By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
Ask anyone to name an actor associated with British horror and two will always come up.
Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
I never got to meet him which I regret. He terrified me in the Hammer horror movies and swept me along in his battles with the Daleks.
It is nearly twenty five years since Peter died and yet it seems he is still around. I think it’s fair to say that although he is not the first actor to be brought back via CGI, he is the first to be so at the forefront of the story to the point kids couldn’t tell he wasn’t real.
That moment in Rogue One when Grand Moff Tarkin turned to the camera and we saw Peter Cushing’s face has divided many. If it is a good thing or not is a matter for another time but it did introduce one of our greatest actors to a whole new generation of children. Cushing in the first Star Wars movie brought a grandeur to the proceedings that contributed immensely to the movie’s success. He did admit that that he wondered what a Grand Moff was and initially thought it was a moth. He also said he hadn’t a clue what was going on as it was for children and took roles that he thought people would like to see him in. Despite this lack of understanding, his cold, emotionless slaughter of an entire planet encapsulated audiences. He was the true villain of the piece and when you look at it, Darth Vader was his lackey even if Tarkin ruled the galaxy in comfy slippers. Guy Henry did a great job in capturing Cushing’s take on Tarkin, a man focused entirely on dominating the galaxy with his super weapon.
Did you know that somewhere in the world at any given time, a Peter Cushing movie is being shown? Known throughout the industry as a consummate gentleman, Peter was also an active writer whose career spanned six decades. He has played virtually everything from Van Helsing to Sherlock Holmes to Doctor Who himself and endures to this day in every performance. He was also asked to play the doctor on television but declined. His reasons were simple: it wasn’t his cup of tea and he didn’t like the Daleks!
There are few actors that can span generations but Peter was one of them. His distinctive timeless features adorned many a screen big and small in over one hundred movies and shows like Space 1999. His rich voice enhanced many a radio play. He was adored by everyone, young and old alike. Children loved him as the Doctor because he portrayed him as a kindly old grandfather with a hint of mischief in his eye, while adults loved him staking Dracula, spearing mummies or battling the Seven Golden Vampires. Even his lesser roles – such as Night of the Big Heat where he simply played an islander who loved a pint in his local – were thoughtfully played by the actor. One thing you could never do is forget Peter Cushing and fans just lit up whenever and wherever he appeared.
His career began in the British Theatre before making a name for himself in Hollywood in movies like The Man in the Iron Mask and A Chump in Oxford. Returning to his homeland during the Second World War, he began working in television in shows like 1984. But the British film industry was booming and a company called Hammer began making horror movies which would define the careers of Peter and Christopher Lee alike.
To the world they are the British horror industry and no matter how naff the script was – and there were some naff ones – it was the sincere and straight way the actors played the roles that managed to lift them beyond mediocre. Famously, while playing Sherlock Holmes, Peter didn’t like the taste of a pipe and kept a glass of milk on hand to take away the taste. Again don’t forget the slippers in Star Wars.
Despite his stardom and international success, Peter feared typecasting like many actors, so to take away this he took on the role of Doctor Who in two movies for Amicus, Hammer’s main rivals. He played him as a grandfather, fiercely protective of his granddaughters, who invented a time machine, the Tardis, in his back garden. Both movies had Peter face off against the Daleks in glorious technicolour. It was these movies that inspired today’s new generation of Daleks for Matt Smith. It speaks volumes about Peter’s character that he wasn’t even aware how loved he was and, as I said, he could walk across any medium and immediately be loved by fans.
No matter where he appeared, his presence lit up the room and gave a gravitas to any scene as seen in Space 1999 where he played Raan and the only high profile actor who has appeared in both the old and new Avengers opposite Patrick McNee featuring the Cybernauts.
Indeed, he was a favourite on the Morecambe and Wise show where he endured the running joke of never getting paid for his services and eternally seeking that elusive fiver. This he would finally get on This is Your Life when Ernie appeared, Eric having passed at this stage, and gave him that fiver before stealing it off him again. But that was Peter, loved by everyone, a perfectionist actor and a real star. Many so called celebrities of today who quite simply aren’t famous for their talent could learn a lesson in star quality from Peter and indeed his great friend Christopher Lee. There was no tantrums or diva behaviour, just grounded acting which endeared them to the crews they worked with too.
He was married to his beloved Helen for many years before she died. And such was his humility he wrote to Jim’ll Fix It to ask could he have a rose named after his late wife. Who else among the so called stars of today would even think about doing that? They would simply fire a few thousand in someone’s direction and make it happen. For Peter he had lost his soul mate in her passing and in an interview he said that her loss had left him where his only ambition was to join her one day. Life was all about killing time now. One of my most prized possessions is letter to me from Peter when I wrote to him back in the nineties asking for his autograph. He sent me the most beautiful letter about himself and thanking me for remarking on the fact that his wife had a rose named after her. It has to be the most touching letter from a celebrity I have ever received and as much as I loved the man then, in that moment, he was a hero. Not for the trappings of celebrity but for being a man whose loss became our loss and to acknowledge that in a letter was simply mind-blowing. That quality should be shown to all these newbie celebs. And every time I see him in a movie that letter springs to mind.
Not a religious man but one of strong ethical beliefs, Peter lived his life to the full as a poem left by Helen urged him to live it to the max but his grief had obvious physical effects on him. And that’s why Peter’s so loved to this day. When he hurt, the world hurt with him. He was the people’s actor, no airs or graces and a gentleman to the end. He was quality, he was class, he was indomitable and he will never ever be forgotten.
I think we’ll leave the last word to co star Christopher Lee. On Peter’s death he said: “At some point in your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke, you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”
There will never be his like again.