissatisfied. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Cushing’s birth, and a new edition of his memoirs (originally written in two volumes in the ’80s, several years before his death) has been published (Peter Cushing: The Complete Memoirs). Miller’s book has its uses, but maybe the best place to get information on Cushing the man is from the man himself.

RATING 6 / 10