At 82, Christopher Plummer has just become the oldest actor to win an Academy Award. He tells John Hiscock why he is enjoying acting more than ever.
Oldest-ever Oscar winner Christopher Plummer keeps getting better
Christopher Plummer has, he says, finally come to terms with death although, at the age of 82, it seems farther away than ever.
"I used to be terribly afraid of it but I'm not any more. I just don't want it to happen because I'm having too good a time," he says with a twinkle in his eye and a deep, booming laugh. "In fact I'm having more of a good time now than I had when I was 40 or 50 and pretending that I was."
It is a wonder that Plummer, a survivor of the two-fisted drinkers school of acting that included Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Peter Finch and Albert Finney, has not only lived as long as he has but also that he looks so good. He is elegantly dressed in a navy suit, a blue-and-white pinstriped shirt and a grey tie. He has a red handkerchief tucked jauntily into his top pocket and exudes charm as he saunters into a New York hotel room for our meeting.
One of the finest stage performers of his generation, he has a commanding presence and a magnificent speaking voice that he uses to full effect as he reminisces about a long and varied career in which he rose to international stardom as Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp, the role he will always be remembered for in The Sound of Music, and then languish for decades in mostly mediocre films that were below his level of talent.
Since he became an octogenarian, Plummer has been enjoying a career resurgence in which he was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for his role as a dying Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. "When you reach my age you've got nothing else to hope for except to begin again and it's not a bad way to cheer yourself up," he says with another laugh. He has just become the oldest actor to win an Oscar, for the fact-based dramatic comedy Beginners. He portrays a father who, following the death of his wife of 45 years, comes out of the closet at the age of 75 to live a full and tumultuous life as a homosexual.
"I had more fun playing this man than I think I've ever had on screen before," he says. "I'm usually cast in some sort of weird, sinister role and this was such a relief to really relax. He had such fun in his life and I decided to just have fun with the role."
In a career spanning nearly seven decades, the Canadian-born Plummer has played most of the great classical stage roles and headlined three of world's most noted theatre companies, Britain's National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Stratford Festival in his native Canada. But he drifted into acting almost by accident. Born in Toronto into a distinguished political family - his great-grandfather was the Canadian prime minister Sir John Abbott - he had a privileged upbringing although his father divorced his mother before he was born.
"It was an old-fashioned divorce and in those days you didn't see the divorced parent and all the Christmas presents were sent back," Plummer says, laughing at the recollection. "My mother, bless her, tried to bring me up both as a father and a mother so I never knew my father. I met him when I was 18 but by then it was too late to form a relationship of any kind and then he died."
Young Christopher had a French nanny and as a 12-year-old sipped fine wines with dinner. He trained as a concert pianist, however, he says: "I started out loving it but realised it was too much hard work." He had a talent for imitating people that led to him taking part in school stage productions.
"I was so hopeless at everything else that I just fell into acting," he says, "and then I really started to love it but of course I realised it's not just mimicking people but by that time I was stuck on it."
He trained with the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa, where for two years he appeared in virtually every production. He made his small-screen debut in a televised production of Othello but spent most of the 1950s honing his craft on the stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1954 in The Star Crossed Story, which closed after one night, but he found great critical success portraying the Earl of Warwick in a production of The Lark. He made his feature film debut in Stage Struck in 1958 and his London stage debut as King Henry II in 1961 in Beckett. His portrayal of Hamlet for a televised production marking Shakespeare's 400th birthday was widely hailed by critics and marked a significant breakthrough for the young actor.
Then in 1965 he was cast as von Trapp in The Sound of Music, a role that was to change his life but which took him many years to come to terms with. He immediately spotted that the character was one-dimensional and he demanded rewrites, which did little to improve it in his view. For a long time he resented being remembered more for portraying such a cardboard character than for some of his notable stage roles, and he declined to attend the cast's 40th reunion. But last year he relented and agreed to appear in a cast reunion on Oprah Winfrey's television show.
"I was dreading it because I thought it was going to be mawkish and sentimental and awful," he says. "But it wasn't at all like that. Suddenly I found myself having a good time and it was actually fun and I enjoyed it."
He also professes to enjoy the film more than he ever did before: "It's not my cup of tea but it's really well made and it's wonderful family entertainment."
The 1960s, though, were something of a dark decade for him. He was drinking heavily with his pals Burton, Finch, O'Toole and Finney and he gained a reputation for being bad-tempered and "difficult". He clashed with Laurence Olivier, who directed him at the National Theatre, and later Plummer wrote in his memoirs: "My family's correctness and high standards had made me want to be the bad boy always, convinced it made me more interesting and would bring me more attention. I was sadly deluded. Oh, I was proud that in the theatre I had at least learned the power to command, but once off-stage my real existence had little in it to write home about; I was in serious trouble. Barry the Bartender was kept busy watering my drinks."
His domestic life went through a tumultuous period, too. He was married in 1956 to the US actress Tammy Grimes and they have a daughter, the actress Amanda Plummer. He says frankly: "I'm a terrible father. Poor Amanda. She's done it all by herself. Bless her, it's not been easy; I'm a ghastly father." He and Grimes divorced after four years and he married the journalist Patricia Lewis, a union that lasted for five years.
