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April 17, 2021

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Plumbing the depths of Plummer

Character actor, who died Friday, remembered for the variety and substance of film and stage performances

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Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer, shown June 15, 1973, poses for a photo before making his musical debut on Broadway in "Cyrano." (Jerry Mosey/Associated Press)
Canadian-born actor Christopher Plummer, shown June 15, 1973, poses for a photo before making his musical debut on Broadway in "Cyrano." (Jerry Mosey/Associated Press) Photo Gallery

When a profoundly gifted classical actor suddenly becomes famous for a middlebrow popular success, you can forgive that actor for needling or even trashing it a little.

Or a lot, in the case of Christopher Plummer.

“The Sound of Mucus”: In a New York Times interview, that’s what the Toronto-born Plummer once called the 1965 film version of “The Sound of Music,” the movie that made him famous worldwide, in which he played the stiff, grieving Capt. Georg von Trapp.

On screen, against all odds, Plummer really does seem to be having a bit of fun with that role, while gently undermining the entire project in a way that somehow works. Throughout his career Plummer dwelled in the nooks and crannies where wily performers can’t help but look for a few “wrong” notes, or some vinegar to add to all the sugar.

Plummer had a voice like a viola and a smile like Lucifer’s. He was a royal technician and a fiendishly clever, infectiously witty instrument of cunning. He died Friday at the age of 91. Few actors of his generation, or any age, brought such concentrated vitality to their roles, from Shakespeare to “Knives Out.”

For decades, when Plummer showed up on screen you felt instantly you were putty in the hands of a fabulous master. He didn’t have many scenes to steal in 2019’s comic whodunit “Knives Out,” but playing a manipulative rotter of a best-selling mystery author, plainly inspired by “Sleuth,” Plummer was perfect. I mean, who else would you want in that role?

“Wonderfully brave and daring and full of panache, amusing as well as sad.” That’s how Plummer described John Barrymore, in a 1997 Chicago Tribune story by Sid Smith. At the time, Plummer was en route to Broadway with William Luce’s two-person show (essentially a solo piece) about the majestic talent Barrymore near the end of a self-destructive life.

Barrymore and Plummer lived radically different lives, and thankfully Plummer’s was long: In addition to two Tony Awards, for the musical version of “Cyrano” and for “Barrymore,” at 82 Plummer finally snagged an Academy Award, for his supporting turn as the gay father coming out, delightfully, in “Beginners.” Plummer remains the oldest performer to win a competitive Oscar.

But what Plummer said about Barrymore also applies to Plummer. The relish and vitality he brought to every assignment had a way of energizing even dull or routine material. In films such as Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (where he played Mike Wallace) or John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (as a note-perfect Rudyard Kipling), Plummer found precisely the right temperature and rhythm for so many different kinds of personalities.

He created his own version of Tolstoy in “The Last Station,” working with Helen Mirren. “He was a mighty force both as man and actor,” she said of Plummer in a statement released after news of his death Friday. “He was an actor in the 19th-century meaning of the word — his commitment to his profession. His art was total, theatre being a constant and the most important part of the totality of his drive to engage with storytelling. He was fearless, energetic, courageous, knowledgeable, professional and a monument to what an actor can be. A great actor in the truest sense.”

I saw him do Shakespeare twice, fortunately. In the early 1980s, in New York and on tour, he paired with James Earl Jones in “Othello.” Iago is a role in which an actor cannot lose, not really. Plummer was on fire, giving the Moor’s nemesis startling blasts of deceptive flattery and understated menace.

Othello, on the other hand, is a role in which it is very hard to “win.” Jones had a way of regarding Plummer on stage — a stage the actors didn’t so much share as fight to the death for ownership — that suggested he knew damn well Plummer was about to sprint away with the show.

Twenty years later, in a rather dull Broadway restaging of “King Lear” from Plummer’s classical home base of Ontario’s Stratford Festival, the actor took on one of the supreme challenges in dramatic literature.

At one point, as described in a Tribune review at the time, Lear “realizes his wits and his life are both nearing the end. As spoken by Plummer, the line ‘O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!’ disregards the exclamation point, taking the entreaty inward. It’s one of those exquisitely painful moments when all pomp and bombast are stripped away, revealing an imperfect human soul. … Anyone attending this ‘King Lear’ with one overriding desire — let’s see some acting! — will get what they want from one of our cagiest classical actors.”

He did so much, so exuberantly, including a 2017 turn as J. Paul Getty (replacing a suddenly disgraced Kevin Spacey) in “All the Money in the World” that earned Plummer his final Oscar nomination.

For all his accomplishments, it’s a bit of a frustration Plummer didn’t take on a few more truly great film roles in his lifetime. (He wasn’t that kind of movie star.) But we never can get enough of huge, expansive talents, whatever the medium, whatever a role’s opportunities.

“Wonderfully brave and daring and full of panache”: That’s about right, after all.

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