Christopher Plummer: In Spite of Myself
Globe and Mail
Saturday October 11, 2008
Christopher Plummer @ IMDB
Christopher Plummer's Quebec boyhood included genteel family get-togethers, pretty debutantes and repeat appearances by at least one inebriated visitor.
Teatime, daily at 5, was a splendid affair – the women bustling, the food plentiful. Hot buttered crumpets by the fire, scones, tomato and cucumber sandwiches, two cakes, one with icing, one without, and always gingerbread.
… There was always a scattering of flappers about and numerous lounge lizards doing very little of anything and, of course the usual “piranha fish” and attendant eccentrics. One such was a very posh-looking colonel, who paid the occasional abortive visit to my grandmother's house – I don't know quite why as he never uttered. One day, he arrived in immaculate blazer and white flannels; he was only in his late 40s but already boasted a “companion,” who took him by the hand and literally pulled him toward the house where we were all waiting to greet him. It took almost five minutes to get him from the car to the front door (a distance of several feet only) as my grandmother advanced and held out her hand for him to shake. The colonel extended his very slowly and then suddenly with a great deal of warmth and vigour shook the doorknob instead! An explosion erupted inside me and got strangled somewhere in my throat as my grandmother wheeled on me and hissed – “Behave yourself at once! Don't you realize that Uncle Fred is blind?!”
“Blind? Blind drunk, you mean!” I thought as a waft of dragon breath from Uncle Fred hit my mother and me at one and the same time, which sent us reeling into the next room, where, collapsing on separate sofas, we buried our faces in the cushions to silence our uncontrollable hysteria!
Acclaimed actor Christopher Plummer.
Several years later I had a mad crush on Uncle Fred's 18-year-old daughter. It happened at her “coming out” dance. The average age that evening was from 16 to 19. Suddenly the doors were flung open and Uncle Fred, this time in white tie and tails, was being pulled in by yet another “companion” who led him to the centre of the dance floor, where she promptly deserted him. Very red in the face, he rocked back and forth on his pins and gazed lustfully at the fair young maidens around him with a leer that would have made Humbert Humbert look like a choirboy, and then, without warning, plunged forward onto the dance floor flat on his face! That was the last I ever saw of Uncle Fred. To this day, I don't believe he ever got up! A t a run-through of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth , Geraldine Page wows Helen Hayes, Lillian Hellman and Ruth Gordon – but not the playwright himself.
After we had opened [Archibald MacLeish's play] J.B., [Elia] Kazan began rehearsals for Tennessee Williams's new play Sweet Bird of Youth. Just before their out-of-town opening they held their last full run-through without costumes at the New Amsterdam Roof. Gadge [Kazan's nickname] invited our entire cast. Also in attendance that afternoon were most of theatre's top brass – the usual suspects – Josh Logan, Helen Hayes, the Lunts, Lee Strasberg, Cheryl Crawford, Lillian Hellman, Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin, etc., etc. Not a large group but mighty potent. Gadge got up and announced that they would have to wait to begin because Tennessee had not yet arrived. “Tennessee, as you know, has his own rhythm,” he quipped, not without edge.
Finally it began. The exceptional cast included Paul Newman, Rip Torn, Sidney Blackmer, my Montreal friend Madeleine Sherwood and, of course, Geraldine Page in the leading role of Princess. They were each in his or her own right first class, but that afternoon belonged to Geraldine, for before our lucky eyes we were watching her, for the first time, discover her own performance. Gerry was flying! God knows Tennessee was a marvellous writer and there was fine writing in this, but Gerry lifted the whole thing to another level – she was transcendent! When it was over you could hear a pin drop – we were not just transfixed; we had been seduced.
Gradually we pulled ourselves together and began to shuffle out. No one spoke. Just then from the balcony in that rasping voice of his, Tennessee started shouting. I couldn't quite make out his gist but it seemed to convey that we had all just witnessed the total destruction of Sweet Bird of Youth, and it was all Gerry's fault. Gerry was the sole culprit. “She's ruined mah play! She's ruined mah play,” he kept yelling. He must be drunk, I thought, or ill. No one seemed to take much notice, or pretended not to, and as Gadge passed me in the aisle I tugged at his sleeve.
“What's the matter with Tennessee?” I asked. “My God! It's been such a glorious afternoon.”