While his stage career flourished - he won Tony Awards for the title roles in Cyrano and Barrymore - his film career didn't. He appeared in a series of undistinguished films, which included The Pyx, International Velvet, The Silent Partner, Hanover Street and Somewhere in Time, as well as some forgotten TV productions. He even donned an eye-patch to play a Klingon general in a Star Trek film.
He says now: "I've always had more success in the theatre and I was rather bad in movies. I look back at what I did in the Sixties and I can't bear looking at what I was doing up there on the screen. And I couldn't bear what other people were doing either." He laughs that booming laugh again. "Everything was so slow in those days. You look at a Sixties movie now, particularly the great epics, and they move at a snail's pace. All the money spent on those gorgeous sets and costumes and they send you to sleep. But you know why? Because we had three-hour lunches with a lot of wine so by the time we got back on the set... " He slurs his speech in an imitation of drunkenness.
His life and career changed again when he landed the role of the US television reporter Mike Wallace in the whistle-blowing drama The Insider. "That turned the corner for me and suddenly the scripts that came my way were of a much higher quality," he says. He had a pivotal role in the Oscar-winning A Beautiful Mind, appeared as Aristotle in Oliver Stone's Alexander and co-starred with George Clooney in Syriana.
Throughout his professional life he has always returned to the stage, and his portrayal of King Lear at New York's Lincoln Theatre in 2007 earned him his sixth Tony Award nomination. His seventh came with a Broadway revival of Inherit the Wind in which he portrayed Henry Drummond. In 2008, he returned to the Stratford Festival in Canada as Julius Caesar in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.
He continues to work regularly and recently starred in the made-for-television movie Barrymore, and is on the big screen again as Henrik Vanger in the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
"I couldn't put the books down," he says of the runaway Stieg Larsson best-sellers, "and I think I read the three of them in about 10 days. I loved playing Vanger because he's the only nice guy in the whole story. It was an interesting role.
"At the end of one's life, where I have arrived, it's nice to think I'm still working. I've lived a very lucky, wonderful life so I'm content with that and I don't feel that I'm just some old ham actor hacking away. I have a life apart from that, now more than ever."
His life centres around his home in Connecticut with Elaine Regina Taylor, a former dancer and actress who has been his wife for the past 40 years. They still miss the dogs that were so much a part of their lives.
"I should only have had dogs and not children," he says. "I grew up with dogs and the last set of dogs we had were like a family. They were a mother and father and six children and they lived with us for 18 years until the oldest died. They weren't our family - we were theirs. When they died it completely changed our lives and my wife and I were broken-hearted for at least a year and a half. I still look around for them and still see them."
He has no intention of retiring and says: "I'm much better at what I do now than I was when I was younger. If I'm not, I'd better quit. I remember my mother saying when I was at a very young age: 'You know, I don't think you're going to be very successful as an actor. But if you are, your big success will come when you're old.' And I thought: 'Poor old mother, she's so naïve.' But there was a ring of truth in what she said. I do feel that I'm more successful now than ever before, I'm working more than I've ever worked and I feel less pretentious and more natural.
"I love my job - and it's keeping me alive."
The Plummer file
BORN December 13, 1929, Toronto
SCHOOLING Jennings Private School, Montreal
FAMILY Third wife Elaine Regina Taylor, the British dancer and actress; daughter Amanda Plummer (with first wife, the Tony Award-winning actress Tammy Grimes), the American actress
FIRST JOB With the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa
FAVOURITE QUOTE "That man constantly labours under the delusion that he matters" - Noël Coward
LISTENING TO Classical music
FAVOURITE FILM Les Enfants du Paradis
BEST FRIEND The late Jason Robards
FAVOURITE AUTHOR Vladimir Nabokov
Four other famous roles
In addition to playing Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965), Christopher Plummer was at his best in these films:
THE INSIDER (1999) Starring with Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, Plummer plays the US television interviewer Mike Wallace in this true story of a former employee blowing the whistle on the big tobacco industry. Plummer won Best Supporting Actor awards from the Boston Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics.
A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001) In this award-winning film directed by Ron Howard that tells the story of the brilliant but solitary mathematician John Nash and his descent into insanity, Plummer portrays Dr Rosen, Nash's doctor at the psychiatric hospital.
UP (2009) Plummer plays the evil adventurer Charles Muntz in this Pixar computer-animated comedy-adventure. Widely praised by filmgoers and critics - it has a 98 per cent approval rate on the Rotten Tomatoes website - Up received two Oscars, two Baftas, a Grammy and a Golden Globe, among many other awards.
THE LAST STATION (2009) The actor received his first Academy Award nomination for playing the Russian author Leo Tolstoy in this biographical drama directed by Michael Hoffman. Plummer spoke of his nomination to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation before the 2010 Oscars, saying: "Well, it's about time! I mean, I'm 80 years old, for God's sake. Have mercy." Still, Christopher Waltz got the Best Supporting Actor gong for the Quentin Tarantino film Inglourious Basterds.