Saturday, October 2, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Month: Peter Cushing

Peter Wilton Cushing finally achieved fame as an actor at the age of 44. Alas, his big break came in a horror film at a time when that genre was largely ignored by mainstream film critics. Hammer Films' Curse of Frankenstein, which is now regarded as a genre classic, was largely dismissed by critics when it was released. Britain's The Daily Telegraph stated simply: "For sadists only." What they missed was that the role of Victor Frankenstein was played superbly by Peter Cushing, a classically trained actor who once performed alongside Laurence Olivier.

His acting arc followed that of many of his British peers. He studied drama (at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama), performed in repertory theater, and tried his hand at Hollywood (with small roles in The Man in the Iron Mask and Laurel & Hardy's A Chump at Oxford). In 1948, he landed his best role to date as Osric in Olivier's Hamlet (1948), which featured another future Hammer star, Christopher Lee, in a bit part.

That didn't lead to bigger film roles, but did result in steady work in radio and early television. He achieved small screen success in fare such as a six-part Pride and Prejudice (as Mr. Darcy) and The Creature, an episode of the BBC Sunday-Night Theatre written by Nigel Kneale (and eventually adapted for the screen as The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas starring Cushing). When Hammer's producers decided to make a Frankenstein film--which focused on the doctor, not the monster--they knew who they wanted.

Perhaps critics didn't fully appreciate his Hammer debut, but audiences did and he subsequently landed the plum role of Van Helsing in Hammer's next film, 1958's Dracula (US: Horror of Dracula). It was a bigger smash than Curse of Frankenstein and for the next two decades, Peter Cushing would remain a Hammer Films fixture in quality fare such as Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and The Hound of Baskervilles. Indeed, his memorable turn as A. Conan Doyle's sleuth eventually led to a 1968 television series.

Cushing never talked down to horror film fans. In an interview with the magazine L'Incroyable Cinema, he said: "I don't mind at all that people may refer to me as a 'horror actor' because in this unpredictable profession, actors are awfully lucky."

In addition to his Hammer roles, Cushing also played Dr. Who in two big screen adaptations and was introduced to a whole new generation of moviegoers as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (aka Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope).

His wife of 27 years, Helen Cushing, died in 1971, causing Cushing to withdraw from Blood from the Mummy's Tomb. He eventually returned to acting and was awarded the Order of the Britisth Empire in 1989. When he died five years later, colleagues and critics sang his praises as a fine gentleman, a loyal friend, and an underrated, exceptional actor.


  1. Whenever I see Peter Cushing is in a movie, I want to watch it. He was a wonderfu actor. I loved the Hammer films and his performance as Sherlock Holmes, but my favorite is The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (remember our little argument about the spelling and use of the word Himalayas when I did my article on that movie, Rick?). Too bad he would be considered an underrated performer. He was excellent!

  2. Great article on a great actor. I heard John Carpenter wanted him to play Dr Loomis in Halloween but couldn't even get through to Cushing. Then it was offered to Christopher Lee who turned it down. Lee has admitted he made a mistake, I always wondered what Cushing thought -- after all, Loomis is very like van Helsing who Cushing played so well.

  3. Oh, I almost forgot -- loved Cushing as the evil scientist in The Avengers episode, Return of the Cybernauts!

  4. Peter Cushing is one of my favorite actors and, I think, one of the greatest actors of all time. I've always been amazed by his delivery. At a time when some actors were retaining the acting style of the stage (i.e., amplifying voice and facial features, because in theatre you have to project for those in the back row), Cushing was natural. Even in the theatrical Hammer productions, he would make it all seem so real. He could be a charming protagonist, a terrifying villain, or a combination thereof. I love him as Van Helsing, especially in BRIDES OF DRACULA, but my favorite performance from Cushing was in FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED. Thank you, Rick, for thorough coverage of an excellent and most definitely underrated performer!

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  6. Peter Cushing = Underrated performer of the month...year...decade...century....millennium...

  7. Sark and Becky, I love your choices for favorite Cushing Hammer peformance. My top pick, though, would be BRIDES OF DRACULA, followed closely by THE HOUSE OF THE BASKERVILLES (wish Hammer could have done more Holmes films). Gilby, I forgot about the "Cybernauts" episode, but agree that Peter was delightful in that. He would have made a good Loomis, though Donald Pleasance was ideal for that role. Kevin, I couldn't agree more! Sweet Life, welcome to the Cafe!