Peter Cushing - Mondays in October

September 9, 2020
Peter Cushing - Mondays In October

Peter Cushing joining the TCM Star of the Month roster for October is fitting since this is the period leading up to Halloween, and the British actor has been credited as transforming horror movies into an art form. A performer of considerable range and experience, Cushing (1913-1994) appeared in more than 100 movies and played numerous television, stage and radio roles in a career that spanned six decades.

He achieved international stardom beginning in his early middle age with a series of colorful and flamboyant (some would say campy) monster movies produced by the low-budget British production company Hammer Films. Many of them costarred his great friend Christopher Lee.

Elegant and refined in real life, Cushing is known to his followers as "The Gentle Man of Horror." In addition to other Hammer vehicles in the 1950s through the 1970s, he played Baron Victor von Frankenstein in six films and Dr. Van Helsing in five Dracula movies. The role of Frankenstein, in particular, established him as a horror actor for the ages. Writing on the Roger Ebert website in 2017, Jessica Ritchey offered the opinion that "Cushing defined the Platonic ideal of The Magnificent Bastard. His Baron von Frankenstein was proud, arrogant, and secure in his intelligence to be absolutely ruthless."

Cushing is also remembered for his work as Dr. Who in two films of the 1960s and for his role in the original Star Wars film (1977) as the antagonist Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star. A great fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Cushing played Holmes in several productions, including a British TV series of the 1960s.

Peter Wilton Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, England, on May 26, 1913, the younger of two sons of a surveyor and a carpet merchant's daughter. His family on his father's side included several actors; his grandfather, Henry William Cushing, toured with the noted stage actor Henry Irving. "As far back as I can ever remember, without really knowing it, I wanted to be an actor," he later said. "I was always dressing up, you know, playing pretend, putting on Mother's hat and things... It was very much in my blood."

Encouraged by his actress aunt Maude Ashton, young Peter began developing his acting skills by performing in plays at school and local amateur theater. He also enjoyed drawing and painting and would later help support himself as a struggling actor by selling hand-painted scarves. Once his formal schooling was completed, Cushing won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. After some professional experience including three years at a repertory theatre in Worthing, West Sussex, he decided at age 26 to head to Hollywood and try his luck in the movies.

Cushing succeeded in landing minor roles in films, including his movie debut as a messenger in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), in which he also was a body double for star Louis Hayward, who played double roles. Other jobs included a bit in the Laurel and Hardy comedy A Chump at Oxford (1939) and the central role in the MGM short The Hidden Master.

Like other British actors working in Hollywood, Cushing felt the call to return home to England with the advent of World War II. During a stopover in New York, he made his Broadway debut in the short-lived production The Seventh Trumpet (1941). When health problems prevented Cushing from serving on active duty, he performed with the Entertainments National Service Association to entertain the troops and also kept busy with stage and radio work. For a tour of military stations and hospitals, he was cast in Noel Coward's Private Lives opposite the actress Helen Beck. The two fell in love and were married in 1943.

An attention-getting break came Cushing's way when he was cast as the courtier Osric in Laurence Olivier's Oscar-winning screen treatment of Hamlet (1948). Olivier then invited both Peter and Helen Cushing to join his repertory company, the Old Vic, in an extensive tour of Australia.

During the 1950s, Cushing was cast in supporting roles in such films as The End of the Affair (1955, as Deborah Kerr's cuckold husband) and Time Without Pity (1957). At the encouragement of his wife, Cushing also entered the burgeoning world of television and became a familiar face to English TV audiences. His appearances during this period were so constant that one jokester claimed the definition of television was "Peter Cushing with knobs." He won several Best TV Actor awards including those from the Evening Chronicle, the Guild of Television Producers and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.

The legendary association with Hammer Films began when Cushing learned that the company planned to film Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus - a favorite book from his childhood. Cushing expressed an interest in playing Baron Frankenstein and was happily cast in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) by Hammer executives eager to exploit his high profile among TV fans. Terence Fisher directed and Christopher Lee played the monster. This film marked the beginning of the acting partnership and the deep and lasting friendship that developed between Cushing and Lee.

The Curse of Frankenstein was a box-office hit that set the tone for the Hammer horror films that followed. Critical reception was mixed, although most reviewers praised the film's showy direction, cinematography, costumes and music. A reviewer for Variety wrote that "Peter Cushing gets every inch of drama from the leading role, making almost believable the ambitious urge and diabolical accomplishment." A follow-up film, Horror of Dracula (1958), again featuring Cushing and Lee (this time as Van Helsing and Count Dracula), was another big success. All told, Cushing made 22 films for Hammer, with Lee as frequent costar.

