What a time to be born. When Christopher Plummer came into this world the stock market crash was less than a month old and his parents, no longer living together, were in the process of ending their marriage. Born in Toronto, the baby was named Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer, and his mother returned to Montreal, which was her hometown, when he was about one year old.
Despite the times, he lived a life of privilege, at least at first. He was brought up and educated by his mother in Montreal, and later went to the Jennings Private School. He claimed in a documentary by Harry Rasky that he was raised by a group of aunts who were extremely well educated and well read and through them he came to know a lot about the arts and theatre despite his very young age. Other relatives included Guy Du Maurier, the playwright, and his cousin Nigel Bruce who played Dr. Watson alongside the legendary Basil Rathbone in so many Sherlock Holmes films. Plummer’s mother who had been a nurse in France during the First World War, was the head of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild and took her young son to plays, ballets, operas and other cultural events. He was taught piano and at one point studied to be a concert pianist.
After working as a lighting designer for his high school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Plummer became interested in acting. By his mid-teens, he had played leading roles in student productions and his first important role was that of D’Arcy in Pride and Punishment, a role he called “the first wonderful part I ever had to play.” He trained for the theatre with the Canadian Repertory Company in Ottawa and while there, in just two short years, he played 75 different roles. He recalled for Rasky that his first paying part was in Machina Infernale (The Infernal Machine) by Jean Cocteau, in which he worked with another young Montreal actor, William Shatner. They had worked in radio drama together, something they both continued to do for some time. Radio drama almost always meant the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and it was also the CBC that gave Plummer his first break in television when he appeared in an early production of Othello. It was 1951 and within a few short years he would be cast in his first feature film. But there was still so much ahead of him.
His was hired by a repertory company in Bermuda, where he played both leading and featured roles, appearing in The Royal Family, The Playboy of the Western World, The Petrified Forest, Nina, The Little Foxes and The Constant Wife. It was his first time working outside of Canada and he enjoyed the experience. Because of his exceptional work in Nina, the great American actor Edward Everett Horton invited him to join the American touring company to take a part that had originally been played by David Niven. Plummer jumped at the chance and began working in the United States in 1953. He was just 24 years old.
Within a year he was on Broadway in The Star Cross Story. Unfortunately, the production closed after only one performance. Later that year he appeared in Christopher Fry’s The Dark Is Light Enough with Katherine Cornell, and then landed a role in Home is the Hero, which also, unfortunately, had a short run. In late 1955 he joined the cast of The Lark, and gave a strong performance as Warwick, which was praised by the critics. But it seemed that Plummer was meant to play Shakespeare. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times, one of the most influential writers in that era, hailed him as “a Shakespearean actor of the first rank.” Back in Canada, Plummer became a leading actor in the Shakespearean Festival company at Stratford, Ontario. Between 1956 and 1959, he appeared in Henry V, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, Much Ado about Nothing, and A Winter`s Tale. It was also during this time that he began to accept more and more television work. During the 1950s he appeared in several television plays during the so-called Golden Age of television. For the Kraft Theatre be appeared in The Light that Failed, and The Web. For the General Electric Theatre he played the part of Christian in a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which starred Jose Ferrer. When NBC launched a unique production of Hamlet staged at Elsinore in 1964, it was Christopher Plummer they turned to and he gave a stunning performance. Mounted to honour the 400th birthday of Shakespeare, it was a breakthrough for both the young actor and the young medium, and was widely hailed by critics. It went on to be broadcast in 30 countries.
Plummer had built a solid career and so in his 30s turned his attention to his private life hoping to find as much happiness there as he had in his profession. He married Tammy Grimes in 1956, and their only child, Amanda, now also an actor, was born on March 23 1957. But the marriage didn’t last. The couple divorced just three years after their daughter was born. By then Plummer had taken his turn in front of a movie camera. Oddly enough the title of his first film was Stage Struck (1958). It began a long run of roles in which he always seem to dominate the screen. He played Commodus in 1964 in Fall of the Roman Empire, and, in perhaps his most famous role, Baron Von Trapp in 1965`s The Sound of Music. In 1969 he played the Aztec king in Royal Hunt of the Sun, and was Sherlock Holmes opposite James Mason as Watson in Murder by Decree (1979). Plummer’s cousin, Nigel Bruce had played the role but Plummer called Mason the “best Watson I have ever seen.” He appeared as Rudyard Kipling in the 1975 production of The Man Who Would be King co-starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine and directed by John Huston. He also played the role of Dr. Goines in 12 Monkeys and was Mike Wallace in The Insider. Always comfortable on television, he won an Emmy for his performance in the 1976 mini-series The Moneychangers.
Plummer had never abandoned the stage and was an outstanding Iago in 1981’s production of Othello, which caused one critic to write that it was the best Shakespearean performance ever done on stage. In the event anyone doubted his abilities, he won the 1997 Tony for his portrayal of John Barrymore in the one-man show titled simply, Barrymore. He was 68 years of age and one reviewer called him the finest classical actor still acting on the stage. Barrymore was relaunched in 2011 in Toronto for a limited run and it was announced as the play was closing that it would be preserved as a television production.
Plummer retained all of his screen power too. When David Denby reviewed the 2005 movie, Syriana for The New Yorker magazine he wrote, “Christopher Plummer… gives the kind of suavely insinuating performance that he’s often given before. He’s so good at it that there’s a tendancy to take him for granted, but every time he’s on screen…there’s an extra charge of danger and malice.” Not bad for an actor who was then approaching 75 years old.
After his first marriage had failed, he married Patricia Audrey Lewis in 1962. She was a journalist but this marriage didn’t hold either and they divorced just a few years later. But in 1970 he married Elaine Regina Taylor, a dancer, actress and producer. They met on the set of Lock Up Your Daughters in which both had appeared in 1969. By then Plummer’s legendary capacity for drink, much like Barrymore, had taken quite a toll. In his own words he credits his wife with being “intelligent enough to realize she had married a wreck and she did something about it and nursed me back to life again.”
Christopher Plummer seemed to have found the personal happiness he always wanted. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Weston, Connecticut, which is just north of New York in a large comfortable home he and his wife remodelled and redecorated. Although he spent most of his time in the United States, he remained a Canadian and among his many awards and honours, Plummer was invested as Companion of the Order of Canada, which is Canada’s highest civil honour.
In 2012 he won a Golden Globe and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar® for his role in Beginners. At 82, he became the oldest actor to win an Oscar®, an honour he held until his passing in early 2021. At the 2021 Academy Awards, Anthony Hopkins won a Best Actor Oscar® for his role in The Father. Hopkins was 83 when the film was made, becoming the new oldest actor to win an Oscar®. In January of 2017 Plummer was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television during that year’s Canadian Screen Awards.
Christopher Plummer was 91 when he died February 5, 2021 at his home in Connecticut.
Also see: Christopher Plummer’s Filmography
All photos of Christopher Plummer used on this page were scanned from originals in the Northernstars Collection.
This biography was updated in 2021 and is Copyright © 2021 by Ralph Lucas. It may not be reproduced without prior written permission. For more information about copyright, click here. All scanned photos of Christopher Plummer used on this page were taken from originals in the Northernstars Collection. The photo of Christopher Plummer with his Canadian Screen Award is Copyright © 2017 and may not be reproduced.