Christopher Plummer, ‘Sound of Music’ star and oldest actor to win an Oscar, dead at 91

Christopher Plummer, who was among the greatest Canadian actors ever to grace stage and screen, has died.

Plummer died Friday morning at his home in Connecticut with his wife, Elaine Taylor, by his side, said Lou Pitt, his longtime friend and manager.

In a career that spanned over six decades, Plummer was nominated for best supporting actor at the Academy Awards three times and won once at 82 for Beginners, a film about a widower who comes out of the closet late in life while dying of cancer.

He also captured two Tony Awards among seven nominations, and took home two Emmys. He earned a reputation as one of the great classical actors of modern times — without attending a prestigious theatre school.

He performed on Broadway, London’s West End and at Canada’s Stratford and Shaw festivals. There were few marquee Shakespearean roles he didn’t take on, a list that included Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Iago, Henry V, Antony, Mercutio and Prospero. 

“The man is extraordinary, he’s got so many sides to him, he’s quite remarkable. When you share a stage with him it’s magic, it’s really is,” fellow actor Gordon Pinsent told CBC in 2011 when Plummer received Stratford’s lifetime achievement award.

On screen, Plummer appeared in 1965 as Captain von Trapp, alongside British stage and screen star Julie Andrews, in what was, for several years, the highest grossing film of all time, The Sound of Music, a role he was famously ambivalent about.

“What have I done playing with all these children? Children and dogs steal scenes,” Plummer recounted to CBC in a documentary two years after the release of the movie he often jokingly called The Sound of Mucus, or S and M.

WATCH | Plummer discusses The Sound of Music on CBC’s TBA:

The popular actor shares his opinions on acting, drinking and The Sound of Music with CBC-TV’s TBA in 1967. 32:04

The movie brought him almost more work than he could handle on the stages of London’s West End and Broadway, as well as in TV movies and miniseries during the 1970s and ’80s.

But he then went on to enjoy a late-life renaissance in film, with lauded performances in The Insider, A Beautiful Mind, Beginners and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Born Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer on Dec. 13, 1929 in Toronto, he was a descendant of John Abbott, Canada’s third prime minister. 

Plummer’s parents split up not long after his birth, and he was raised in relative privilege in Montreal by his mother and her extended family. He saw his father on only one other occasion years later.

A love for acting onstage was cemented by playing Mr. Darcy in a Montreal High School production of Pride and Prejudice. He would further develop his stagecraft at the Ottawa Repertory Theatre, and learned how to harness his baritone voice in CBC Radio plays. 

Broadway beginnings

Plummer landed in New York in 1953, appearing on Broadway supporting stars like Tyrone Power and Julie Harris, and taking direction from Elia Kazan.

His reputation grew such that he was called back to Canada to portray Henry V in the Stratford Festival’s final year under the big tent in 1956, returning the next year to usher in their new indoor theatre as Hamlet.

Plummer garnered his first Tony nomination for his turn in J.B., a 1958 play written in free verse by American poet/playwright Archibald MacLeish.

He then went on to London, where he would appear alongside the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, Ian Holm and a young Judi Dench in Royal Shakespeare Company productions well into the 1960s.

When the curtain fell at show’s end, Plummer often kept company with heavyweight revellers like Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole.

“You’ve given an awful lot of your own personality with just the reward of applause at the end, but it isn’t quite enough to fill the rest of the night,” he told CBC of this need to “anesthetize.”

WATCH | Plummer discusses singing and working with Julie Andrews:

The actor talks about singing and working with Julie Andrews in 1964. 10:39

Plummer’s profile would be raised by The Sound of Music and an internationally televised production of Hamlet, the only modern staging of the play at Elsinore castle in Denmark.

But by the late 1960s his personal life was not in great shape. He’d been through two marriages, and for several years made no effort to contact his only child, Amanda, from his first marriage.

“I was a lousy husband and an even worse father,” he admitted in his 2008 autobiography, In Spite of Myself.

Plummer beamed with pride years later when his daughter earned plaudits for her own acting, but was quick to disavow any credit for her talent.

Canadian productions

Plummer cut down on his drinking and a 1970 marriage with Elaine Taylor would take; the couple put down roots in Connecticut for several decades.

He never lived in Canada — the taxes were outrageous, he said — but he kept coming back for a variety of roles when the country’s film and television industry began to flourish.

There would be movies for big and small screen Canadian productions, including Murder by Decree, Silent Partner, Riel and Ararat, as well as the TV series Counterstrike, and children’s fare like his Emmy-winning voice work in Madeline.

Plummer thrived on switching from screen work to the theatre, and he scored his first Tony in a musical version of Cyrano in 1974.

“You have to be absolutely ruthless in your confidence about how to deal with the great roles, otherwise they’ll deal with you,” he said of his approach, in an interview with the National Theatre Museum decades later.

WATCH | Plummer gets lifetime achievement award at the Canadian Screen Awards:

The veteran actor and Oscar winner was presented the honour for his body of work at the Canadian Screen Awards. 3:10

After an Emmy win for the 1976 TV series The Money Changers, Plummer found himself in demand more for TV movies and miniseries such as The Thorn Birds than for meaty motion picture roles.

He rejected reports of clashes with Oscar winner Glenda Jackson during their 1988 Macbeth stage run as a ploy to sell tickets, but it was true that he possessed a healthy ego, occasionally earning a reputation for being difficult.

After some early hiccups in its early run, his two-person play Barrymore hit its stride on Broadway in early 1997. Plummer won Tony and Drama Desk awards as actor John Barrymore, reflecting at life’s end.

Plummer started to become more in demand for film roles at the same time. Appearances in Dolores Claiborne and 12 Monkeys were followed by a portrayal of journalist Mike Wallace in the 1999 film The Insider, which won him a National Society of Film Critics Award.

Plummer was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for playing Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station in 2010, and would win two years later in the role of Hal Fields, who, after the death of his wife, comes out as a gay man in Beginners.

He stared at the golden statue onstage in Los Angeles and quipped, “You’re only two years older than me, darling, where you have been all my life?”

Plummer told the New York Times in 2014 he found it sad when people waited all their lives to retire and then couldn’t find a purpose once their working life was over.

“We shouldn’t retire. Not in our profession. There’s no such thing,” he said. “We want to drop dead onstage. That would be a nice theatrical way to go.”

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