Prince of players
Christopher Plummer, great and small
It was by all accounts a very proper upbringing. The boy wore striped ties and blue blazers. He was careful not to put his elbows on the table at mealtimes. He was encouraged to play the piano, but not too loudly; mere noise was not considered seemly. Christopher Plummer went to church on Sundays and spoke in sentences and was taught to observe the niceties of civilized discourse. He called his mother “Mother.”
On the grass court out behind the old wooden house, on the 11-acre estate his grandfather had owned, he would stand at the baseline in white flannels and hit tennis balls with athletic precision. Afterward, tea would be served in the parlor and, to an assembly of aunts and visitors invited for the occasion, he would recite an extract from Shakespeare or Dickens, reciting long portions of the text from memory, his delivery sure and mellifluous, the words shaped into cadences of arresting rhythm. He stood straight and he was handsome and there was music in his voice. At 10, he seemed old enough to be 15; at 15, he might have been 20. He had no childhood.
In what passed for his youth, his mother took him to plays and concerts. He had no brothers, no sisters and in lieu of friends he had aunts—Aunt Phyllis, Aunt Ruth, Aunt Betty (his mother’s sisters); his great Aunt Harriet; his grandmother, Molly Abbott— Mrs. John Abbott—daughter-in-law of the former prime minister, and of course his mother, Isabella (Belle) Mary Abbott Plummer, who had been named for his great-great-great grandmother. The antecedents were all very proper.
All of them, six women and one boy, spent their summers in the great old house
in Senneville, 20 miles and a century removed from Montreal, on the shore of the Lake of Two Mountains. Next door, some distance away, lived the Todds, who occasionally came to tea on Sunday afternoons. The Todds were avowed atheists and did not go to church, but they nonetheless thought it proper to enquire of the morning’s devotions.
“And how was the service?” one of the Todd girls would ask.
“Well,” answered Christopher Plummer, “the sermon was rather long.”
“Now, Christopher,” said Aunt Ruth, abruptly, “don’t criticize.”
“That’s right, Christopher,” added Aunt Betty, “you mustn’t criticize.”
“No,” said Aunt Phyllis, “one mustn’t criticize.”
During the 1960s, the Windsor Hotel in Stratford, Ontario, was owned by a young Jewish couple. From time to time, the wife’s mother would come to visit, a wizened old baba, who spoke with a strong Yiddish accent. During one of her stays, Christopher Plummer came in for breakfast. It was the morning after a performance at the Festival Theatre and he was unshaven and rather shabbily dressed.
“Oy vayz meer,” muttered the mother. “Vould you look at dat. How can a poyson valk around dat vay? It’s a disgrace.” “Mama, mama,” her daughter whispered. “Don’t you know who that is? That’s Christopher Plummer.”
“Carpenter, plumber—vot difference does it make? A poyson shouldn’t valk around like dat.”
Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer will be 48 years old next month. He has been acting professionally for 30 years. He has appeared in virtually every classical stage play, starred in some two dozen odd (some might say very odd) motion pictures, from Oedipus The King to The Return Of The Pink Panther, and has worked under the greatest directors of the English-speaking theatre (Guthrie, Kazan and Langham among them). From London’s West End to Broadway, he has been hailed as the next Olivier, the next Gielgud, the next Barrymore. Such comparisons are not frequently invoked these days, but he is still regarded—both by those who are his friends and by those who decidedly are not—as one of the finest actors of his generation. Indeed, that Christopher Plummer is a gifted artist is probably the only observation of his character likely to inspire any degree of unanimity in the world of the theatre.
Plummer’s talent for the stage was (and remains) totally natural. He simply had it, just as he had blue eyes and thin lips. Like other actors, he studied voice and movement, but these were merely embellishments to an already extensive wardrobe, accessories after the fact.
From his first major performance on the stage, the Montreal High School produc-
tion of Pride And Prejudice, Plummer’s presence in the theatre, any theatre, was charismatic. He could stand downstage, stock still, absolutely silent and every eye in the house would be riveted on him. He had a way of engendering uncertainty, suspense—not only among his fellow actors, who despised him for it, but among the audience, who loved him. He was unpredictable. He was bizarre. One never knew precisely what he would do next. Once, during a performance of King John at Stratford, a man in the front row doggedly followed the play’s progress in a text he had brought along for the occasion. This behavior annoyed Plummer, as it did the entire company, the more so since the playgoer
turned his pages noisily and did not even have the courtesy to look up during pauses in a soliloquy. At an opportune moment, Plummer wandered over to the reader, carefully removed the book from his hands, held it aloft for all to see and summarily flung it down the gangway. The audience applauded.
