Christopher Plummer obituary

<span>Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Mark Blinch/Reuters

Destined, or doomed, to be remembered as Captain von Trapp in the 1965 film of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer, who has died aged 91, was a tremendous actor, and leading star, on stage, screen and Alpine meadow for more than six decades.

With an imposing physique, a broad brow, sculpted features and a magnificent voice, he played almost all the leading Shakespearean roles – mostly in his native Canada, at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare festival. But he also had brief spells with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre in Britain, while maintaining a film career that never looked back after an auspicious debut in Sidney Lumet’s theatrical comedy Stage Struck (1958), alongside Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg.

He outlasted fellow hellraisers such as Peter Finch and Richard Burton – he once contracted hepatitis when over-partying with Tyrone Power – to become the go-to actor for senior star roles. These ranged, in 2009 alone, from a dying, but still robust and flirtatious, Leo Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station – for which he was nominated for an Oscar – to the hilarious, eponymous showman in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, Heath Ledger’s last movie, and the voice of explorer Charles Muntz in the computer-animated masterpiece Up. Beginners (2010) brought him a best supporting actor Oscar, as Hal, a retired museum director who tells his cartoonist son, Oliver (Ewan McGregor), of his terminal cancer and relationship with a young male lover.

As head of the von Trapp family in one of the most popular movies of all time, he exhibited a steely authority melting into compliance, and romantic desire, that very few actors could bring off so charmingly, though Plummer himself never liked the film. He refused to participate in the 40th anniversary get-together, but softened for the 45th, acknowledging the film’s appeal while saying it was never really his “cup of tea”. He dubbed it “The Sound of Mucus” or “S&M”.

Plummer came from wealthy railroad stock, the only son of John Plummer, secretary to the dean of science at McGill University, and his wife, Isabella (nee Abbott). His maternal great-grandfather was the third Canadian prime minister, Sir John Abbott. His parents divorced, and he was raised in his mother’s family home in Senneville, outside Montreal, in Quebec, growing up bilingual and seemingly heading for a musical career.

But his plan to become a concert pianist was scuppered by his discovery of the theatre, and he joined the Canadian Rep in Ottawa in 1950, playing dozens of roles before joining the Bermuda Repertory Company in 1952. His New York debut followed in 1954, as George Phillips in The Starcross Story, and he was ripe for stardom in the next Broadway season, when Kenneth Tynan hailed him as the Earl of Warwick in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, translated by Lillian Hellman: “One salutes a great actor in embryo, reserved and saturnine, and as powerful in promise as the Olivier of 20 years ago.”

<span class="element-image__caption">Christopher Plummer and Nikki M James in the title roles of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Shakespeare festival, Ontario, 2008.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Hou/Associated Press</span>
Christopher Plummer and Nikki M James in the title roles of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Shakespeare festival, Ontario, 2008. Photograph: David Hou/Associated Press

Over the next five years, he became the biggest name at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare summer festival, launching an assault course on the major roles without comparison on either side of the Atlantic: Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Ferdinand in The Tempest were followed by a Henry V that came to the Edinburgh festival in 1956 (“a performance of charismatic flair,” said the critic and festival historian, Iain Crawford); then, in the next three years, Hamlet, Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, Benedick in Much Ado, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale, the Bastard in King John and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.

Peter Hall was in the process of creating the first full-scale RSC ensemble and invited Plummer to join the company in 1961 as Benedick to Geraldine McEwan’s Beatrice in Much Ado, Richard III, and King Henry in Anouilh’s Becket, opposite Eric Porter, who played both Buckingham and the religious martyr. Becket at the Aldwych won Plummer the Evening Standard best actor award. His Richard (with Edith Evans as Queen Margaret), directed by William Gaskill, struck the critic Caryl Brahms as “fully and carefully conceived and effortlessly executed … staggeringly good … a mordant wit evident even in moments of self-torture, and a wonderfully sure play of humour”.

Christopher Plummer in the film Triple Cross, 1966.
Christopher Plummer in the film Triple Cross, 1966. Photograph: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Plummer, like his drinking buddy Albert Finney, was renowned for romancing his leading ladies. Charmian Carr (the eldest daughter, Liesl von Trapp), later cheerfully confessed that she learned how to drink from the time they spent together while filming The Sound of Music.

In 1956 he married the actor Tammy Grimes, and they had a daughter, Amanda, who also became an actor. That marriage ended in divorce in 1960, and Plummer embarked on a wild romance with the British entertainment journalist Patricia Lewis.

Based in a flat in Mayfair, they hit the nightspots, but were involved in a terrible car crash outside Buckingham Place one night after leaving Peter Cook’s Establishment club in Soho; Plummer was unharmed, but Lewis remained in a coma for months. They got married in 1962 and divorced five years later.

