Remembering the passing of a childhood hero is always a melancholy occasion. The 1990s were a wicked decade for me in this regard: 1993 saw the passing of Vincent Price, 1995 took Donald Pleasence, 1996 claimed Lucio Fulci, 1999 saw Oliver Reed succumbing to his demons. In between Price and Pleasence, however, yet another icon was taken from us: on August 11th of that year, Peter Cushing passed away at the age of 81. And yet, for me, it marked the second time I mourned his passing.
Admittedly, what you are about to read amounts to little more than a trip down memory lane. I’m the first to admit that hearing people wax nostalgic about bygone years can be tedious, but bear with me here. In the summer of 1986, FRANKENSTEIN MUST BE DESTROYED (1969) aired on the WTBS network; it has since been abbreviated to TBS, but it’s the same channel. Anyway, being a horror buff from as far back as I can remember, I made a point of setting the timer to record the film while I was away doing something appropriately outdoorsy on such a sunny day. When I watched the film that evening, I was enthralled: here was a film which showed that Cushing—normally such a gentle man on screen—could play vile with the best of them. It was dark, downbeat, and nihilistic
I was still of an age where the lack of a conventional monster was a bit bothersome, but eventually it became quite apparent: the Baron himself was the monster. Anyway, the next day I was talking with a friend I had managed to “turn on” to these films—he had also recorded the film and was impressed with what he had seen. After a bit, he said something I’ll never forget: “Too bad Peter Cushing just died.” I was gob smacked, as the Brits say. What? Where? When? “The host said so during the movie.” No, he didn’t—I saw the opening with him introducing the movie and he said no such thing. “Did you watch the part at the end when he came back on?” No. I had not. That night, with much trepidation, I popped the tape back in the VCR (remember those?) and found the segment in question—and to my great disappointment and heartache, it was true: according to the host, Bill Tush, Peter Cushing had died earlier that summer. Somehow or other it didn’t make the papers around here—or if it did, nobody told me about it. I was crushed. It was like losing a grandfather.
Fast forward a few years. I was reading a copy of FANGORIA magazine and lo and behold, there was a reference to Peter Cushing. Apparently he hadn’t died after all. It felt surreal, but I was happy to discover that the grim news I had heard a few years earlier had been in error. I still don’t know whether Bill Tush ever corrected this error on his program. In any event, I was certainly pleased by the news but was less than thrilled to read that the reason Cushing had not made an appearance on screen for so long was because of severe health problems. The more I read about the man, the more it became apparent that he had, in effect, truly died in 1971 when his beloved wife Helen succumbed to emphysema. All he was doing was marking time until he could follow the same path. The sense of dignity and melancholy I felt while reading about the man was touching and made me admire him all the more.
Inevitably, the “real” death of Peter Cushing followed in time. It was close to suppertime when I heard my father call for me to come into the living room. “You need to see this,” he said. As I entered the living room, the classic finale of DRACULA (1958) was playing on the news. Clearly this was not good—if the news was airing this clip, it meant one of two things: either Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee had died. Inevitably, it was the former—and truth be told, the sting was far lesser than it would have been if it were the latter. Lee and Cushing were childhood heroes of mine, and they remain my favorite actors of all time, but I knew Cushing was ailing—that he had been lonely and unhappy since the death of his wife… It somehow seemed more “fitting” that he should be the one to leave us. 81 wasn’t a bad “inning,” anyway, and knowing that his suffering was finally at an end softened the blow somewhat. I am not, however, too proud to admit that I still shed some tears.
Twenty years have elapsed since that day—in a sense, it feels like it was yesterday. It’s a hoary cliché, but it’s true: Cushing may be dead, but in a sense he will never die. Like all artists, he has left behind a part of himself that continues to live on thanks to the interest and enthusiasm of fans across the globe. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see some trace of him, whether it be in film clips, postings on line, tributes, recollections from co-stars, reviews of old films released to Blu-ray… ad nauseum. What would Cushing make of all this reverie? He’d probably be flattered—like all actors, he certainly enjoyed being lauded—but I think he would also be a bit puzzled by the enduring popularity of the films in which he appeared. He was an actor who honed his craft on stage and in “big” films and television productions, but he found his lasting cinematic immortality starring in low budget horror films. It was a legacy he had mixed feelings about. Some overly enthusiastic fans are quick to make the claim that he welcomed his typecasting and never resented it one iota; this is not entirely true.
The fact of the matter is, he deliberated long and hard over accepting this typecasting and only gave in due to the fact that the steady work would make it easier for him to pay for Helen’s extensive medical care and therapy. He sometimes tired of the sub-par material he was given to work with. He could be sharply critical of screenwriters when he felt they were not doing a good enough job. In private moments, he undoubtedly craved for more serious recognition and realized that it would never be forthcoming so long as he appeared in a steady stream of B horror movies.
Had Cushing’s health held out, he may well have enjoyed something of a renaissance along the lines of that of his good friend and frequent co-star, Christopher Lee. Sadly, it was not meant to be: years of multiple-pack-a-day smoking took their toll, and as his desire to cling to life dissipated with the passing of his wife, he gradually withered away to a mere shadow of his former self; the brain was still sharp, but the body couldn’t keep up anymore. He retired to a quiet life by the sea on Whitstable, gave interviews, charmed the local residents, and held on to the hope that, some day, he would get back in the saddle again. It didn’t come to pass, though some sporadic vocal work would occupy him from time to time. We fans inevitably are left wishing he had enjoyed that final “moment in the sun” enjoyed by Lee and his other dear friend and co-star, Vincent Price, but no matter: there’s more than enough material to sift through as it is.
Cushing was not above walking through the occasional role for a paycheck. He sometimes said yes to projects he would have been better off rejecting. Yet, he was seldom less than engaging on screen—and when he was fully committed to a project, he could give a performance of great depth and power. He remains an icon in a genre littered with icons, but he remains one of the best loved because he was so often dedicated to improving the material he was given (where the opportunity was present, of course) and for his charming, gentle, and self-effacing image off screen.
Thus, while we may feel a tinge of sadness at the thought of commemorating 20 years without Peter Cushing, take heart: he has never really left us and never will, so long as fans continue to revisit the many films in which he appeared.
Feature: Troy Howarth
Images: Marcus Brooks