Even in the most ordinary roles, Plummer disdained the conventional approach. During rehearsals he would toy with interpretations, becoming one day a fop, one day a romantic lover, always seeking an access route that had not been tried before, some variation in the phrasing, some alternation of the traditional formula. Sometimes, he would not make his discovery until opening night, when the raised voices in the dressing rooms and the expectant murmurs out front somehow charged his emotional circuitry, and he would give a performance that would overwhelm the audience, awe the critics and anger his colleagues, who had never seen this interpretation in rehearsal and did not know how to react.
His continuing quest for the inventive reading gave Plummer a reputation for selfishness on the stage. “He was a bastard to work with,” says actor Douglas Campbell.“Not at all generous.He rehearsed for himself, in a very introverted way. He never let himself become part of the company, never believed that anybody else could help him, that we might have known a thing or two about the theatre as well.”
Plummer was quite aware of his critics, but not much influenced by what they had to say. “I know I have a reputation as being slightly difficult. But my difficulty was with myself, really, with the fact that I was always intent on being perfect. And so when I saw a lack of dedication or inefficiency or laziness, I could not help but express my impatience.” Yet there were times when Plummer would act with great magnanimity toward his fellow actors and submit himself to directorial requests without challenge. He was just a marvel of inconsistency.
He was no less an enigma off the stage. At parties, he would play the piano—he could play anything by ear, from Scott Joplin ragtime to Rachmaninoff concertos— and tell wonderful stories, and then someone would say or do something with which he disagreed, some trivial remark or silly behavior, and he would unleash a stream of invective at the offender that would silence the party and sometimes end it.
Theatre publicists lived in dread of him. On at least one occasion, he spat at a photographer during photo call. Journalists would turn up for prearranged interviews and Plummer would tell them to take the interview, fold it five ways and insert it in a place where no light shines. Sometimes his language was more direct. Conversely, he might sit down, relax with a drink, and regale a writer for hours with anecdotes of the theatre, behaving with such extraordinary good manners as to persuade his lis-
tener he was Prince Charming himself.
That was the mystery of the man. He carried a beveled edge. He could be Jeckyl one moment, Hyde the next, and one was never quite sure which he would be or when. Or why. He was a demon with a vein of docility. He was a seraph with black wings.
Earlier this fall, Christopher Plummer came to Toronto, the city of his birth, to make a movie with Elliott Gould and Susannah York. On the evening of his arrival he met with Darryl Duke, the film’s director, in a suite at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. The two men talked about the movie, in which Plummer played a transvestite bank
robber, and compared notes about how much each of them hated Toronto, how smug and parochial the city remained, even after the liberating Sixties.
Plummer hated Toronto for a number of reasons, not least of which was that he associated the city with his father, John Plummer, a man he had seen only a handful of times in his life. Not much is known or remembered about the marriage of John Plummer to Isabella Abbott. Certainly, the union was not a happy one, for within a year of her son’s birth on Friday, December 13, 1929, Belle Plummer had left her husband, and returned to Montreal and the cloistered propriety of the Abbott
clan. She wintered in a house on Pine Avenue and sent her son to Montreal High School, instructing his teachers to keep an eye out for a suspicious looking gentleman in the schoolyard.
Plummer was a dismal student. He wrote beautiful compositions, but could not spell or punctuate. He had not a glimmer of interest in math or science and found the discipline of study altogether repellant. In fact, Plummer failed grade 11 twice. “I already knew what I was going to do,” Plummer remembers. “I mean, I just knew what I was going to do.”
It was not difficult to understand why. The stage was a kind of playground for Plummer, an arena in which he could act out all the frustrations of his stultifying childhood. He would turn up late for rehearsals, if he turned up at all. He used other people’s makeup, stood on his head in the wings, muttered unscripted asides and was occasionally found in the bushes outside the theatre with a nubile young dancer. He was admonished, but always forgiven; he could act better than anyone else.
At 18, after a brief, unsuccessful attempt to crack Broadway, Plummer joined the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa and saw his father for the first time in 16 years. “He just appeared one day. I was acting in a play, The Passing Of The Third Floor Back, and the stage manager told me that my father was out front and wanted to see me. I was quite nervous. I think I looked older than he did. It must have been awkward for him too. But it was a little late to become friends.” Ten years ago, John Plummer went to Stratford to watch his son perform. Father and son have not met or spoken since. Plummer went from Ottawa to Montreal to Toronto to Bermuda to New York. By the age of 25 he was the toast of Broadway, playing Jason to Judith Anderson’s Medea. He was Brando with style, he was the new Olivier. He was Christopher Plummer.