Listed below are the other titles from the Hammer collection that are featured in Cushing's Star of the Month salute:
The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), based on the 1902 Sherlock Holmes adventure by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with Cushing as Holmes and Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville;
The Mummy (1959), with Lee in the title role and Cushing as the archeologist forced to deal with him;
Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), with Richard Greene as Robin Hood and Cushing as the Sheriff of Nottingham;
Cash on Demand (1961), an atypical and well-received contemporary dramatic vehicle for Cushing as a dedicated bank manager threatened by robbers;
She(1965), an adventure film based on H. Rider Haggard's 1887 novel about a lost city in Northeast Africa, with Cushing as an explorer, Lee as a priest, and Ursula Andress as the immortal "She-who-must-be-obeyed";
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), with Cushing in another bravura turn as the Baron and Susan Denberg as a woman who commits suicide and is brought back to life by Frankenstein with the soul of a young man who has been executed;
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), with Cushing's character evolving into an ever-more-ruthless villain who blackmails a young couple into helping with his terrible experiments;
Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) stars Christopher Lee as Dracula reappearing in then-modern London and hunted down by a descendant of Van Helsing (Cushing, of course);
and the TCM premiere of The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) marks the final entry in the Dracula series to feature Cushing and Lee, again set in the 1970s with the latter-day Van Helsing again on the vampire's trail.

In his films away from Hammer, Cushing tried to include non-horror roles that would vary his work as an actor - although he was proud of some of his "monster movies" and often fell back into the genre with which he was most associated. Non-Hammer Cushing movies in the TCM tribute include Violent Playground (1958), a crime thriller set in Liverpool with Stanley Baker as a policeman attempting to rehabilitate a juvenile delinquent (David McCallum) and Cushing as a helpful priest.

John Paul Jones (1959) is an American biopic about the Revolutionary War naval hero, with Robert Stack as Jones, Bette Davis in a cameo as Catherine the Great and Cushing as Jones adversary Captain Richard Pearson. Always of slender build, Cushing suffered from dysentery during filming in Spain and lost a dangerous amount of weight that he gradually regained.

Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) are the two big-screen features starring Cushing as Dr. Who, a character inspired by the extraterrestrial being from the British TV series. In Cushing's case, the character is a human doctor who invents a time machine and must cope with a race of deliciously evil mutants called the Daleks.

Cushing and Lee reteam for Nothing but the Night (1973), a British crime drama with a supernatural slant. The film, set in Scotland, was the only one produced by Lee's own production company. Lee plays a police inspector investigating a series of deaths that, on the surface, look like suicides. Cushing is a pathologist aiding in the investigation, which involves a group of orphans.

With his role in Star Wars, Cushing achieved a new level of recognition, especially among younger audiences. The actor, who reportedly regretted his inability to appear in sequels because his character did not survive the original film, had his image posthumously recreated through digital imagery in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Cushing's last actual appearance in a feature film came in Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986). His final television role was, appropriately, his beloved Sherlock Holmes in The Masks of Death (1984).

Cushing wrote two memoirs, Peter Cushing: An Autobiography (1986) and Past Forgetting: Memoirs of the Hammer Years (1988). With his pal Christopher Lee he narrated the documentary Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (1994).

Cushing was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982 but, without any surgery or chemotherapy, survived another 12 years. For his contributions to the British film industry, Cushing was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1989, and in 1994, he died in a hospice in Canterbury at age 81. Among those speaking at a memorial service at the Actor's Church in Covent Garden, London, was the bereaved Christopher Lee. He later said of his friendship with Cushing that "there would be nothing like that" in his life again.

Looking back on his reputation as a horror actor, the mild-mannered Cushing once mused that "People look at me as if I were some sort of monster, but I can't think why. In my macabre roles I have either been a monster-maker or a monster destroyer, but never a monster... I've never harmed a fly."


Featured Films

10/5 - Early Works

Cash on Demand
The End of the Affair
John Paul Jones
A Chump at Oxford
Vigil in the Night

10/12 - Non-Horror Roles

Sword of Sherwood Forest
Dr. Who and the Daleks
Daleks' Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.
Violent Playground

10/19 - Hammer Horrors

The Hound of the Baskervilles
Horror of Dracula
The Mummy
The Curse of Frankenstein
Frankenstein Created Woman
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!

10/26 - Horror Icon

Nothing But the Night
From Beyond the Grave
Scream and Scream Again
The Satanic Rites of Dracula
Dracula A.D. 1972