Christopher Plummer, the Canadian legend of stage and screen, passed away this morning at age 91.
His impressively varied career spanned six decades and included famous roles on screen as Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music, Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King, Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, and in one of his final parts, as mystery writer Harlan Thrombey in 2019’s Knives Out. Plummer was also a giant of the theatre and a bad hand at Shakespeare, playing, at various times, almost all of the playwright’s biggest roles including Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, Julius Caesar, Iago, and Prospero.
The talented thesp also took time to write for the stage and television, more recently developing a night of the Bard’s works accompanied by related music from William Walton, Felix Mendelssohn, and more. He performed it with the New York Philharmonic as well as symphony orchestras from Toronto, London, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minneapolis, Vancouver and Halifax.
At 82, Plummer became the oldest actor to win an Academy Award when he received the honour for his supporting role in Mike Mills’ Beginners. He opened his acceptance speech with a quip: “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?” No stranger to accolades, he had been nominated for an Oscar twice before. Over the years he’d also nabbed two Emmys and two Tony wins amid seven nominations. Plummer was also made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968.
Despite having no formal training, the actor became one of the most respected in the industry. His love of the craft began while acting in Montreal High School productions, and continued with parts in the Repertory Theatres in Ottawa and Montreal and in CBC Radio plays. He went on to perform at Canada’s Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival, as well as Broadway and London’s West End.
With such a large swath of roles to look back on, it’s hard to narrow them down to the Plummer essentials. But as we reflect on his incredible legacy in the arts, here are 10 that we think are among his most memorable—in no particular order.
Mike Mills’ charming dramedy saw Plummer take on the role of Hal, a widower who begins to live life as a gay man while dying of cancer. Based on the coming out of Mills’ own father at the age of 75, the film shows audiences a new side to the actor. Though it has its darker moments, there is a lightness and ease to Plummer’s performance. He clearly relishes this chance to stretch his creative wings and his enthusiasm shines through in each and every frame. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Hal and Christopher in equal measure. It’s no wonder the Academy sat up and finally took notice.
Murder By Decree
It seems only fitting that one of the greatest actors of our time would take on one of the most iconic roles of our time, Sherlock Holmes. This dark Victorian mystery inserts Conan Doyle’s famous detective into investigation into the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Focussing on a theory later explored in Alan Moore’s From Hell, this British-Canadian co-production supposes the serial killer is dispatching ladies in Whitechapel to cover up a royal scandal. Co-starring James Mason, Geneviève Bujold, and John Gielgud, Plummer makes an imposing Holmes who showcases his brain and heart in equal measure. His obsessive nature takes its toll and Plummer allows the cracks to show and Holmes’ emotions to bleed through. While, very much a movie of its time, Plummer’s take on Holmes is worth a watch.
The Man Who Would Be King
Perhaps better known for its stellar starring duo, Sean Connery and Michael Caine, John Huston’s 1975 adventure tale has a great turn from Plummer as a bewildered but fascinated Rudyard Kipling. It’s a part made all the more impressive given he was a very last minute replacement for Richard Burton. Based on a short story by Kipling, the film follows the exploits of two English officers stationed in India—Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Danny Dravot (Connery). Bored of their lives in the military, the two find themselves in the isolated Kafiristan, where Dravot is taken for a god and made their king. The film is unabashedly exciting and fun, and it’s no wonder that both Caine and Connery counted it among their best.
Rian Johnson’s exceedingly entertaining murder mystery makes excellent use of its impressive ensemble. Each and every actor appears to be having the absolute time of their lives playing with classic mystery tropes and turning them all on their heads. As patriarch Harlan Thrombey, Plummer makes the absolute most out of every moment of screen time. A rogue of the highest degree, Harlan’s love of life and familial exasperation endears him to Ana de Armas’ Marta as much as it does to audiences. One of the best films of 2019, it’s fitting that it proved to be one of Plummer’s last.
The Last Station
Never shy about taking on larger than life characters, Plummer appears here as iconic Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy opposite a spellbinding Helen Mirren as wife Sofya. Michael Hoffman’s film gives audiences a chance to see two towering talents at the top of their game. Plummer and Mirren absolutely nail the essence of this loving but combative couple in the sunset of their lives as they butt heads over Tolstoy’s literary legacy. With a supporting cast that includes James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, and Paul Giamatti, it’s a biopic worth experiencing.
