Christopher Plummer, suave Canadian actor best known as von Trapp in The Sound of Music – obituary

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Christopher Plummer - Martin Pope
Christopher Plummer - Martin Pope

Christopher Plummer, the Oscar-winning Canadian actor, who has died aged 91, achieved fame in the early 1950s in a succession of Shakespearean roles, but was best remembered, to his lasting irritation, for his sentimental portrayal of Captain Georg von Trapp in the film musical The Sound of Music (1965). In 2012, when he was in his eighties, he became the oldest actor to win an Academy Award.

As the widowed, repressive father of seven children in The Sound of Music, Plummer conferred on his character an improbable but compelling ambiguity mixed with a velvety charm, implying behind his thin, twisted smile a sublime decadence. Although he described the film as “treacle” and recalled being “bored stiff through the whole of filming”, the role established him as an international star. The Sound of Music became a Hollywood phenomenon and won five Oscars.

Dogged by the film for the rest of his career, Plummer admitted that he thought The Sound of Music would outlive him. “It’s an eternal film,” he explained, “because the director, Robert Wise, insisted on doing it absolutely straight. I was dying to send it up.”

Plummer’s irreverent attitude to the film which made him a star was well documented, but he denied referring to it as “the sound of mucus”. Less well-known was his frosty relationship with his co-star Julie Andrews, cast as the children’s governess Maria. He found her incessant cheerfulness exhausting and described working with her as like “being hit over the head daily with a Hallmark greetings card”.

The von Trapp family in The Sound of Music - Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock
The von Trapp family in The Sound of Music - Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Plummer was not Twentieth Century Fox’s first choice to play von Trapp. Bing Crosby, Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner were among the other contenders, but Robert Wise had been impressed with Plummer’s burgeoning reputation as a classical actor and flew to London to try to persuade him to take the part.

Plummer himself turned out to be lukewarm, considering the von Trapp character stiff and dull, or, in his own words, “a frightful square”, and refusing to submit to a screen test. Only when the scriptwriter Ernest Lehman proposed drawing out some of the actor’s ironic sense of humour was Plummer finally convinced.

There was a wobble when Plummer was told that his singing voice, in the tender solo number Edelweiss, would be dubbed by someone else, but although he relented, Plummer always detested the song as “boring, schmaltzy and trite”.

Throughout his career, Plummer’s patrician good looks saw him cast in a series of aristocratic roles. On stage he played Mark Antony, Hamlet, Henry V and Richard III, and was cast as Orestes, Agamemnon and Oedipus in television productions. His greatest successes were with what he called “larger than life characters”. Appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1970, Plummer was approached by Laurence Olivier the following year to come to the rescue of the National Theatre in London when it was still at the Old Vic.

The idea was for Plummer to appear as Coriolanus, but within a couple of days of starting rehearsals he had grown so exasperated with the imported German directors of his choice that he stormed out in a huff and had to be replaced by Anthony Hopkins.

Although Plummer’s career spanned more than 70 years he never achieved the kind of superstardom enjoyed by some of his contemporaries. Indeed, he maintained that he had avoided leading man roles in favour of three-dimensional character parts such as Cyrano, Iago and Macbeth.

The perceptive British critic Kenneth Tynan, seeing him on Broadway in 1958 in Archibald MacLeish’s poetic drama JB, hailed him as “an actor of real, stage-seizing power, unafraid of the big gesture, and endowed with a stabbing voice of kaleidoscopic virtuosity”.

Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born in Toronto on December 13 1929, the son of an Irish father, John Plummer, secretary to the Dean of Science at McGill University, and a Canadian mother whose grandfather, Sir John Abbott, had been the first native-born prime minister of Canada.

With his Sound of Music co-star Julie Andrews: he described working with her as like 'being hit over the head daily with a Hallmark greetings card' - 20th C  Fox/Everett/Rex Features
With his Sound of Music co-star Julie Andrews: he described working with her as like 'being hit over the head daily with a Hallmark greetings card' - 20th C Fox/Everett/Rex Features

Plummer described his upbringing in 1930s Toronto as “genteel and somehow Edwardian”. He recalled his grandmother and mother spending their evenings reading aloud and that his early life had been dominated by “verse, poetry, books and words”.

Plummer wanted to become a concert pianist but abandoned the idea when he tired of “all the lonely and tortuous work”. To his parents’ dismay he did not distinguish himself at Montreal High School and devoted his time to an interest in electronics. He was introduced to the theatre after designing the lighting for a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Within two years he was taking leading roles in every school play.

Leaving school at 17, he began working as a backstage assistant in small repertory theatres. He made his acting debut with the Canadian Repertory Theatre in 1950 in a production of The Rivals. He spent two years with the company and appeared in nearly 100 productions including The Playboy of the Western World, The Petrified Forest, Thark and The Constant Wife.

Plummer made his Broadway debut two years later in a short-lived production of The Starcross Story. Although the play closed after only one night, Plummer went on to further Broadway productions, as Manchester Monaghan in Home is the Hero (1954), and as Count Peter Zichy in The Dark is Light Enough, for which he won his first Best Actor award, in 1955.

Plummer in 1968 -  Cine Text/Allstar
Plummer in 1968 - Cine Text/Allstar

He went on to establish a reputation as a leading Shakespearean actor, appearing as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and as Ferdinand in The Tempest at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1955. Two years later he played both the title role in Henry V and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at the Stratford, Ontario, Shakespeare Festival, where the following year he played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Bardolph in Henry IV Part 1.

Plummer’s performances received favourable reviews, one critic describing him as “the ablest Shakespearean actor of the moment”. In 1960 he moved to Britain to join the newly formed Royal Shakespeare Company, making his debut in a production of Much Ado About Nothing, again as Benedick. He won considerable acclaim for his interpretation of Richard III and further plaudits (and a Best Actor award) for his portrayal of Henry II in Peter Hall’s production of Becket in 1961.

Returning to Canada the following year, Plummer took the leading role in productions of Macbeth and Cyrano de Bergerac, before moving on to Broadway to star as Arturo Ui in the play of the same name, winning another award for his performance as the Hitler-like gangster who rises to power through terror tactics.

Back in Canada, Plummer recreated his portrayals of both Macbeth and Cyrano for television. He had enjoyed a prolific television career throughout the 1950s and had appeared in productions as diverse as Johnny Belinda (1958), The Orestia (1959) and The Philadelphia Story (also 1959).

With Susannah York in The Battle of Britain (1969) - Sunset Boulevard
With Susannah York in The Battle of Britain (1969) - Sunset Boulevard

Plummer’s film debut came in 1958 with a small part in Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck. This film received scant attention from the critics and Plummer failed to enhance his reputation with a terrible performance as the Emperor Commodus in Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

Following the triumph of The Sound of Music he was content to tread water, appearing in such films as Inside Daisy Clover (1966) and Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) “purely for the money and to get a wider audience”. The single exception to the blandness of these film roles was a performance as Atahualpa, the exotic Inca king, in Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969).

Reviews were mixed, some critics finding Plummer’s portrayal and unintelligible accent “outrageous”, while others claimed that he brought to the role “a magisterial and primitive quality”. In spite of the reviews, Plummer enjoyed the film and declared “it was the only real fun I have had in ages, a deep, interesting part”.

As Herod in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) - NBC
As Herod in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) - NBC

In 1971 Plummer returned to Britain to join the National Theatre at Olivier’s invitation. After the fiasco with the German directors Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert during rehearsals for Coriolanus, his first appearance was in Giraudoux’s comedy Amphytrion 38, followed by the title role in Büchner’s Danton’s Death. Both were disappointments.

Back in Canada two years later, he starred in the musical Cyrano, receiving rave reviews for his exuberant performance in the lead. He won a further Tony and was described as having played the part with a “kinetic grace”. Critics applauded him for making Cyrano “a poet rather than a roisterous buffoon”.

Plummer appeared in further films, among them as a suave foil to bumbling Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), in International Velvet (1978), and in Murder By Decree (1979), playing Sherlock Holmes.

In 1981 he returned to the role of Henry V in a new production at the American Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut, but was panned by the critics as too old. He had more success with a silkily evil Iago in Othello, prompting one critic to acclaim “quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated in this country in our time”.

Picking up his Oscar for Beginners in 2012 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Picking up his Oscar for Beginners in 2012 - Kevin Winter/Getty Images

He was less lucky when he appeared as Macbeth opposite Glenda Jackson in a Broadway production in 1988. After numerous re-stagings and three different directors, Plummer received mixed reviews, some critics praising his controlled and steely performances in the lead, others complaining that he seemed “hysterical”.

Plummer returned to television roles in numerous miniseries and made-for-television films. He appeared in the highly successful series The Thorn Birds in 1983 and later the same year played a disreputable gambler in A Hazard of Hearts. On the big screen he took the role of the wicked evangelist in the comedy Dragnet (1988), and gave an excellent performance in Souvenir (1989) as a German soldier who returns to the scene of an atrocity in which he participated in the Second World War.

With wry humour, Plummer accepted the role of a Klingon warlord with a penchant for Shakespeare in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). “You’ve never enjoyed Shakespeare,” he intoned to a bemused Captain Kirk, “until you’ve heard him in the original Klingon.”

In his seventies he began to take supporting roles of greater substance in such films as The Insider (as the veteran reporter Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, 1999), A Beautiful Mind (as a psychiatrist, 2001) and Syriana (2005). Later came The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (as the rich patriarch, 2011), and as the dying, elderly father who comes out as a gay man with a younger lover in Beginners (2010), Plummer won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, becoming, at 82, the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar.

Plummer won many other accolades, including two Emmys, two Tonys, a Golden Globe and a Bafta. He published a well-received memoir, In Spite of Myself, in 2008.

In 2015 he played an Auschwitz survivor in the Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan’s revenge thriller Remember. In 2017 he gained critical plaudits after stepping in at the last minute to replace Kevin Spacey in the role of J Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s film All the Money in the World. In 2018 he featured in the popular mystery movie Knives Out.

Christopher Plummer was twice married and divorced. His third wife, the British dancer and actress Elaine Taylor, survives him as well as a daughter by his first wife, the actress Tammy Grimes

Christopher Plummer, born December 13 1929, died February 5 2021

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