Book: Peter Cushing: A Life in Film


Peter Cushing is an icon, instantly recognizable for his angular face and his precise elocution. He’s best known for his Hammer roles as Dr. Frankenstein and Van Helsing, as well as playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. He’s also one of the quintessential Sherlock Holmes actors and played a non-canonical Doctor Who on the big screen when the show was still in its William Hartnell years.

Yet he was more than a gaunt-faced genre maven, which is revealed in David Miller’s Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, released last month by Titan Books. Originally published in 2000 as The Peter Cushing Companion, this is an updated and exhaustive biography from life to death and role to role, and includes two color photo sections and many black and white images.

Since I knew very little about Cushing’s life prior to reading the book, I was struck by a few things, most notably how much history is tied into his work, how impish he was through most of his life, and how absolutely despondent a person can become when he or she loses a loved one.

Horror of Dracula Official Trailer #1 - Christopher Lee Movie (1958) HD

At the back of Peter Cushing: A Life in Film, there’s a complete chronology of every stage and screen appearance that Cushing ever made from 1936 to 1994. The book seems to cover each of these items like a checklist, and somehow manages to come up with an anecdote for each production or appearance. It helps paint a portrait of Cushing as a working actor, constantly hopping from role to role, sharing time with the likes of Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasence on multiple occasions.

From the anecdotes throughout the book, Cushing is revealed as a wit and a charmer in his personal life, and a bit of manchild throughout much of it. He constantly relied on his wife Helen to do basic things for him and admitted it publicly in interviews. As an actor, Cushing was a meticulous researcher and a continual suggester of good ideas, with many films benefiting from his dedication and input. For example, the famous finale of Horror of Dracula, in which Van Helsing dashes across a table to leap at a curtained window, was just one of Cushing’s great additions. (I still remember watching that scene for the first time with friends ago and thinking, “That is freakin’ bonkers!” in a good way.) In the gallery is an image of typical script pages from Cushing, with notes and his own watercolors.

Cushing co-starred with Pleasence in a 1954 TV adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 that caused a sensation when it first aired. The public was angered by the production for being lurid, terrifying, and unfit for broadcast — on a Sunday, no less. Similar criticisms were levied at Cushing’s Hammer output, as evidenced by a number of reviews that Miller excerpts. It’s odd how time works in providing distance and appreciation. Movies like Horror of Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein, now considered classics, were at the time deemed obscene and depraved. (A 1965 BBC production of 1984 caused none of the stir of its 1954 counterpart.) Yet even the shivering, outraged, moralizing reviews took time to praise Cushing for making the proceeding believable and respectable.

Peter Cushing and his toy soldiers.avi

Cushing and Christopher Lee first worked together on Curse of Frankenstein, and the goofy boyishness of both actors comes through. They apparently became fast friends, and would sometimes hang out on set singing impromptu songs ranging from opera to Gilbert and Sullivan. There are also mentions in the book of both Lee and Cushing doing impersonations of Sylvester the Cat for their own (and everyone else’s) amusement. I don’t know if film or audio of the songs or the impersonations exist, though I really hope there’s something, somewhere, of this joyful madness.

Maybe the oddest boyish quirk to Cushing was his collection of toy soldiers. He’d buy and collect hundreds of them, and make models as well. In one house that he owned with Helen, he set up model airplanes and bombers on the ceiling of a room. Sometimes he’d take shots at the highest plane with a pop gun. It’s hard to imagine these kinds of acts from a man whose screen persona was pure gravitas, but maybe he needed a childish side to balance the serious one.

Cushing wrote about his toy soldier collection in a column for TV Mirror. It’s almost a little Michael Chabon-like in its enthusiasm for escape:

Now I have a theory about hobbies and toys, and I’m quite prepared for you to scoff at me. The theory is quite simple.It is that toys are given to children when they are too young to appreciate them and that because most men ‘put away childish things’ as they reach adulthood, they miss a great deal of happiness at a time in their lives when… [sic] they are actually in a much better position to enjoy their toys and hobbies.

Far too many men are hobby-less… [sic] Without the escapism which comes only from dabbling with adult toys, their minds are prey to all the frustrations and fears of the working day. So many, it seems to me, lose happiness as they grow up. Their entire absorption in their careers and adult responsibilities bring lines of worry and premature age.

The Curse Of Frankenstein / Original Theatrical Trailer (1957)

But these toy soldiers were sold off with the death of Cushing’s wife Helen in 1971, which is just one sign of how devastated he was when he lost her. There’s a photo in the book of Cushing in Twins of Evil, his first role after Helen’s death, and the sadness in his eyes is undeniable. It appears more real than in-character. In actress Veronica Carlson’s foreword to the book, she notes how the twinkle had gone out of Cushing’s eyes in 1974, and his demeanor had changed severely. He wrestled with depression and thoughts of suicide for a long while after Helen’s passing. In his 1986 autobiography, the recounted events end at 1971 because Cushing says that was the year that “my life, as I knew and loved it, ended.”

There’s a real love for Cushing that I sensed reading the various anecdotes and running my finger through the listings in the chronology and index. There’s even love in the end papers, which show stills of Cushing in various roles throughout his career. His face changes so much over time. In some of the early images he looks dashing, almost like a thinner Basil Rathbone. Later, there’s the facial wasting and too-prominent cheekbones of crippling depression. Here’s a man who lived 23 more years after he felt his life ended. Like Carlson notes later in the book, I wanted to give the poor guy a hug.

The central image on the last of the end papers is Cushing in a top hat and pince nez giving a thumbs up with an exaggerated prim look on his face. It’s funny and yet serious — like a boy playing dress up as a fusty old man. Below and to the left, there’s Cushing with a smile, the twinkle in the eyes bright, hinting at the charm he displayed when he was most alive. Miller has highlighted the joys and heartaches of the man between the covers. The book is a fine service to Cushing’s fans but also to the man himself.

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.