Tuesday, 26 March 2013


As a lifelong fan of Peter Cushing, I’ve suffered the trauma of his “dying” on three separate occasions. Bear with me, that’ll make sense soon enough. I was born in 1977, the year that Star Wars was unleashed on the world. I was too young to see it theatrically, though my father and my brother both went nuts over it and became fans for life. I seem to recall seeing the film theatrically at a very young age, however, and I can only imagine it was in 1980, when the film was reissued to coincide with the release of The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t recall much about what I thought of it then, but even at that ridiculously young age, I knew who Peter Cushing was. Even though he was playing a villain with a heart of stone, I still recall being deeply upset that he went up in smoke at the end. Somehow, that just didn’t seem quite right and proper to me.

The second time I learned of his demise was when WTBS ran Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed in 1986. A friend of mine was able to watch the telecast, including the host segments by station personality Bill Tush, but I had to wait to watch it until later - fortunately, we had a VCR by then, so I wasn’t too terribly resentful that my dad had whisked my brother and I off to Kennywood for a sunny day at the amusement park, when I could have been inside, huddled in front of the TV set. When I got home, I sat down and watched the film - and it made a tremendous impression on me. The next day, I spoke with my friend - and he told me that Peter Cushing had died. I couldn’t believe it; it must be a mistake! There was nothing in the paper, nothing on the news. Surely his passing would attract some kind of attention? But, he was insistent - Bill Tush said the man had died. Spurred by this, I decided to check out my recording to see if there was any truth to it. Tush made no mention of anything of the kind at the start of the film, but sure enough, after the film was done, he made note that Cushing had died earlier that year. I was crestfallen. Cushing was one of my idols, and he was gone. I grieved for a little while, but life went on.

Imagine my amazement, therefore, when I found out a few years later that he was not only still alive - but he was also granting interviews! I caught up with some pieces on him, and felt like order had been restored. Peter Cushing, the epitome of the English gentleman, the symbol of good in the horror film, was back among the living. I gather Tush’s gaffe did not escape notice; I have no idea if he ever issued a retraction or if indeed he ever gave it much thought altogether…

The third time proved to be unlucky, however. I can remember it well: my dad was watching the news, and he called me to come to the living room. As I entered the room, I noticed a clip playing from Horror of Dracula: the final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula, played to perfection by Cushing and Christopher Lee. Oh no, I thought, one of them has died. A voice over confirmed the worst - Peter Cushing has died at the age of 81. Truth be told, saddened as I was, I wasn’t as devastated as I was when Vincent Price passed away the year before. I had no idea how ill Price was, and I pictured him as he so often appeared on films and TV talk shows - vibrant, full of energy, and loving life. With Cushing, I knew the man had been ill for years. I knew that he had been miserable ever since the death of his wife in 1971. I knew that he was so sickly that he couldn’t even get acting jobs anymore - producers and directors wanted him, but the insurance companies weren’t so keen. Somehow, I knew he was at peace - and though I was not - nor do I remain - a man of religious conviction, he was, on some level, free of years of suffering. It was hard to imagine that he was no longer among the living, and yet - he had had a long life, and he finally got what he really wanted.

Among genre fans, Cushing remains a true icon. Like so many icons, he is sometimes elevated to a level of perfection that no human being can ever truly attain. Some insist upon referring to him as “Sir Peter,” perhaps even believing that he was finally made a Knight before his passing in 1994. The reality is, he was a human being, with flaws and shortcomings like the rest of us; and though he had been honored by his government with being given OBE (Order of the British Empire) status, the Knighthood never did come his way. Perhaps if he had lived a bit longer, the latter might have really occurred. As to the former, far from glossing over his defects and acting as if he never uttered a bad word or ever made a bad move, it’s more instructive to acknowledge his flaws and accept him as a terrific human being - as opposed to a one dimensional saint.

Cushing’s love of his wife is well known; indeed, it has become the stuff of legend. They married in 1943, but Helen’s health was in precarious condition from the beginning. She suffered from emphysema for many years, and Cushing often took on acting roles in order to pay for her mounting medical expenses and treatment. After the success of The Curse of Frankenstein 1957, the actor contemplated the horrors of typecasting - but the realization that steady employment would benefit Helen’s treatments talked him out of any concerns over being “trapped” by his horror roles. Nobody would ever question the man’s adoration of his wife, but by his own admission he “strayed” on several occasions. One can theorize that the nature of Helen’s illness made it difficult - if not impossible - to sustain much of a physical relationship, and that Cushing, being a man rather than a saint, had to turn elsewhere to have these needs satisfied. Cushing apparently confessed his transgressions, and Helen was understanding throughout. Ultimately, it’s not for us to judge him for this - but the fact that his relationship with Helen remained as deep and profound as it was speaks volumes in itself. Really, it only bears mention in this context to drive the point home: Cushing was many things, but he was not above making mistakes. His ability to talk about these mistakes, with disarming honesty, is part of what makes his two-part memoirs such a warm and rewarding read.

