Christopher Plummer, Oldest Oscar Winner in His 80s, Dies at 91
(Bloomberg) -- Christopher Plummer, the Canadian actor who won awards for performances on stage and screen during a career that spanned six decades, has died. He was 91.
He died Friday morning at his home in Connecticut, according to the Associated Press, citing Lou Pitt, Plummer’s longtime friend and manager. No cause was given.
Plummer won two Tony awards on Broadway and was nominated five other times for performances in productions ranging from Shakespearean drama to Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land.”
In 2012, at 82, he became the oldest winner of an Academy Award for acting, taking home the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in “Beginners,” about a man who comes out as gay late in life. It was his second Oscar nomination, and his only win, in more than 40 years of acting.
“I have a confession to make: When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was already rehearsing my academy thank-you speech,” he said upon receiving his award.
The oldest person to win an Academy Award in any competitive category is James Ivory, who at age 89 earned the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for 2017’s “Call Me By Your Name.”
As an accomplished actor, Plummer was irked that the public and journalists alike persisted in identifying him as Captain von Trapp from the 1965 film “The Sound of Music”, which he believed “borders on mawkishness,” as he told NPR in 2007.
He acted in more than 125 films, with roles as diverse as newsman Mike Wallace in “The Insider” (1999), psychiatrist Dr. Rosen in “A Beautiful Mind” (2001) and the hero’s evil uncle in “Nicholas Nickleby” (2002).
In 1982, as Iago in “Othello” on Broadway, Plummer offered “possibly the best single performance to have originated on this continent in our time,” wrote New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr.
‘Sure to Stun’
Twenty years later, Times critic Ben Brantley said Plummer gave “the performance of a lifetime” as Shakespeare’s King Lear. In creating “a portrait for the ages,” Brantley said, Plummer is “sure to stun even longtime admirers.”
Plummer honed his art over the decades. He acted in plays by Shakespeare as well as modern masters such as Pinter on stages in the U.S., Canada and London.
Handsome, well-read and blessed with a voice that he could turn in an instant from warm and charming to cold and forbidding, Plummer played piano concertos with classical orchestras, and jazz in homes or bar rooms. From the 1950s, he and actor buddies Jason Robards Jr., Richard Harris and Richard Burton spent many a convivial night and early morning holding forth in New York saloons.
Hamlet With Hangover
“Drinkers were men,” he recalled. “If you could get through ‘Hamlet’ the next day with a hangover, that made you more of a man.”
In his memoir, “In Spite of Myself,” Plummer said he began drinking “at an embarrassingly early age” because it was a national sport in Canada.
Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born on Dec. 13, 1929, in Toronto and grew up in Montreal. His parents, the former Isabella Abbott and John Plummer, divorced while he was an infant. His great-grandfather was John Abbott, Canada’s first native-born prime minister, Plummer said.
He boasted of knowing “every cranny” in his great-grandfather’s castle-like home on a sprawling estate, though by the 1930s the family’s fortunes had declined and they were “down to one gardener who doubled as chauffeur, butler and everything else,” he said in his memoir.
His mother took her young son to plays, opera and ballet. Plummer spoke French and English in Montreal, and took piano lessons until he discovered left-hand harmonies on his own. “Why take lessons when I could pick it all up by ear?” he said.
While playing piano for fellow pupils in Montreal High School, Plummer was shoved aside a few times by an older student called Oscar who “played some pretty mean jazz, as well as classical,” he said.
Oscar Peterson soon became a friend, taking Plummer to hear the school’s trumpet player, Maynard Ferguson, who would gain worldwide fame as a jazz artist, as would Peterson.
Plummer skipped college after getting good reviews in high-school theater roles. At 17, while acting in Ottawa, he heard from his father for the first time. Though they met, “it was all too late and we both knew it,” Plummer said.
He worked in radio in Toronto, joined a theater troupe in Bermuda and toured the U.S. with Edward Everett Horton, Fred Astaire’s comic foil in films.
In the early 1950s, Plummer landed in New York and in live television -- appearing in “Studio One” and dozens of dramas in TV’s so-called Golden Era. It was like summer stock with cameras, said Plummer, and the constant chaos taught him to improvise: He once entered a scene through a fireplace when he couldn’t find the right door backstage.
Plummer’s Broadway debut in 1954 came in a play that closed after the first night. His next one lasted three weeks. He won a Theater World Award in 1955 for “The Dark Is Light Enough” and his first Tony nomination for best actor in 1959 in Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.”
By then, he was married to actress Tammy Grimes. The couple, who later divorced, were the parents of actress Amanda Plummer.
“I was a lousy husband and even worse father,” he said.
In 1962, Plummer married Patricia Lewis, a U.K. columnist who had written a “more than flattering” piece on him when he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. They divorced in 1967.
He married Elaine Taylor in 1970, living with her in London and then in Connecticut for more than 30 years. Plummer said his wife stopped his boozing lifestyle. He dedicated his memoir to her and their four dogs.
Plummer played Mark Antony in the first American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, appearing with Jack Palance and Raymond Massey, among others.
On TV, he acted in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” directed by and starring Jose Ferrer. Plummer took mental notes of the star role, earning his first Tony in 1974 when he played the part of Cyrano. His second Tony came two decades later when he starred in the title role of “Barrymore.”
More Than Money
Stage acting proved satisfying to Plummer, though movies and TV had their own rewards. Money wasn’t his only motive, he said.
In 1966, while making a movie (“Triple Cross”) in Paris about a World War II double agent, he was offered a role as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in another war film being shot in France, “The Night of the Generals.”
Rather than accept a token amount for two days’ work portraying Rommel’s death, Plummer took a car as payment -- a Rolls-Royce, one of many flashy cars he drove in his lifetime.
Long after “The Sound of Music” became the world’s top-grossing film musical, Plummer said he was forced by friends to watch the movie. To his surprise, he realized it was “warm, touching, joyous and absolutely timeless,” he wrote, in short a “terrific movie.”
Plummer had stayed at Salzburg’s Hotel Bristol while filming and closed the bar almost nightly, in real life acting unlike the disciplined, authoritarian Captain von Trapp he portrayed.
In retrospect, he had been “a pampered, arrogant, young bastard, spoiled by too many great theater roles,” he wrote in his memoir. “My behavior was unconscionable.”
He credited director Robert Wise and actress Julie Andrews in particular for the film’s success, praising her constant good cheer and “inexhaustible energy” on the set. Their friendship was the best thing to come out of the movie for him, he said.
“I’m grateful to the film, but it’s not my favorite.”
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