National Post (National Edition)
PLUMMER FOUND DEPTH
RISING STAR HAD SOME DIFFICULT TIMES, BUT HE MELLOWED INTO GREATNESS
`I'm not going to croak yet,” Christopher Plummer said impishly in 1999. “I'm only 70.” He was in a Beverly Hills hotel suite, supposedly there to talk about his latest film, The Insider. Yet he seemed more anxious to reassure everybody that retirement was not in the cards.
Indeed, the most astonishing thing about Plummer, who died last week at the age of 91, was how productive and fulfilling his final years would be.
His hellraising days long behind him, he would deliver an astonishing quantity of film work during his final two decades and win his first Oscar at the age of 82 for Beginners.
But perhaps the most meaningful moments for him came when he returned to the place where his fame had really begun, to the classical ranks of Canada's Stratford Festival after an absence of 35 years.
He was reticent in telling the full story behind that absence, repeatedly insisting over the years that he simply wanted to move on after the 1967 season. But he did let slip a couple of revealing statements in 1999. Remain too long with a company and you outstay your welcome, he suggested. Then more significantly: “Stay too long in Stratford and you become an alcoholic.”
Plummer was in confident control of his life and art when he made a triumphant return as an aging, doom-haunted King Lear in 2002 — signalling that, in the golden autumn of his life, he had conquered the turbulence that had hastened his earlier exit, and reasserting his stature as one of the world's great classical actors.
In a quiet interview one afternoon, he admitted it had been an emotional homecoming. Over the years, his devotion to Stratford had remained paramount. And now, this courtly 74-year-old legend was trying to explain the reason — travelling back in memory to 1956 when the festival was still operating out of a giant tent and 28-year-old Chris Plummer was experiencing the defining summer of his life on a salary of less than $100 a week.
His performance as Henry V would bring him stardom, with The New York Herald-Tribune declaring that Plummer had “established himself as the most promising classical actor on the continent today.”
“I was nervous,” Plummer was later remembering. “I'd never played such a huge role, and I had to learn an immense amount in a very short time. It actually made me, that production. Even though I'd already been on Broadway, I now went back there with my name above the title. So I owe a lot to Stratford, that year, and that regime.”
The festival entrusted him with major classical roles in the years that followed, but by 1967, he was becoming a problem. A highly touted production of Antony and Cleopatra received mixed reviews, with one critic likening Plummer's eccentric performance as Antony to Tarzan of the Apes. More ominously, many company members were fed up with his behaviour, and years later would still be ticking off the reasons: booze, arrogance, a lack of professionalism.
The disarming young Plummer of the 1950s had given way to an arrogant, hard-drinking prima donna, the kind of smartass who would take pride in disdainfully suggesting that The Sound of Music (in which he played Captain Von Trapp) be renamed The Sound of Mucus.
It was a time when Plummer's life became as self-destructive as those of favourite drinking buddies like Peter O'Toole and Robert Shaw. “I used to be a monster,” he told Maclean's magazine late in life. “In that respect, I suppose I have mellowed. It was just too exhausting to go on being a p---k.”
It was Plummer's third marriage, to former actress Elaine Taylor, that would bring him stability, endure for half a century and rescue his career. It would finally allow him to close a major gap in his life and return to the southern Ontario theatre that was his spiritual home and would welcome him back with genuine affection. Lear would be succeeded by further triumphs — Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest, Julius Caesar in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.
Still, he found an amusing irony in the fact that it was King Lear that had brought him back. It was never on the list of plays he wanted to do. “Definitely not,” he chuckled in 2002. “I avoided it like the plague. I was hoping I would croak before I had to play King Lear, or else that I would outlive it and it would pass me by.”
Instead, Lear would bring him further glory — and further insight into himself and his art. “The play is extraordinarily human,” he said in 2002. And there were tears in his eyes.
PERHAPS THE MOST MEANINGFUL MOMENTS FOR HIM CAME WHEN HE RETURNED TO THE PLACE WHERE HIS FAME HAD REALLY BEGUN.