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A prolific presence in films and on television for nearly five decades, British actor Peter Cushing, OBE, became an international icon as the star of countless horror films, including "Curse of Frankenstein" (1956), "Horror of Dracula" (1958), "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959), "The Mummy" (1959), "The Vampire Lovers" (1970) and "Horror Express" (1973). Frequently cast opposite his longtime friend, Sir Christopher Lee, Cushing gave definitive portrayals of monster maker Victor Frankenstein and vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing for England's Hammer Films throughout the 1960s and 1970s while appearing in numerous other horror films for international companies. The worldwide success of Hammer minted Cushing as a horror star, not unlike Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, though in real life, he was a gentlemanly figure who adored his wife and spent his off-screen hours bird watching. After nearly two decades onscreen, he enjoyed a genuine blockbuster in "Star Wars" (1977), which cast him as the reptilian Grand Moff Tarkin. The use of CGI and a stand-in actor to recreate this character for scenes in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) raised philosophical questions about the use of deceased actors in...
A prolific presence in films and on television for nearly five decades, British actor Peter Cushing, OBE, became an international icon as the star of countless horror films, including "Curse of Frankenstein" (1956), "Horror of Dracula" (1958), "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959), "The Mummy" (1959), "The Vampire Lovers" (1970) and "Horror Express" (1973). Frequently cast opposite his longtime friend, Sir Christopher Lee, Cushing gave definitive portrayals of monster maker Victor Frankenstein and vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing for England's Hammer Films throughout the 1960s and 1970s while appearing in numerous other horror films for international companies. The worldwide success of Hammer minted Cushing as a horror star, not unlike Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, though in real life, he was a gentlemanly figure who adored his wife and spent his off-screen hours bird watching. After nearly two decades onscreen, he enjoyed a genuine blockbuster in "Star Wars" (1977), which cast him as the reptilian Grand Moff Tarkin. The use of CGI and a stand-in actor to recreate this character for scenes in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) raised philosophical questions about the use of deceased actors in posthumous films. Illness curtailed his career in the early 1980s, and he would enjoy one final collaboration with Lee as co-narrators of a documentary on Hammer Films before his death in 1994. A fan favorite for his magnetic and always-believable screen presence, his roles for Hammer became the stuff of horror movie legend.
Born Peter Wilton Cushing on May 26, 1913 in Kenley, a district in the county of Surrey, England, he was the younger of two sons by George Edward Cushing, a quantity surveyor, and his wife, Nellie Marie. He initially followed in his father's footsteps, working as a surveyor's assistant, where his innate talent for drawing made him a valuable asset. But he was drawn to acting after seeing a favorite aunt perform on stage, and won a scholarship to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. In 1935, he made his professional stage debut with the Worthing Repertory Company, where he would remain for the next four years before departing for America to find work in Hollywood. His screen debut came with a bit part in James Whale's "The Man in the Iron Mask" (1939), which was soon followed by minor roles in, among other films, "A Chump at Oxford" (1940), starring Laurel and Hardy.
After appearing on Broadway in "The Seventh Trumpet" (1941), he returned to England, where he joined the Entertainments National Service Association, which performed plays for British troops during World War II. While appearing in Noel Coward's "Private Lives," he fell in love with his co-star, actress Helen Beck, and married her in 1943. The couple would remain devoted to one another for the next three decades. Cushing worked almost exclusively in theater for the first few years after the end of the war. He toured Australia with Laurence Olivier's Old Vic company in 1948, shortly before Olivier cast him as the foppish Osric in his Oscar-winning film version of "Hamlet" (1948). Among the background players was a young actor named Christopher Lee, who would soon become forever linked with Cushing through Hammer Films. Cushing soon found his niche on television, where he played Mr. Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice" (BBC, 1952). Cushing drew his earliest rave notices as Winston Smith, the doomed hero of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (BBC, 1954), which earned him a BAFTA Award for Best Actor.
He soon returned to features, appearing in character turns in the likes of Edward Dmytryk's "The End of the Affair" (1955) opposite Van Johnson. In 1956, he was cast as Baron Victor Frankenstein in "Frankenstein," a loose, low-budget adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel by Hammer Films, a small English company that specialized in genre films. Playing opposite Cushing and buried under layers of makeup was Lee, whose imposing 6'5" frame made him ideal to play the Monster. Though critics deplored the film, moviegoers flocked to it for its gruesome content, made all the more unsettling by being shot in color. But Cushing was also a major draw: a cold, imperious figure, not at all like the sympathetic scientist played by Colin Clive in the 1931 "Frankenstein," Cushing's Frankenstein was the real "monster" of the piece, displaying less humanity in his dogged pursuit of the God-like ability to create life than the Creature, whose disfigured presence drew more pity than terror. Cushing was also completely believable in the role, never displaying an ounce of camp or condescension, which also heightened the terror. A box office smash around the world, it launched Hammer as a major horror studio and Cushing as one of its bona fide stars.
