Of the faces which have seemed ever-present on our screens for the past 60 years, Christopher Plummer’s was amongst the most fondly regarded. Though he considered the role “awful and sentimental and gooey”, his performance as Captain Von Trapp in 1965’s The Sound Of Music – his big screen breakthrough – made him a paternal presence at countless family Christmases, and his quiet dominance of any screen made him a master of the cinematic authority figure. Be it Oedipus (Oedipus The King, 1967), Sherlock Holmes (Murder By Decree, 1979), J. Paul Getty (All The Money In The World, 2017), the Imaginarium’s own Doctor Parnassus (2009), the head of the scheming Thrombey family in 2019’s Knives Out or all of the dukes, doctors, lords, generals, professors, archbishops and emperors that he lent his dark glower to in between.
Born on December 13, 1929, in Toronto – a descendant of Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Abbott and second cousin to Nigel Bruce, who played Watson opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes – Plummer would initially make his name as a stage and TV actor in the 1950s, gaining acclaim for his Broadway performances in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark and Archibald MacLeish’s J.B., and focusing on revered theatrical pieces. His many Shakespearean roles took him as far as Stratford-Upon-Avon itself, where his work with the RSC would win him an Evening Standard Award for Best Actor, while his early screen work took in George Bernard Shaw’s Captain Brassbound’s Conversation, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Anthony Mann’s epic The Fall Of The Roman Empire.
So the runaway success of family-friendly musical The Sound Of Music, the biggest grossing film of all time in its day in which Plummer played the head of the Von Trapp family opposite Julie Andrews’ impeccable governess, might have been a frustration considering Plummer’s high-art roots. He referred to it as “The Sound Of Mucus” and said of his character “Although we worked hard enough to make him interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse.”
Nonetheless, in its wake Plummer’s profile rocketed, allowing him scope to pursue more highbrow work on stage and big screen. Over the coming years he’d appear in historical dramas and war films such as Battle Of Britain (1969), The Royal Hunt Of The Sun (1969) and Waterloo (1970), and play Rudyard Kipling alongside Michael Caine and Sean Connery in 1975’s The Man Who Would Be King, while also finding time, having moved to London, to appear in repertory at the National Theatre in 1971. He also returned to Broadway to win his first Tony Award for his lead role in a musical adaption of Cyrano de Bergerac (a personal triumph, no doubt, since his singing had been dubbed in The Sound Of Music).
Plummer wasn’t adverse to cinematic populism – witness his roles in 1969’s musical comedy romp Lock Up Your Daughters!, The Return Of The Pink Panther in 1975 and as one-eyed Klingon General Chang in 1991’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. But it was in films such as Malcolm X (1992) and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995) that Plummer continued to build a reputation as a charismatic character actor with a distinctly authoritative presence, which afforded him a respected and acclaimed final few decades. In 1999 he won critical awards for his role as TV journalist Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s The Insider and – as he revived his Shakespearean interests onstage, garnered Emmy nominations aplenty for his TV work and introduced himself to a new generation as the voice of Arngeir in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – the 2000s saw him achieve major successes in Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) and as Leo Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, which earned him his first Oscar nomination.
Plummer would have to wait until the ripe old age of 82 to win his first Academy Award though – Best Supporting Actor, for Mike Mills’ 2011 indie comedy Beginners – becoming the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar: “you’re only two years older than me,” he said to the award, “where have you been all my life?”. He consolidated his success with a role in the English language adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the same year and his standing never faltered for the rest of his life. Come 2017, when the disgraced Kevin Spacey needed to be replaced as J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World, Scott immediately cast Plummer, his original choice for the role.
His final major on-screen success, as the murdered patriarch in Knives Out, was almost definitive; a character of both sternness and sensitivity, making good use of both his powerful glower and his wry, one-sided smile. And as an acclaimed actor with such a rich legacy behind him, it’s never goodbye, more so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu.