To most in the U.S., Peter Cushing is not a household name. If presented a picture of Peter, one might recognize him as the main villain in the original Star Wars. Though to film buffs, Hammer Film fans, and to many in the U.K. and Europe, he is known as the brilliant and unforgettable English actor, with a career spanning 45 plus years, while playing a wide variety of characters from Dr. Van Helsing to Baron Frankenstein to Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Who. Author David Miller grew up in Britain as a fan of Cushing and, through his diligent and detailed research, we are presented with the authoritative guide to the actor’s career – Peter Cushing: A Life in Film. We are honored to get the chance to ask David Miller a number of questions on the amount of research it took for this biography, some of his favorite Cushing movies and characters, and to share with us a few memories on the devoted actor.
RTNDR: How did you decide to write a biography of Peter Cushing – especially one of such detail? Were you a big fan of his work before writing this book?
DAVID: Yes, I was a fan, and I’m still a fan, totally. He was a familiar face when I was growing up in Britain, I was too young to see the Hammer films in the cinema but I caught up with them on television, and I was totally enchanted. I knew there were some good books about Cushing, but they only dealt with his films, not really with the rest of his work or his life. His autobiographies are charming, but they’ve got little about the films. So I just wanted to join everything up. I got to know Ingrid Pitt, she was a darling, she helped to get me started and to get the book published.
RTNDR: The amount of information in this book is vast and covers nearly every fathomable aspect of Cushing’s professional career – how daunting was it initially to research for this book? Where does one start?
DAVID: I started by watching all the films – or as many as possible, there are still a few that are difficult to find – and making lots of notes. I was very lucky to get to the BBC’s written archives, which are a real treasure trove, Cushing was a great letter-writer, and a lot of his letters are preserved there. I went to theatre archives, film archives, newspaper archives – anywhere that would give you another piece in the jigsaw. I didn’t really think of it as daunting because I was so keen to do it. There are still things I’d like to find out, even after all that research!
RTNDR: As you already know, Peter Cushing’s acting career spanned over 45-plus years and he is well known for his famous roles in many Hammer Films where he played Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing. Here in the US, and for younger generations, he is known more for playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. In your opinion, which type of characters did he like to perform as? Also, which one character played by Cushing do you never tire of seeing on screen over and over again?
DAVID: Cushing loved swashbuckling, a touch of the Errol Flynns. I think he’s happiest in family adventure films like She, although he was completely committed to the fairy-tale horror style of the early Hammers and he really enjoyed those – I don’t think he realised he was creating a new genre.
For myself, I love a film called Captain Clegg (aka ‘Night Creatures’) a version of the classic ‘Dr. Syn’ story. Cushing plays Nathaniel Clegg, a smuggler who masquerades as Dr. Blyss, the vicar of Dymchurch while carrying on his smuggling operations. Cushing gets to play two characters, the noble smuggler and the eccentric vicar. He enjoys himself so much, he plays both characters to the hilt, he’s so noble and so funny, sometimes switching between personas in the space of a single line. I can watch it again and again. I also love The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas (1957), that’s just a beautiful film, such an intelligent script, Cushing is wonderful in it.
RTNDR: For our readers not familiar with his long and remarkable acting career, which three films would you suggest to watch that sum up the career of Peter Cushing and why?
DAVID: Just three? Oh, OK, then… I’ll do my best!
Horror of Dracula (1958)
Cushing as Van Helsing, of course. The performance is central to the entire story – it is Van Helsing who establishes the vampire mythology and the threat of Dracula. Cushing also makes Van Helsing a very real character with little gestures and idiosyncracies. The climax, when the vampire-hunter forces Dracula into a shaft of sunlight, is all the better knowing that it was Cushing’s idea to use two candlesticks to make the sign of the cross.
Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
Cushing as Baron Frankenstein – he and director Terence Fisher had refined and built the character through several films. Cushing had just played Sherlock Holmes on TV which lends a precision to his delivery and physical control. But though Frankenstein is wicked, Cushing makes him so powerful and so charming that we can’t help but root for him. It’s a downbeat film but Cushing gives a masterclass in screen acting.
Tales from the Crypt (1971)
Cushing won a French Fantasy award for his performance in this excellent anthology film. He plays Grimsdyke, a gentle old man who is persecuted by his neighbours and driven to suicide, but who wreaks a terrifying revenge from beyond the grave. Cushing basically wrote the part, he worked closely on many of the scenes with director Freddie Francis and, along with make-up artist Roy Ashton, created one of the most memorable zombies in film history.
RTNDR: You present numerous quotes and conduct what seems like a multitude of interviews with fellow actors, old friends, and many people behind the camera or curtain that has worked with Mr. Cushing – was there a particular quote or an interview that was profoundly memorable to you during research for this book that you’d like to share?
DAVID: Everyone was so kind, recalling Peter Cushing seemed to bring out the best in people. It’s difficult to choose a favourite but early on, I met a Hammer assistant director called Derek Whitehurst. He gave me great confidence and told me some fantastic stories about working behind the scenes on the Hammer films with Cushing and Terence Fisher, it was almost like being there. I found out recently that Derek had died, I was terribly sad about that.
RTNDR: Moreover, if possible, what one anecdote from the book would you pick to define Peter Cushing as the brilliant and devoted actor as he is?
DAVID: There are so many examples. He was always working to make a scene better. He’d write new lines of dialogue, he’d think up bits of business, he would research costume details and make watercolour sketches on his scripts. There’s a scene in The Mummy that Peter put in himself. He’d seen the pre-production poster which has a beam of light shining through a hole in the Mummy’s stomach, but he knew there wasn’t a scene like that in the film. He asked the publicity department and they said “Oh, that’s just to sell the picture.” “Oh, I thought,” said Cushing later “that’s just not on.” So he devised the scene with Terence Fisher where he pushes a harpoon through the Mummy, “Thus giving,” he said, “some logic to the illuminated gap on the posters.” Best of all, his performance in the film is superb, he has a tremendous rapport with Yvonne Furneaux as his wife, and there are some exceptionally long takes which he does faultlessly.
RTNDR: As for yourself, you were editor of UK’s horror genre magazine Shivers and you have a wonderfully keen eye when writing about film and interviewing actors and actresses – are there any projects or books in the works for the near future? Maybe a biography on Mr. Cushing’s very close friend Christopher Lee?
DAVID: There is an excellent Christopher Lee book written by my friend Jonathan Rigby, I think it’s out of print but hopefully it’ll be reprinted. Thank you so much for the compliments about my work. The Cushing book was a labour of love, and there aren’t many subjects like him around. You have to be able to spend some time getting into the subject’s head, and there are some people whose heads you probably wouldn’t want to get inside! But I do love interviewing people, I must do some more of that, I’ll find an excuse. I’ve done a couple of Blu-Ray commentaries, I’d love to do some more of those.
–The staff at Retrenders would like to give a tremendous thank you to David for taking the time out to answer some questions on his book and to give us some more insight in the life of the amazing Peter Cushing!
Hardback: Peter Cushing: A Life in Film
Author: David Miller
Publisher: Titan Books