Cushing and Lee were immediately reunited in "Dracula" (1958), which was released in the United States as "Horror of Dracula." Lee's portrayal of the Count as a virile, sexualized being made him an international sensation, while Cushing showed his versatility as the Vampire King's determined nemesis, Dr. Van Helsing. Again, Cushing shattered preconceived notions about the character by playing him as a man of action, willing to grapple with Dracula in a no-holds-barred battle to the death that marked the film's thrilling conclusion. From that point on, Cushing and Lee were a screen duo, not unlike horror legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi some two decades before them. The pair became the closest of friends off screen as well, and belied their screen images with their fondness for Warner Bros. cartoons and broad comedy.
For the better part of the next decade, Cushing would co-star with Lee in some of Hammer's most successful features while also appearing on his own in numerous films for the studio and other companies in Europe. He would play the increasingly fiendish Baron Frankenstein four more times in the 1950s and 1960s, from 1958's "The Revenge of Frankenstein" to "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed" (1969) while reprising Van Helsing for the energetic "Brides of Dracula" in 1960. In Hammer's "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1959), he was among the first to play Sherlock Holmes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote him - moody and combative but brilliant - and would play the master detective for a series of BBC adaptations between 1965 and 1968. On occasion, Hammer would cast him outside the horror genre, most notably in the thriller "Violent Playground" (1958) as a priest trying to reason with psychotic delinquent David McCallum, and "Cash on Demand" (1961) as a bank manager blackmailed into robbing his own bank. He also played the venerable British TV hero Doctor Who in a pair of theatrical features, "Dr. Who and the Daleks" (1965) and "Daleks - Invasion Earth: 2150" (1966). But Cushing had become a star in horror films, and would spend the majority of the decade in the genre, fighting monsters of legend like in "The Gorgon" (1964), evil artifacts in "The Skull" (1965), and giant insects in "Blood Beast Terror" (1967). Like Lee, he complained about his typecasting, but accepted genre assignments with his trademark gentility, citing that he made horror films because he knew that others liked them. Off-camera, he was the epitome of the English country gentleman, finding solace in his wife's companionship, as well as his hobbies of bird watching, painting and collecting model soldiers.
The 1970s saw Cushing busier than ever in horror, though by this point in time, Hammer was in decline due to changing tastes towards more graphic fright films. He reunited with a reluctant Lee for "Dracula AD 1972" (1972) and "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" (1973), but found more work with other British companies in anthologies like "From Beyond the Grave" (1973), or in international productions like "Horror Express" (1973), an American-Spanish chiller with Cushing and Lee as scientists aboard a transcontinental trail carrying a deadly creature. Though his professionalism was evident in every frame, Cushing's heart was no longer in the business: his beloved wife had died in January 1971, and he considered his remaining years as a means of biding his time until they could be reunited in the afterlife. He accepted virtually any project that came his way, some of which, like "The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires" (1974), a horror-kung fu hybrid from Hammer, were dreadful. Others, like "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell" - which marked his final appearance as Baron Frankenstein and in a Hammer film (1974) - were modest projects whose success was due entirely to Cushing's reputation.
One of his assignments during this period later proved to be the biggest box office hit of his career and the one film that put him on the mainstream movie lover's map. Initially considered by writer-director George Lucas to play the wise Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was eventually cast as Grand Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star and the one man who Darth Vader (David Prowse) does not intimidate in "Star Wars" (1977). As with many of his roles during this period, he signed on to the then-relatively unknown project based on his thought that children would enjoy seeing the film. The global success of "Star Wars" boosted Cushing's profile considerably, and he would continue to appear in features and on television, including a rare non-horror turn in "A Tale of Two Cities" (CBS, 1980) for "The Hallmark Hall of Fame" (1951- ) in America.
In 1982, Cushing was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which forced him to dramatically reduce his screen appearances. Among his final projects was the slapstick comedy "Top Secret!" for Jim Abrahams and the Zucker Brothers of "Airplane!" (1980) fame, and as an elderly Sherlock Holmes in "The Masks of Death" (1984). By the end of the decade, he had retired from acting to pen two autobiographies, including 1988's Past Forgetting: Memoirs of the Hammer Years. The following year, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. Cushing's final screen effort was the documentary "Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror" (1994), which he co-narrated with his friend Christopher Lee. A week after its initial broadcast, he died on Aug. 11, 1994 at the age of 81. Friends, fans and co-stars throughout the world memorialized his contributions to film and the horror genre in loving detail. In his adopted home of Kent, a well-loved sightseeing spot was named in his honor. In 2016, Cushing was brought back into the public conversation when the producers of "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" (2016) used CGI, old footage of Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and a stand-in actor to recreate the character for scenes in the new film, released 22 years after Cushing's death. Although fans of the series were largely favorable, it did raise questions in some circles about the ethics of recreating new performances by deceased actors.
By Paul Gaita
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