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Peter Cushing: The Gentleman of Horror


LawrenceA
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Peter Wilton Cushing (1913-1994) was one of the most recognizable stars in horror films from the 1950's through the 1970's. A quiet, gentle man in real life, he originally started acting to meet new people and help overcome his shyness. After a small bit of theater work, he followed many of his English countrymen to the United States to seek work in films. Although he managed to land a handful of small roles in Hollywood pictures, it wasn't enough to pay the bills, and so he decided to return to England. At this point Britain had entered the Second World War, and Cushing enlisted in the Army, where he was sent to work with the ENSA group, the Entertainments National Service Association, entertaining the troops and war-battered civilians.

 

After the war, Cushing started getting films roles, including a fun bit as Osric in Laurence Olivier's 1948 version of Hamlet. This lead to more small film parts, and also to larger parts on TV for the BBC. His starring role in the 1954 adaptation of 1984 was a smash success, and it brought him to the attention of the folks at Hammer studios, who were interested in making some higher-class horror films, using full-color film, quality costuming and set design, and sophisticated actors and actresses. Cushing landed the starring role in 1957's Curse of Frankenstein as the title scientist, a part that he would forever be associated with. This resounding hit lead to others for Hammer, such as The Abominable Snowman, before he was cast in his other most iconic role, that of Van Helsing in 1958's Horror of Dracula, which once again paired him with co-star Christopher Lee (they would make 24 films together in total). This was also a huge success, and from then on Cushing and Lee would become the new superstars of horror, rivaling their predecessors such as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. Among the many horror titles Cushing would appear in for Hammer Films were The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Mummy (1959), The Brides of Dracula (1961), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), The Gorgon (1964), The Skull (1965), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1968), The Vampire Lovers (1970), Twins of Evil (1971), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1974), and  The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974). He also appeared in Hammer's rivals' films, such as The Blood Beast Terror  (1968) and The Creeping Flesh (1973) for Tigon Pictures, and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). Torture Garden (1967), The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Tales from the Crypt (1972), Asylum (1972), and From Beyond the Grave (1974) for Amicus Productions.

 

Cushing also found success with two cult characters. First was Sherlock Holmes, a role he played in Hammer's 1959 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. He would go on to play the great detective on TV as well, taking over from Douglas Wilmer for the second series of Sherlock Holmes in 1968. Cushing also played the title role (although it bore little resemblance to the TV version) of the science fiction hero known as the Doctor, in two films: 1965's Dr. Who and the Daleks and 1966's Daleks - Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.

 

Cushing was very happily, devotedly married to his wife Violet for 27 years, and when she died after a short illness in 1971, Cushing was devastated. He later admitted to contemplating suicide, although he buried himself in work instead. He appeared in multiple films every year throughout the early 1970's. He even managed, by decade's end, to land one more iconic role, that of the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in 1977's Star Wars. Much like co-star Alec Guinness, Cushing didn't think much of the film while making it, and was shocked when it became the phenomena that it has turned into. Cushing continued to act in small roles through the mid 1980's, and was awarded an OBE by the Queen in 1989. He passed away from cancer in 1994.

 

Peter Cushing brought a sense of posh sophistication and intelligence to even the most ludicrous of roles, and he always treated the material as if he were reciting the finest literature, which more often than not was not the case. Believable as both snobbish prigs and kindly grandfathers, Cushing had a range that wasn't often acknowledged. And in the roles he's most remembered for, the driven Dr. Frankenstein and the fanatical Dr. Van Helsing, he brought previously untapped nuance and perspective to two of horror's enduring archetypes. 

 

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Cushing brought a great, comforting presence with his portrayal of Van Helsing to my two favourite Hammer horrors, Horror of Dracula and Brides of Dracula. He was completely believable in bringing intelligence as well as some humanity to the role.

 

But Cushing was also a fine enough actor to also be one of the most cold blooded Dr. Frankensteins in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

 

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I read a biography on Peter Cushing last year, and it was interesting to read that his hobby was sculpting miniature soldiers. He was obsessive about it, and would invite reporters who wished to interview him over to his house, where he would proceed to bore them to tears with his incessant talk of his figurines and their various battlefield panoramas he would set up. He and his wife lived in a modest home and rarely traveled, outside of his work, and he spent most of his money on his hobby. 

 

There was also a fun story about some stage work he did during the war. He was housed in a rooming house, and his branch of ENSA was working on a revue that included a bit mocking Nazis, The productions were a group effort, so the actors also wrote scripts, built sets, and stitched costumes. The last chore fell to Cushing on this occasion, and he was working on the costumes for the Nazis in his room at the boarding house. He left for his daily work duties one day, and returned in the evening to find military personnel and local constabulary in his room waiting for him. It seems his landlady found the costumes while cleaning and assumed the shy and often absent Cushing was secretly a Nazi agent! He was detained until his theatrical story could be verified. 

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Hi, Lawrence.

 

This is my first official new post under my new name of ColumboFan.

 

I am not a big horror fan, so there are several Peter Cushing movies I have not seen and may never see.

 

This is also true of his main partner in horror and Sherlock Holmes movies Sir Christopher Lee.

 

I don't think there is any point in my trying to number the movies I have seen starring this man.  But I do enjoy him and Lee together.  Love them together.

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Here are a few films that Peter Cushing appeared in that were outside of the horror genre.

 

The Man In the Iron Mask (1939)

A Chump at Oxford (1940)

Vigil In the Night (1940)

Hamlet (1948)

Moulin Rouge (1952)

The Black Knight (1954)

The End of the Affair  (1955)

Alexander the Great (1956)

John Paul Jones (1959)

The Naked Edge (1961, and Gary Cooper's final film)

 

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Here are a few films that Peter Cushing appeared in that were outside of the horror genre.

 

The Man In the Iron Mask (1939)

A Chump at Oxford (1940)

Vigil In the Night (1940)

Hamlet (1948)

Moulin Rouge (1952)

The Black Knight (1954)

The End of the Affair  (1955)

Alexander the Great (1956)

John Paul Jones (1959)

The Naked Edge (1961, and Gary Cooper's final film)

Vigil in the Night was one of my favourite films.  I had Carole Lombard's performance nominated for Best Actress in the performance thread.

 

I also loved Cushing in The man in the Iron Mask

 

I have The Naked Edge on my to-see list.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Great thread with lots of good information.

I never realized all these years I just naturally associated Peter with Sherlock Holmes and then the Drs. Frankenstein and Van Helsing and never thought of him in other roles.

I'll have to go looking into some of these now.

Thanks.

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