Christopher Plummer, who died this week at the age of 91, had the kind of career that makes obituaries into something of a challenge. For other performers, it’s enough to talk about their charm and their charisma, or their distinguished background as an acclaimed interpreter of Shakespeare upon the stage, or their participation in some of the most popular and revered films of their generation, or their ability at being achingly romantic in one movie and then terrifyingly intense in the next.
For Plummer’s career, it’s all of the above, and more. Be it film, television, or stage, there’s not a medium where he didn’t shine, spanning some 75 years as a professional actor. And part of that longevity comes from making it impossible for anyone to define just what, exactly, “a Christopher Plummer role” would be.
Born in 1929 in Toronto and raised in Quebec, Plummer’s performance as Mr. Darcy in a high-school production of “Pride and Prejudice” caught the eye of a Montreal theater critic and director, launching a career that rarely if ever slowed down. The actor already had years of stage and TV experience behind him when he made his Broadway debut in 1953. His first several years in New York had him doing one short-lived show after another (with the exception of “The Lark,” opposite Julie Harris), but in 1955, he scored his first Tony nomination for Archibald McLeish’s “J.B.” under the direction of Elia Kazan.
His first big-screen appearances would follow in 1958, in Sidney Lumet’s “Stage Struck” and Nicholas Ray’s “Wind Across the Everglades,” but he wouldn’t return to film for another six years, playing an emperor in Anthony Mann’s expensive flop “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” In 1965, however, he memorably starred as Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” rocketing him to big-screen stardom in what would become, at that time, the highest-grossing movie ever made.
It was a mammoth, earth-shattering hit, one that would rewrite Hollywood history for decades to come — and Plummer never liked the movie. Referring to it as “The Sound of Mucus,” he once called it “so awful and sentimental and gooey,” although he did enjoy working with Andrews, with whom he would reteam decades later on a 2001 TV remake of “On Golden Pond.” Entertainment journalists generally knew not to bring “The Sound of Music” up when talking to Plummer, although when Oprah Winfrey reunited the cast in 2010, he dutifully showed up.
Plummer famously landed a big play-or-pay deal to replace Rex Harrison in “Doctor Dolittle,” and then got to pocket it without making the movie when Harrison returned, but overall, “The Sound of Music” didn’t hugely alter his career. He continued pursuing character parts in film, whether they were supporting roles or in large ensembles, while tackling diverse and challenging stage roles.
There’s an old saying that the career of any Shakespearean actor is based on his Hamlet, his Macbeth, and his King Lear, and Plummer received acclaim for all of these, as well as his turns as Iago (he earned a Tony nomination, opposite James Earl Jones as Othello), Marc Antony (in both “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra”), Ferdinand, Henry V, Richard III, Leontes, Benedick, Mercutio and Prospero. Overall, he covered the bases of any great leading man of the theater, from “A Doll House” to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” to Cyrano de Bergerac. (The latter twice; once in the classic play, once in a musical version.) He wasn’t just a mid-to-late-20th-century heir to John Barrymore: Plummer played Barrymore and won a Tony for doing so.
For all his triumphs trodding the boards, Plummer was open to a variety of film roles, from a Klingon general in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” to a suave cat burglar opposite Peter Sellers in “The Return of the Pink Panther.” He could go from playing one of the screen’s most terrifying villains in the twisty thriller “The Silent Partner” (1978) to, the following year, chomping on a calabash pipe as an iconic Sherlock Holmes in “Murder by Decree.”
His Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a widowed father experiencing his personal gay liberation in “Beginners” made him the oldest winner of an acting Oscar, and his nomination for “All the Money in the World,” in which he famously replaced Kevin Spacey, made him the oldest nominee. Plummer always rose to the occasion, so it’s no wonder the film industry took him for granted until after his 80th birthday.
It’s an astonishing career, one that encompasses “The Inside Man” and “Somewhere in Time,” “Up” and “Knives Out,” “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and probably five other movies not mentioned here that rank among your favorite Plummer performances. And if your only point of reference for Christopher Plummer is “The Sound of Music,” lucky you — a treasure trove of great acting awaits your discovery.