Plummer’s signature baritone is a perfect match for hero-turned-villain Charles F. Muntz in Disney/Pixar’s adventure Up. The colourful and uplifting film walked away with two Academy Awards in 2009, including Best Animated Feature, and was nominated for three others, including Best Picture—only the second animated film in history to do so. As the “good and smart” master and mysterious explorer at the centre of the plot, Plummer voices Muntz with just the right amount of deceptive empathy and menace. Up is Pixar at its very best with iconic artwork, stellar vocal performances, and an award-winning gorgeous score from Michael Giacchino. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Perhaps even more relevant now than when it was released in 1999, Michael Mann’s examination of corporate corruption nabbed Christopher Plummer a laundry list of Critics Circle Award nominations for his supporting role as 60 Minutes’ Mike Wallace. Interestingly it was co-star Al Pacino’s suggestion to hire Plummer for the part. He was a big fan of his work and, like director Mann, thought it a great opportunity to finally work with him. He was the only choice for the role and proves both Pacino and Mann right, doing great justice to the iconic investigative journalist.
The William Luce play debuted at the Stratford Festival in 1996 with Plummer in the lead role as tragic actor John Barrymore. It follows the alcoholic thesp in the months before his premature death in 1942, as he rehearses for a Broadway comeback that never materialized. Plummer delights as the disjointed actor, impersonator, and raconteur, charming the audience with every wink and anecdote. The part won him the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor, which led to Plummer reprising his much-lauded role in Eric Canuel’s 2011 film adaptation of the stage production.
The Return of the Pink Panther
Though the 1975 comedy marked the fourth film in the Pink Panther series, it marked Plummer’s first (and only) appearance as jewel thief Sir Charles Litton. The actor stepped into the role at the last minute, taking over for ailing David Niven. It’s not the freshest or most original of films but, between the hapless Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers), the infuriated Chief Inspector Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), and the charming Litton, it’s a comedic romp that entertains from start to finish. The mischievous twinkle often found in Plummer’s eyes works perfectly here and it helps to make this Panther film a worthy sequel.
The Sound of Music
Much has been made of Plummer’s less than fond feelings toward this sentimental 1965 musical. He talked of his dislike of scene-stealing children and how he’d refer to the film as The Sound of Mucus or S & M. But his attitude softened over the years and he often recalled “terrific memories” of making the movie, and the forging of a lifelong friendship with co-star Julie Andrews. Regardless of his feelings, he really is perfectly cast as single dad and military man Georg Von Trapp. Though his voice was dubbed in the musical numbers by Bill Lee, Plummer made the role his own. He imbued the attractive and principled Austrian Captain with a quiet strength and sense of humour that peeks out from behind his outwardly gruff exterior. It’s not hard to see why Andrews’ Maria falls fast and hard for this charming and disarming man, because audiences do too. Von Trapp remains the most iconic of all of Plummer’s screen roles and no retrospective of his career is complete without it.
The editors of That Shelf could not let Emma’s wonderful remembrance of Plummer publish without adding two fan favouritess as honourable mentions, films that we think aren’t often talked about enough when discussing the actor’s essential filmography: The Silent Partner (1978) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991).
The first is a Canadian cult classic. Directed by Daryl Duke and written by L.A. Confidential scribe Curtis Hanson, the film stars Elliott Gould as a meek Toronto bank teller whose life becomes entangled with a sadistic bank robber (Plummer) after he allows his place of business to be robbed. Whether he’s dressed in drag or as a mall Santa Claus, Plummer is genuinely terrifying in the role of the psychotic Harry Reikle – and the cat and mouse game that ensues between him and Gould is full of some surprising twists. This sort of heavy role was not typical of Plummer – nor was the generous eyeliner he wears for much of the movie. The Silent Partner is a must-see if you’re looking to see the legendary actor in something very different for him or if you just want to see him slink around 1970s Toronto in leisure wear. – WP
We take Star Trek very seriously on That Shelf, and so we couldn’t not mention Plummer’s one and only Trek appearance opposite fellow Montrealer William Shatner. The iconic Canadian actor turned up in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country as Klingon cold warrior General Chang. Sporting full Klingon makeup and regalia – complete with an eyepatch literally bolted to his face – Chang is one of the most memorable villains in all of Trek thanks almost entirely to Plummer’s performance. On paper a Shakespeare quoting Klingon sounds incredibly silly (and it is to some degree), but Plummer gives this role his all and it’s clear he had a blast doing it. – WP