‘Peter Cushing: A Life in Film’ chronicles the actor’s screen legacy

April 14, 2013 | 8:00 a.m.

Peter Cushing sitting beside a mirror in which he is reflected. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Professor Hildern (Cushing) is attacked by the monstrous prehistoric creature that has been brought back to life by his brother (Christopher Lee) in "The Creeping Flesh." (From "Peter Cushing: A Life in Film.")

Peter Cushing won an award for his portrayal of Grimsdyke, the kindly old man driven to suicide, in the 1971 horror anthology "Tales from the Crypt." Many of the details of his performance and the character's show-stopping resurrection as a zombie were worked out by Cushing with director Freddie Francis. (From "Peter Cushing: A Life in Film.")

Vincent Price (in Dr. Death makeup) with an uncharacteristically vampire-ish Cushing in the 1973 film "Madhouse," which also starred Robert Quarry. (From "Peter Cushing: A Life in Film.")

Accusations fly between horror stars Oliver Quayle (Robert Quarry), Herbert Flay (Peter Cushing) and Paul Toombes (Vincent Price) in "Madhouse." (From "Peter Cushing: A Life in Film.")

Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Frankenstein for the last time in 1972's "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell," which was directed by his great friend Terence Fisher. The pair had worked together in the same capacities on Hammer's first "Frankenstein" film in 1957. (From "Peter Cushing: A Life in Film.")

With his new book, “Peter Cushing: A Life in Film,” out on Tuesdsay, author David Miller charts in detail the rich and varied career of the distinguished English actor, who perhaps remains best known to American movie fans for his roles opposite Christopher Lee in the many horror movies produced by Hammer Films in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, and of course, for his turn as Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars.”

Miller’s account not only spends considerable time on the Hammer productions, but also chronicles Cushing’s early years in Hollywood, his work on BBC teleplays, including an adaptation of George Orwell’s “1984,” and other memorable performances — he played the famous Time Lord in  “Doctor Who and the Daleks” and “Daleks’ Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.,” not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic investigator, Sherlock Holmes.

Hero Complex recently caught up with Miller to discuss his examination of Cushing’s lengthy filmography, out just weeks before the centenary of the actor’s birth.

HC: Could you tell me how you came to write this book? I assume this project was rooted in considerable admiration of Cushing’s body of work? Do you remember the first time you took note of him on-screen?

DM: I grew up in Britain in the 1970s and Peter Cushing was just part of the furniture of life. You’d see him on interview shows, or as a guest on the Morecambe and Wise comedy shows. He was always a warm and funny personality, so I didn’t really know him as a horror man at first. I saw the “Doctor Who” films and “Star Wars” before I saw the horror films. I think British stars were treated with a bit more reverence then. There was something slightly out-of-reach about them. Then when I saw the Hammer films on television I was just enchanted, and when I found out about Cushing, the man, there was plenty to admire there too, not just the characters on the screen.

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HC: The book is incredibly detailed. Could you describe some of the research you undertook and how much time you spent on writing/researching? Did you go back and re-watch many of his films?

DM: I watched almost all of his films during the writing of the book. There are some obscure pieces that I’ve only just caught up with – a 1940 film called “Laddie,” which is very interesting. Cushing only has two scenes at the end, but people are talking about his character all through the film. I’ve also recently just seen a dreadful spy film called “Some May Live.” It’s supposed to be set in Saigon, but it was made in a tiny little studio in Twickenham outside London. For a long time it was impossible to find a copy and I can see why no one would rush to put it out on DVD – it’s a mess. Cushing plays a Communist traitor. He is rarely off his game whatever the film is like, but he seems genuinely ill at ease on this one.

"Peter Cushing: A Life in Film" (Titan Books)

“Peter Cushing: A Life in Film” (Titan Books)

I was very lucky to get access to the BBC’s written archives, which has all the original memos and TV correspondence, even how much he was paid. Cushing was a great letter-writer, he was so polite even when he disagreed with people, and it’s all stored in there. There are letters from his wife too, which are an absolute joy.

HC: Did you use Cushing’s memoir as a jumping-off point at all?

DM: I read Cushing’s memoirs, which are hugely important and entertaining but I figured that a lot of fans would be very familiar with them. I tried to find material from other sources and only use the memoirs when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately Cushing had a “store” of anecdotes which he would bring out for just about every interview so it was sometimes tricky to find a new angle.

HC: So much of the book focuses on Cushing’s work with Hammer, a milestone of his moviemaking, of course. From your vantage point, what do you think Cushing brought to his Hammer roles and why did audiences respond the way they did to watching him portray these men, some of whom are quite heroic, some deeply wicked?