Actress Tammy Grimes: “I got off a motorcycle one day in New York; it must have been 1955. As I was walking up the street I saw the theatre marquee of a play I wanted to see. So I bought a ticket and went in and sat down and a man appeared on the stage and it was Christopher. And it was like the blade of a knife catching the sun. And I thought ‘There is the man I’m going to marry.’
“Don Harron introduced us. Christopher and I lived together for two years, were married for three. We had a daughter. Christopher wanted to name her after all the queens of England, but in the end we named her Amanda, after the heroine in Private Lives.
“It was a marvelous marriage, but I don’t know that it was a happy marriage. He was very extravagant and bought me beautiful presents. He sent me cookbooks, pleading with me to learn to cook. I made
one dish very well: sole amandine; he had it until the amandine was coming out of his ears.
“He came into my life as a bit of a Svengali. No one, with the exception of Noel Coward, ever made such an impression on me. He was the first man 1 fell in love with. I have his child. I have no other children. 1 wish that I did.
“My happiest memory? Well, no one reads Winnie-The-Pooh quite like Christopher Plummer. I used to say he was the greatest actor in the world. Now 1 think the important thing is not to come in second.
“His temperament was the color of dark burgundy. He had a lot of darkness in him.
He was a cynic, a fallen idealist. He doesn’t give much of his inner self away, to anyone; but then maybe he doesn’t know himself well enough to give it away.
“Je ne regrette rien ... I regret nothing. “He used to call me Bubi.”
During his marriage to Tammy Grimes and later to Patricia Lewis, Plummer drank heavily. Drinking was more fashionable then, almost de rigueur among leading actors, and it was not uncommon for him to proceed from the theatre to a party and from the party to an all-night bar, finally greeting the morning through a haze of vodka or scotch.
Plummer’s trenchant wit sometimes
turned venomous when he drank. However, he held his liquor well and friends remember that about three or four in the morning he would glance at his watch and mentally compute the number of hours until curtain time, the number of hours left to sleep off the effects of the alcohol and appear at the theatre a veritable model of sobriety. He was never drunk on stage.
But as the years passed and his marriages failed, Plummer seemed to drink more. His face became bloated with whiskey. He developed phlebitis in his leg. He was warned by doctors that if he continued drinking, he would not only jeopardize his career, but his life.
The advice did not register all at once and with best friend Jason Robards, a more serious drinker still, he spent many nights and mornings he no longer remembers. And a few that he does. Once, Plummer and Robards were drinking at Frankie and Johnnie’s in New York. As they drank, their conversation grew increasingly louder, arousing the ire of a lonely drunk at the bar.
“Won’t you just look at his long hair,” the man said derisively of Plummer. “I'll bet he’s one of those fag actors. Can’t you fag actors shuddup once in a while?”
The insults continued for some time. Plummer was then carrying a magnificent ebony cane, a gift from his second wife; inside it, was a narrow but very sharp sword. At last, provoked beyond patience, he turned to the drunk at the bar and exclaimed, with heroic if drunken gallantry, “I say to you. sir, cease and desist.” He unsheathed his sword and with theatrical flourish whipped it in the direction of his abuser. Unfortunately, the man was seated closer than Plummer had gauged and the sword’s edge nicked an artery in his neck; the wound bled profusely. The victim was enraged.
“Do you know that there is a law in New York City that prohibits the carrying of visible arms? Do you know it, sir?”
Plummer did not know it.
“Well, 1 know it. It is the Sullivan law and 1 know it because I am a lawyer and 1 intend to sue you for every penny you have.”
The injury was less serious than it first appeared and the restaurant management was able to dissuade him from pressing charges. Plummer never carried the sword cane again.
Had he sued, the lawyer would have found that the actor had fewer pennies than he might have imagined, for Plummer always spent money faster than he earned it and indeed spent itjust as lavishly when he did not have it to spend. Always well-dressed, he had a closet full of suits and shoes, purchased on credit from an expensive Montreal tailor. Arriving in Stratford one summer, he received a fat envelope in the mail. As Plummer himself delighted in telling it: “I opened it to find a thick wad of clippings, reviews of my Broadway performances. The critics had
been generous to me. A short note from my tailor was attached. ‘Glad to see you’re doing so well, Chris. Maybe now you’d like to settle your account.’ ” Though he left debts everywhere and borrowed money shamelessly, he always repaid it.
