Peter Cushing was born in 1913 in the town of Purley, Surrey. His interest in the cinema began when he was a child and spent many hours in the Electric Palace watching Chaplin, Keaton, William S. Hart and Tom Mix; all of whom fired his ambition to become a film star. When he left school he announced his intention of becoming an actor to his parents, who were not impressed. Cushing compromised, at first. During the day he worked as a surveyor's assistant for the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council, but his nights were spent with the local amateur dramatic societies. Eventually he gave up the surveying and joined the Worthing Repertory Company; the same company, incidentally, that Christopher Lee later joined. Then, after four years with them, he decided to go to America.
"No one knew me in Hollywood, but I was frightfully lucky and did remarkably well. I didn't have any dialogue in my first scenes, I just had a fight with Warren William who, I remember, was playing one of the three musketeers in this film called The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). But they were quite pleased with what I did, so I had another small part where I rode up on a horse and said: "The king wants to see you!" Louis Hayward was playing twins in this film and the director, James Whale, was looking for someone who could play opposite Hayward for the split-screen scenes. Anyway, that's the job I landed. I was on the picture three months playing all these scenes with Louis. I played both parts and was able, in so doing, to learn a great deal about filming."
After The Man in the Iron Mask Cushing had a small role in a Laurel and Hardy comedy, A Chump at Oxford (Alfred Goulding, 1939), and then landed the second male lead in Vigil in the Night (George Stevens, 1939). "I got it because I could manage the Lancashire accent required." The following year, after more roles in films like Women in War (John H. Auer, 1940) and They Dare Not Love (James Whale, 1940), Cushing decided to return to England. "I got fearfully homesick because war broke out almost upon my arrival. It wasn't because I wanted to fight, or anything, but I did want to be at home. There was quite an exodus of British actors from Hollywood at that time."
"After the war I did a lot of work at a theatre called the Kew Theatre. You got very little money there--I think it was 5 pounds for the two weeks, but it was a great shop window where you could try out plays with the possibility of them being transferred to the West End. But more than that, you were often seen by theatre managers who came down from the West End, and it was through that indeed, that many things stemmed. It was while I was playing a Frenchman in a play called While the Sun Shines at Kew that I got the part in the Laurence Olivier film Hamlet. Prior to that I went through a low period in my career when I almost gave up acting, or rather it was giving me up. I hadn't worked for two years and I was in such desperate straits. And it was in 1951 that I did my first television play. I did that for several years and it was through all this TV work that I got back into films."
One of the first films that he appeared in during the 1950s was Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1951). This was followed by The Black Knight (Tay Garnett) in 1954 in which he played the villain (Alan Ladd was the hero). "One film company kept ringing my agent saying they wanted Peter Cushing to make films for them. That was Hammer. It started after I did the television play of Orwell's 1984 which caused a bit of a furor at the time. Soon afterwards, James Carreras, as he was then, started to ring my agent once a week almost regularly saying, 'When's the boy going to be free? We must have him.' So then I read in the papers that they were going to remake the Frankenstein pictures, which I remembered being very thrilled by as a boy, so I rang my agent and said if they're still interested I'm free now as this is the one I'd like to do.
"No one at all connected with the Frankenstein film realized where it was going to lead to. It was just a picture in a group of five they were doing that year. They had no idea it would start this incredible snowball. But it looked absolutely marvellous and they had wonderful people working on it, such as Jack Asher who was a wonderful lighting cameraman, and of course Terence Fisher who was a first-class director. In America's eyes the whole thing looked, as they used to say, like a million dollars. And it wasn't, of course. My heavens, it was a ridiculous budget--65,000 pounds. As a budget for a film that was nonsensical. But it made a fortune for Hammer and everyone else, so they spent a little more on the next one, Horror of Dracula. It's never stopped since.
"I have a tremendous amount of affection for Baron Frankenstein for all the obvious reasons. I based the original character on Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein, which I'd never read until I knew I was doing the film. You couldn't put all of Mary Shelley's novel into an hour and a half's screening but it was adapted very well, I thought, by Jimmy Sangster, and there was a certain amount of the original character I could bring into it. In the subsequent films he became more ruthless. But I try to base Frankenstein on a man who is, fundamentally, trying to do something for the good of mankind, as indeed Knox was, but against all odds because the villagers always seem to come and knock on his door and shout, 'You beast! You beast!' Actually I'm better known as Sherlock Holmes to many people than Frankenstein, as I did one film of that character and did a TV series of sixteen stories for the BBC, which doesn't compare with the number of times I've played Frankenstein.
"I have played very few real villains during my career." Which, despite his villainous image, is basically true. In films like The Skull (Freddie Francis, 1965), Night of the Big Heat (Terence Fisher, 1967), The Vampire Lovers (Roy Ward Baker, 1970), Tales from the Crypt (Freddie Francis, 1971), The Creeping Flesh (Freddie Francis, 1972) his roles have been sympathetic ones. Of course in the Dracula films he plays Van Helsing, Dracula's continual adversary who represents the forces of Goodness. He has even, in two films, appeared as Dr Who, the benevolent scientist created in the BBC's long-running children's serial. But one of the outstanding things about Cushing is that no matter how mediocre, or downright dismal, the script may be, he always manages to give the character he is playing that something extra. He breathes life into characters that would be mere cardboard in anyone else's hands.
The one actor whom he has been most associated with during his horror career is Christopher Lee. They met on the set of Curse of Frankenstein in 1956. "I always say that I met him first in his creature make-up and when he took it off I screamed. He's been such a dear friend. And it's taken tremendous courage on his part to break away from horror films and succeed in something different. It takes a great deal of courage in this business to turn away from something that's sure and try something that isn't. As he said, the Van Helsing character, even though it's the same character, is more interesting; but all he has to do as Dracula is stand in a corner, show his fangs, and hiss."
One of Cushing's last films, and one for which he is most remembered by modern audiences, is that of the evil commander of the Death Star, Grand Moff Tarkin, in Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). After that, Cushing made a few films in the early 80s, then retired from films in the late '80s and early '90s to battle cancer and overcome a broken hip and other ailments. Still, he was a frequent sight on a bicycle or painting scenery near his home at Whitsable, Sussex. Peter Cushing died of cancer on August 11, 1994. He was 81.
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
A selection of Peter Cushing films.
Find Peter Cushing on eBay.com
A selection of Peter Cushing in books.
A History of Horror
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