A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Christopher Plummer, From Stratford to "The Sound of Music" to Barrymore
By Mervyn Rothstein
Christopher Plummer, the octogenarian Oscar winner, talks about his theatrical roots in Canada, his plays and movies, and his recent return to a favorite character — John Barrymore — in a new film.
When Christopher Plummer was growing up, he studied piano. "I thought seriously of becoming a concert pianist," he says. "But I soon found that that was very lonely and very hard work. So I thought, 'Well, I'm a good mimic, I might as well go into the theatre.' I wasn't good at anything else, so in I went."
That happy decision has led to a more than 60-year career in theatre, film and television. Plummer is a stage giant. He has won many awards, including two Tonys for Best Actor — one for a play, one for a musical — and this year, at age 82, an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (for "Beginners").
He is beloved for his 1965 film role as Captain von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." Plummer won his Tonys in 1974 for a musical version of Cyrano and in 1997 for a tour de force performance in the title role of Barrymore, William Luce's play based on the life of John Barrymore. A film version, also called "Barrymore," opens this fall.
Plummer was born in Toronto and started acting while in high school in Montreal. "My mother took me to every play that came to town, and ballet, and music," he recalls. He decided on acting, he says, in part for the "glamour." One early influence was seeing Laurence Olivier in the 1944 film of "Henry V." "I was still at school and went to see the film and thought...this was terrific stuff. And glamorous."
He spent time learning his craft in repertory companies. "That's the way you should start. Playing hundreds of different roles."
His first Broadway show, in 1954, was The Starcross Story, with another theatre giant, Eva Le Gallienne. It closed after one performance. "I thought it was the end of my career. But at least I'd got there. And soon afterward I was working again. I never looked back."
In 1959 he got his first Tony nomination, for J.B., which won a Pulitzer Prize. His long list of stage credits includes The Royal Hunt of the Sun on Broadway, King Lear at Lincoln Center Theater and productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in London and the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. His Stratford connection dates to 1956, when he starred — as Henry V. "And there were many films along the way."
The "Barrymore" movie was "photographed as a stage performance, but we take the camera away to other rooms and other places."
These days, he is "doing many films. And I've just finished doing my new one-man show" — A Word or Two, about the literature that has influenced his life — "which I've written. It opened at Stratford and, thank heaven, was very well received, so I probably will bring it to New York."
How did it feel to finally win an Oscar at 82? "It kind of rejuvenates your career, makes you feel very young."
But, he adds, "I've won all sorts of awards which I'm just as grateful for. Particularly in the theatre."
Read the summer 2012 Playbill.com interview in which Plummer talks about his new solo show A Word or Two.
View highlights from the new film "Barrymore":
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