Date: June 5, 2013
The 26th of May marks the birth date of the Gentleman of Horror: Peter Cushing (26 May 1913 - 11 August 1994). Alongside Christopher Lee he was one of the main faces of the Hammer Film Productions. Although in films often Cushing and Lee were portrayed as mortal enemies they were close friends in real life. His career in horror took off when he started to play in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA in the late 1950’s, both directed by Terence Fisher. After that he appeared in many more (mostly Hammer) films such as THE MUMMY, THE GORGON, Dr. WHO AND THE DALEKS, THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS and THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA. With his typical face (cheekbones!), penetrating eyes and chilling voice he became one of horror’s most loved icons. And his kind and gentle nature towards his fellow actors, co-workers and fans earned him the title of Gentleman of Horror. Below a purely personal selection of some of his trademark roles.
In perhaps his most famous role for the main public Peter Cushing played Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope”. While he quite often played the hero in films in Star Wars he is one of the main villains: he is commander of the Death Star and Governor of the Imperial Outland Regions. Along with Darth Vader he is charged to hunt down and destroy the Rebel Alliance. Because of the intestacy of his acting and the stern, icy take on his part he was even dubbed to be ‘one of the most formidable villains in Star Wars history’: "We will crush the rebellion with one swift stroke!".
A pure personal favourite here. In “Twins of Evil” Peter Cushing played the role of Gustav Weil, the stern and pious uncle of the twins that come over the stay with him. Next to visiting church, he also runs the group that hunt witches.
Being the last part of ‘The Karnstein Trilogy’ (the previous parts being “The Vampire Lovers” and “Lust for a Vampire”) loosely based on the classic vampire story “Carmilla” by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, this one really made an impression on me when I saw it when I was young. Cushing is great as the strict uncle who has to make the choice of burning one of his nieces because she’s turned into a vampire.
Cushing also played a role in “The Vampire Lovers” and a part was written for him as well for “Lust for a Vampire” but dropped out due illness of his wife.
Being one of the most critically acclaimed Hammer produced films “The Hound of the Baskervilles” starred Cushing as the iconic sleuth Sherlock Holmes. The filmed also marked Sherlock Holmes first appearance in colour. Cushing was an avid Sherlock Holmes fan and was perfect for the role, playing him (in accordance to the novels) as someone who is hard to live with. This was a novelty in the Sherlock Holmes films and he would reprise his role as Sherlock Holmes in the non-Hammer related BBC tv-series of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. However, his performance in the tv series couldn’t top his role in the eerie “The Hound of the Baskervilles” film. Even now his sketch of Sherlock Holmes is used as the official logo for the Northern Musgraves, a British Sherlock Holmes society.
As Dr. Van Helsing Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee both put Van Helsing and Dracula back on the map with Hammer’s “Dracula” and generating a lot of sequels and some non-related films. Cushing portrayal of Van Helsing is top notch. His part is often a bit overshadowed by Lee’s Dracula but Cushing definitely was on the same level. He put a lot effort in the role as the vampire hunter driven to kill Dracula.
With the huge success of “Dracula” (also known as “Horror of Dracula”) it gave also established Hammer Film Productions, much thanks to the terrific roles played by Cushing and Lee.
Peter Cushing played the role of Baron Victor von Frankenstein several times. The story of the monster Frankenstein created was already the focus of the Universal films. Hammer focused more on the doctor himself. Through Cushing we saw a doctor who evolved from a mild-mannered baron into a cold-hearted, villainous character in “The Curse of Frankenstein”. Instead of getting body parts from corpses he’s actively murdering people to complete his creation.
Through the Hammer Frankenstein films the character of Viktor von Frankenstein changed in a couple of films making him sometimes more of an evil person, sometimes making him a bit more of a hero but he was always played with a great passion. Because of this deliciously villainous take on a famous and often more neglected character (once the monster is created) Cushing’s Viktor von Frankenstein earned the first place in my top 5 roles.
I’m a fan of the Hammer Film Productions and through this I got to love Cushing as a remarkable actor. Even while he played mostly in horrors produced by Hammer he knew how to add a certain ‘oomph’ to sometimes two dimensional characters and to me that is something that can make an actor stand out. Along with longtime friend and foe (the latter only in movies of course) Christopher Lee they formed a duo that became part of my childhood when the BBC regularly aired Hammer films late at night. I loved the atmosphere -and sometimes cheesy take- in those films and the sometimes charming, sometimes eerie Cushing managed to draw me in each and every time.
Even though he isn’t amongst us anymore he managed to create a specific place for himself on the silver screen and in the hearts of many fans of horror.
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