Money had no moral connotation for Plummer. It was simply a unit of transaction and it did not seem reasonable to him that he stop ordering bottles of Dom Perignon or not buy a camel hair coat just because he did not have enough units in his pocket. If he did not have them now, he would have them later. If he did not have them later—who bothered to think so far ahead?
When he lived in London during the Sixties, he bought a vast townhouse in the elegant South Kensington district and refurbished it top to bottom, importing oak and marble from Italy, and expensive antiques from France. He hired a chauffeur and bought a 500-acre vacation estate in the south of France, 45 minutes from Cannes. He spent money as though he was America’s number one box office attraction. In fact, his career was near bottom.
His private life in that decade also struck a kind of nadir. In 1961. Plummer was interviewed by a Daily Express cultural reporter named Patricia Lewis. He dated her and soon started living with her. A year
later, en route home from a late party, just in front of the statue of Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace, Patricia Lewis lost control of the car and crashed into a light standard.
Plummer, thrown from the car, was unhurt. Lewis suffered multiple fractures to the head and limbs, a clot on the brain, and hovered near death for two weeks. It is said that Plummer willed life into her, compelled her to survive.
Appearing as Henry II in Becket, one of his major achievements in the theatre, he had a telephone line installed in his dressing room to connect him to the hospital. Surgeons removed the blood clot, and patched her face together. Her physical recovery took six months. Then Plummer married her.
They drank heavily and fought bitterly. He was often away, making movies on the continent, doing plays on Broadway, going to bullfights in Madrid. To finance his extravagances, Plummer began to pay more attention to his film career. He once earned $300,000 for not appearing a movie.
The producers of Doctor Dolittle were anxious to sign Rex Harrison for the lead. Harrison wanted to be handsomely compensated for taking the risk of being typecast in light musical roles and demanded a ridiculous sum of money. The producers responded by flying Plummer down to the Caribbean and signing him for $300,000 with the usual exit clauses on both sides of the agreement. When Harrison’s agents heard the news, their asking price fell a long way in a short time. Plummer was released. Harrison was signed.
Plummer made far less money for films he did make, notably The Sound Of Music. of which he did not have a share of receipts. Among friends, he referred to it as The Sound of Mucous. Generally, despite his unqualified success on the stage, he never managed to become a bona fide film star.
But he kept at it, and in time the mannerisms that had served him so well on the stage and so badly in his early films began to disappear. He turned his music into monotones, subdued his reactions and by the mid-Seventies had developed a distinctive film style. His very persistence at a craft he once held in contempt seemed a mark of his maturity. Directors and producers might still find him difficult (one film crew became so annoyed at his antics that it walked off the set, leaving him utterly alone), but there was no mistaking the shift in Plummer’s perspective. Something had changed.
Her name was Elaine Taylor. They met on the set of a film. Lock Up Your Daughters. He was 37; she was 21. Her father was a silversmith; her mother a Cockney showgirl. She made the best curried chicken this side of New Delhi. She had an eye for tasteful decor. She had red hair.
In time she persuaded him to sell his palace of a house in South Kensington. She
fired the chauffeur. She urged him to give up hard liquor and he did. She was wellread, well-tailored, well-spoken. She was beautiful.
They took a boat to Montreal and were married in 1970, by the same priest who had married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
He put his estate in France up for sale. He got his tennis game back in shape. He bought an old carriage house in Connecticut, 10 feet from the edge of Long Island Sound,and began a four-year project to refurbish it. He made spicy salads and light sorbets. “I’m still as neurotic as I ever was,” he insists. “But Elaine is a godsend. She saved my life. I’m not looking any more.” He read Winnie-The-Pooh to her.
At 48, the blue eyes have softened into grey and there is evidence of hair loss. He has started wearing glasses. But he still walks with unhurried grace, still puts his sentences together as though he were reading from A Tale Of Two Cities, still dresses as though he stepped out of the pages of Gentlemen ’s Quarterly. He talks with relish of going back to the stage. He talks of hav-
Some things, of course, would never change. He would always be an aristocrat, irked by inconvenience, annoyed by impropriety. He would smoke Schimmelpenninck cigars and prefer Pouilly Fumé to Pouilly Fuisse. But the cleaner light of middle age afforded a better view of the handsome facade and, occasionally, of what lay beyond it. Everywhere he went, old friends and associates remarked on the change. “Now this third wife,” they would say, “she seems to have straightened him out.”
And so she had. On the day before he left Toronto, after lunch at the Park Plaza Christopher Plummer had coffee at a nearby women’s club, where his wife holds an honorary membership, and then politely excused himself from the conversation. He had spent six weeks shooting a motion picture and wanted to say goodbye to the cast and crew. It seemed the proper thing to do. Ç/