“Oh, don't worry,” Gadge replied, “she's just taken his play away from him. It's hers now – it doesn't belong to him any more and he knows it.”
In the early 1960s, Plummer finesses his own British invasion, thanks to Peter O'Toole's Saharan immersion.
I shall always be grateful to Peter O'Toole for ditching the Royal Shakespeare Company in favour of a camel on the Sahara Desert. He was to have played King Henry that year, but now, bless his heart, he was playing Lawrence [of Arabia] and so Henry was mine! The London premiere of Becket at the Aldwych in the Strand proved the success of the season and my Henry is probably one of the best things I've ever done. With the help of Eric Porter, who splendidly partnered me as Becket, Peter Hall's free and sweeping production and a cast that represented the very finest in British acting, my modest invasion of the Sceptred Isle was at last justified. I won London's Evening Standard Award for Best Actor of the Year. (“Big Van” [Vanessa Redgrave] won best actress.) I was in damn good company!
… I loved Becket. It is still one of my favourite plays. Fictitious in most respects, it remains, however, a witty and passionate story of an extraordinary relationship between two demigods who, in their separate ways, ruled a great part of the medieval world. As many scenes take place on horseback, the use of hobbyhorses fully caparisoned, controlled by ourselves the actors wearing built-up boot-like hooves hidden under our robes, was an inspired piece of imagination and served to give the evening much added theatricality and panache. In the film, made some years later in which O'Toole marvellously reclaimed his role of Henry, it was, of course, necessary to use real horses so that much of the story's originality and style went by the wayside.
… All sorts of celebrated people came backstage to compliment me: the Oliviers, the Nivens, Ralph Richardson, even Donald Wolfit, who had finally got himself a ticket. I now felt most welcome in England. One night a rather posh group had assembled in my dressing room when suddenly O'Toole himself burst in. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I thought you were in the desert.”
“I have a week off from the bloody camels. They made me ride the buggers bareback.” As he said this, he proceeded in front of the speechless, po-faced group, to pull down his pants and show us his ass. It was absolutely raw and riddled with welts. “Look at this,” he screamed. “It's all your fault, you colonial prick. You're playing my part and this is the thanks I get!” The horrified little posse quickly dispersed and Peter and I went to the nearest pub and got pie-eyed.
In the late 1950s, Plummer enjoyed hanging out – and rearranging furniture – with buddies Jason Robards, Jason Robards Sr. (“an old naval salt,” as Plummer remembers him, who got dubbed “the Admiral”) and Max Helpmann.
Running out of things to do in the brief spare time there was, our dreaded little quartet (the Admiral, the Commander, the Captain and me – the ship's doctor) had arrived at a dead impasse. We needed new inspiration; we craved new blood. We found both in a young man called Peter Hale who was playing small parts that season and doubling as an assistant stage manager. We at once detected great promise in the youth. He had a completely natural and unaffected penchant for deviltry, a real down 'n' dirty glint in his eye and a talent for improvising wickedness that was prodigious in the extreme. Because he was ASM on The Winter's Tale we christened him “Winters Hale.” Winters boasted a large two-wheel motorbike which could fit three, so two of the “fraternity” would take turns and jump on behind Winters as he madly drove that devil bike through the black night in search of trouble.
The latest sport we had invented was to visit our actor friends in their rental houses or flats, complain bitterly about the quality of their furniture (“How can you expect decent men to drink amongst all this Swedish G Plan?”) and proceed to throw every chair and table out the window. This would occasion a kind of desperate and hysterical laughter from our hosts, especially when after the last piece had disappeared we followed suit and threw ourselves out. Needless to say, the Admiral did not participate in the acrobatics, he just observed, drink in hand, an expression of total satisfaction painted all over his face.
As we got more confident, these feats became all the more daring, especially when the windows were four storeys high. One of us always had to gather up the poor unfortunate who had landed on his back in a small tree or bush. We got to be quite expert, however, and Winters was clearly the most nimble for he executed it all with the dexterity of a stuntman and his timing was superb. After a while, he didn't even bother with the furniture gag any more. The moment he entered a room he simply threw himself out the window. We gave him a new nickname, “Windows Hale.”
Excerpted from In Spite of Myself: A Memoir , © 2008 by Christopher Plummer. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. The book will be in stores Tuesday (14th October)