DM: Cushing came to Hammer after nearly 20 years of theater training and live TV work – he really knew his craft. I like using the word “craft” because that’s exactly how he saw acting, as a vocation; it was never a question of just turning up and taking the money. He would always do formidable amounts of research, too, such as finding little props and costume details. In acting terms, I think audiences responded to Cushing in the Hammer films because he brings such a human quality to the characters – hero or villain, they are real people. Even though Frankenstein is supposed to be the embodiment of wickedness, you still want him to get away at the end. I love how you can almost see the wheels turning when his characters are thinking. Van Helsing is one of Cushing’s most complete characters. He fiddles with things when he’s bored, he blows into his hands when he’s cold, he rubs his neck when he’s tired. They are such tiny touches but they make such a difference to creating the character as a real three-dimensional person. There’s his impeccable delivery as well — the perfect diction which I think seems to surpass fashion. It’s like a beautifully-cut suit, it’s always going to be in style.

HC: It was fascinating to realize how scandalous the films were upon their initial release — that critics were up in arms about their gruesome nature. When you think about the Hammer movies in relationship to horror films that are made today, that’s difficult to imagine. Did that strike you as well? 

DM: The critics fairly frothed with rage about Hammer, particularly at home… The films were actually seen by the older critics as an affront to British decency. It took a long time for them to be seen for what they were, which is grown-up fairy tales. The Hammer films owe a great deal more to the European tradition of storytelling and the Brothers Grimm, than to Hollywood. The critical panning must have really upset people like Cushing and director Terence Fisher, because they cared so much about what they were doing. They carried on because the films were such huge successes overseas, and despite the press they were hugely popular in Britain. They turned a blind eye to the critics, but it must have hurt.  There were never any awards for Hammer, apart from the Queen’s Award to Industry, because of the amount of money they brought in! I think people like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, who are huge fans, have redressed the balance a bit in the last 20 years. I found a great quote from Guillermo Del Toro, who says that Cushing is still one of his favorite actors.

HC: Did you interview Christopher Lee? And if so, how would you describe the way he spoke about Cushing?  

DM: I spoke to Christopher Lee on a couple of occasions. He always spoke very fondly of Peter, and there was a genuine sense of loss because they worked so closely together. Lee told me a very important, very sad anecdote about Cushing’s relationship with his brother David, which is in the book. But Lee has his store of anecdotes too, and it’s difficult to get him to say anything really different. And even after so many years he’s not very happy talking about Hammer.

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HC: It’s truly remarkable when you consider how many iconic characters Peter Cushing portrayed – Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Grand Moff Tarkin, and that’s not taking into account his roles in the Hammer productions. Do you think fans today really understand how long and storied Cushing’s career turned out to be? What qualities do you think contributed to his longevity?

DM: It’s a bit of a cliché but he treated every job and every character with respect and tried to always give of his best. It sounds corny but it’s borne out by the evidence. If there was a chance to make a film better, he would suggest something – he’d rewrite a poor script and never got any credit – I’ve seen his scripts and sometimes they are covered with annotations and rewrites. Horror is actually a lot like comedy. You need similar skills to create a good scare as you do to get a laugh. Sometimes you get the chance to do both, and Cushing could be very, very funny at times. We’re very lucky now because so much of the work is available. It would be fantastic if they found some of the early TV plays, but we’re very lucky to have copies of the films. Seeing the films on Blu-ray means they are often in better shape than they’ve been for 50 years – you can see the quality in every frame, particularly in the sets and costumes. If people come to Cushing through “Star Wars” or “Dracula” or “Doctor Who,” hopefully they’ll take a look at some of the other performances too.

English actor Peter Cushing sitting beside a mirror in which he is reflected. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

English actor Peter Cushing sitting beside a mirror in which he is reflected. (Evening Standard/Getty Images)

HC: What did you learn about Peter Cushing from this project that perhaps surprised you?

DM: There are always new details turning up, new pictures and new stories. Everything fills in another piece of the puzzle. It was great to learn that he’d considered directing a film at one point. I think he could have been an excellent director. He certainly had the breadth of experience. I suppose the biggest surprise is that people are still interested in Peter Cushing 100 years after his birth. So many great actors who were Cushing’s contemporaries are almost completely forgotten. The fact that there’s a British postage stamp commemorating his centenary would have meant so much to him. He would have been delighted.

– Gina McIntyre | @LATHeroComplex

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