As an actor, Cushing was arguably one of the greats - his friend and colleague Sir Laurence Olivier was even moved to remark that he was one of the country’s best screen actors. He was not, however, beyond reproach. Like any other actor, he had his limitations. He was not especially convincing when it came to accents - he had a peculiar theory that audiences would accept it if the actor threw the accent in on occasion, just to remind them that they were playing a foreigner - and he seemed ill at ease in roles that deprived him of any shred of charm or affability. He could play villains beautifully, but they needed to have a bit of depth - “cold fish” characters, by contrast, simply didn’t gel with him. He could deliver a putdown with rapier wit, but when he played broad comedy, he seemed terribly strained. Cushing was always a very mannered actor, one prone to indulging in little bits of “business,“ but when he went too far with these mannerisms and quirks, it could seem a bit phony and arbitrary. On the whole, however, he was a compulsively watchable actor. At his best, he was brilliant. Truth be told, his “dud” performances are few and far between.

Cushing’s long career saw him making triumphant appearances on stage, on film, and on television - but it was the latter that first made him a bankable name. Legend has it that, at the peak of his popularity as a TV star in the 1950s, Cushing could empty the pubs, because everybody wanted to be home to see him in whatever play he was appearing in on “the telly.” Like so many actors, Cushing struggled to find a reputation on film - he started off by going to Hollywood, where he was given his first (minor) break by British director James Whale. The irony of Cushing being given his start by the director of the most iconic screen version of Frankenstein (1931) cannot go unremarked, but there was nothing remotely “horrific” about his early screen appearances. He scored some nice notices for a flashy supporting role in the three-hanky melodrama Vigil in the Night (1941), but his screen career never really took off until the 1950s, boosted, in no small measure, by his triumphant appearance on so many landmark BBC teleplays of the era, including Nigel Kneale’s then-shocking adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1954). 

Hammer Horror helped to make Cushing a known property worldwide, but for many critics, he was limited by his associations with such gaudy fare. Genre magazines would extol his talents, but more mainstream publications would adopt a cooler attitude. There was no denying the man’s talents, yet critics with an axe to grind against the genre seemed to view him as a once-fine actor who was content “slumming” his way through B-and-Z-grade horror films. There would be no recognition from the British or American Academy Awards, though smaller, fantasy-oriented festivals would festoon him with prizes for his nuanced work on such titles as Tales from the Crypt (1972). If Cushing’s health had stood up better, he may have been able to parlay his reputation into appearances in films by fans-turned-filmmakers - just as his good friend and colleague Christopher Lee is continuing to do to this day. Alas, it was not meant to be. Worsening health and a general contet to enjoy the quiet life in his seaside abode in Whitstable took Cushing away from the limelight. Fans would continue to seek him out, and being a true gentleman of the old school, he always tried to make time to speak with them and sign countless autographs.

I, myself, never had the privilege of meeting Peter Cushing - but I did manage to make some contact with him. In 1993, inspired by the passing of Vincent Price, I decided I had better put my thoughts to paper and send Peter Cushing a fan letter. I was able to pass the letter on to his agent, having been given contact information by a fanzine, and I still shudder with embarrassment to think of my commenting on how he never won an Oscar (but deserved several!) and asking if he could autograph a picture of himself (maybe one with Christopher Lee!) and mail it to me. Most celebrities would have tossed this aside, but much to my amazement, I received a letter from the UK. I didn’t get an autographed picture, but he did see fit to write me a brief little note - with his autograph attached. I’m sure it was just a standard letter he sent out at this stage in his life, as he was certainly too ill to do much beyond just an autograph. Even so, it was a classy gesture that filled me with joy. It was almost surely one of the last autographs he ever did. It remains one of my most treasured possessions and has been displayed proudly on the walls of every home I have lived in since that timeframe. For me, there is no need to attach phony honors or attributes to the man as a sign of respect. Warts and all, he was a class act - a great actor, a decent human being, a loving husband, a true philanthropist. There’s no need to enshrine him as some kind of a wannabe saint - I prefer, rather, to think of him as he was: as a man to be respected and admired for his many good points.

 This year marks the centernary of Peter Cushing.  He's been gone for 19 years - though, for me, it seems like just yesterday that he passed - but his legacy continues to inspire and create new fans.  His acting style remains fresh, his appeal undiminished.  For me, he remains one of the most purely enjoyable actors to watch when he's at the top of his game.  I'm still catching up with a few titles that have eluded me, but by now I've seen all of his major credits - and I've revisited favorites from Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed and The Mummy to Cash on Demand and The House That Dripped Blood more times than I can calculate.  Truth be told, he's not my favorite actor - but he runs a very close second to his most beloved co-star, Christopher Lee.  To read of his life and his ups and downs - the true version, not the airbrushed one perpetuated by some blinkered sections of fandom - is to be inspired to be a better person - and in a business not exactly renowned for its moral backbone, he remains one of the truly "nice" people about whom seldom a negative word is uttered.


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