The RSC association was only temporary: Plummer had stepped into the breach when Peter O’Toole broke a contract in order to make Lawrence of Arabia, and he would not return to the London stage for a decade. Back at Stratford, Ontario, he played Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac, and consolidated his Broadway reputation with critically acclaimed performances as Brecht’s Arturo Ui in 1963 and Pizarro in Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun in 1965 (in the 1969 movie he was Atahuallpa, the last Inca emperor).

Rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra at Stratford with Zoe Caldwell were delayed while he completed filming in Greece with Lilli Palmer and Orson Welles on Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1968), but Caldwell memorialised a performance she reckoned the cornerstone of her career: “Because Christopher was so bold and unafraid and led me to be the same, we built a relationship on stage of absolute freedom to love, to play, to fight. We were royal, we were carnal, we were leaders, we were slaves, and anything was possible.”

By the time Plummer returned to London in 1971 to join the National, he had made a string of Hollywood movies, including Anthony Mann’s magisterial blockbuster The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), but the glitter was not catching: cast in the title role of Brecht’s version of Coriolanus, he fell out on the first day of rehearsals with two East German directors brought in from the Berliner Ensemble, and was replaced by Anthony Hopkins.

He was equally unhappy as Jupiter in Laurence Olivier’s misfiring production of Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38 in 1971, alongside McEwan again, but failing to ignite the spark he had once found with her with the RSC. In the National’s New theatre (now the Noël Coward) season he enjoyed more success in Jonathan Miller’s production of Buchner’s Danton’s Death, translated by John Wells, but his days as a company member, in Britain or Canada, were over.

Back on Broadway in 1973, he won his first Tony award in the musical of Cyrano, with book and lyrics by Anthony Burgess. Although the New York Times critic Clive Barnes wished the music would simply go away, he applauded the “kinetic grace” of Plummer’s performance, making Cyrano “a poetic hero rather than a roistering buffoon with a heart as big as his nose”.

Some of his most interesting films followed in this decade: he was a suave and witty straight man to Peter Sellers in Blake Edwards’s The Return of the Pink Panther; a touchingly impressive Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (both 1975), appearing in the Kipling yarn alongside his good friends Sean Connery and Michael Caine; and a stalwart in Jack Gold’s Aces High (1976), a transposition to the skies of RC Sherriff’s first world war drama in the trenches, Journey’s End.

His theatre sightings became rarer in the 1980s, when he played the warm, satanic cardinal in the TV mini-series The Thorn Birds (1983), but he played both Iago and Macbeth on Broadway (in 1982 and 1988) and appeared in Harold Pinter’s elegiac No Man’s Land in 1994. Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi thriller 12 Monkeys (1995) seemed to propel him into a new phase of accommodation with the new breed in Hollywood, and he gave one of his most authoritative performances as the real-life television journalist Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999), alongside Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

With Crowe again, he appeared in Ron Howard’s absorbing A Beautiful Mind (2001) and went on to win new admirers as Ralph Nickleby in Douglas McGrath’s all-star, irresistible Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and in Spike Lee’s heist movie Inside Man (2006). He cursed the day he turned down Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (Ian McKellen stepped in) – but remained in demand, playing the head of the family and industrial mogul Henrik Vanger in the Hollywood version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

Plummer won his second Tony on Broadway in 1997 with a barnstorming performance as the legendary actor John Barrymore in his one-man show, Barrymore (a film followed in 2011), and returned in 2004 in Jonathan Miller’s Stratford, Ontario, revival of King Lear. On Broadway again in 2007, he played Henry Drummond in the old Darwinian warhorse, Inherit the Wind, and bowed out at his beloved Stratford, Ontario, with Caesar in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra in 2008, and a thunderously acclaimed, long-haired, 80 year-old Prospero in The Tempest in 2010.

Another Oscar nomination came for his portrayal of J Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017); he had replaced Kevin Spacey in the light of sexual misconduct allegations. In Todd Robinson’s The Last Full Measure (2019) he played the dying father of the Vietnam war hero William H Pitsenbarger, as his dead son’s former colleagues – including William Hurt, Samuel L Jackson and Peter Fonda (in his final movie) – campaign for a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor. And his voice will be heard in Sean Patrick O’Reilly’s Heroes of the Golden Masks, due later this year.

Like many big stars, he was sometimes renowned for being bad-tempered, or “difficult”, though the longevity and range of his career suggests creative deployment of his temperamental excesses. He had long renounced wild party days, though he loved talking about them to journalists, and in his vivid autobiography, In Spite of Myself (2008).

For many years he was estranged from his daughter, but they were reconciled, and he lived contentedly in a farm house in Weston, Connecticut, with his third wife, the British dancer and actor Elaine Taylor, whom he had married in 1970. She and Amanda survive him.

• Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer, actor, born 13 December 1929; died 5 February 2021