The news of Christopher Plummer’s sad and tragic death from a fall at the age of 91 has been heart-breaking to those of us who have long admired him. I wrote the following appreciation in August of 2012 as Plummer made what turned out to be his final appearance on the Stratford stage–perhaps on any stage…
CHASING PLUMMER: I’m not certain exactly when I became so fascinated with Christopher Plummer.
It may have been as a teenager when I got up at six one morning and drove to Stratford to line up at the Festival Theatre for rush seating to see Plummer in Antony and Cleopatra. I lined up for three hours before the announcement came that all the tickets for the day’s performance were gone–Plummer vanished in a puff of smoke and a closed box office.
I’ve been chasing him around ever since.
Curiously enough, in a life spent (misspent?) talking to celebrities, I never interviewed him. I would see him at a distance from time to time, atop the CN Tower for some event or other, hurrying across the street loaded down with shopping bags in my old Yorkville neighbourhood. Maybe it is just as well we didn’t meet, since in those days he was known for his arrogance and his unwillingness to suffer fools from the press, or anyone else, gladly.
I ran into him again last year at the annual cocktail party hosted by the veteran Hollywood journalist George Christy, a long-running tradition at the Toronto International Film Festival. But he remained at an elusive distance.
By that time, however, attempting to make up for that long-ago lost opportunity, I had seen him onstage a number of times: as John Barrymore in Barrymore; Julius Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at (finally) Stratford; as Prospero in The Tempest, again at Stratford.
And the other day, I witnessed his brilliant star turn in A Word or Two, the one-man show he has created and written, as mesmerizing and memorable an hour and a half inside a theatre as one is likely to spend.
Here then for our entertainment is the last of the great, flamboyantly romantic actors in a starry lineup that once included Olivier and Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Rex Harrison, O’Toole and Burton. These were larger than life men of the theatre, their personal lives often as turbulent and memorable (sometimes, in the case of Burton, more so) than the characters they played onstage.
They are all gone now–O’Toole announced his retirement earlier this summer–leaving only Plummer to bestride the world. To watch him at the Avon Theatre is to witness something we will not see again: an eighty-three-year-old legend, at the top of his game, commanding the stage with humor and eloquence, and incandescent star power–the last of the breed, making a final bow.
Or is it?
After all, I started rushing to see Plummer fourteen years ago thinking this was the last, the end, the finale. Yet he’s still on a stage, blissfully unaware that he has to exit anywhere any time soon.
A Word or Two is not traditionally autobiographical (“And then I made…”)–if you were not already aware of it, you might be forgiven for missing the fact that Plummer took up acting as a career. It is, rather, a carefully constructed piece built around the literature young Christopher was weaned on growing up in Montreal’s Westmount, the stories, the plays, the poetry that enchanted him.
Those stories and the poetry, he proposes, have lately provided a path through the vexations of age, beginning–and ending–with Lewis Carroll’s poem, The Aged Aged Man (“Who are you aged man, and how do you live? And his answer trickled through my head like water from a sieve”).
The middle years, the years of The Sound of Music, years of floundering in too much drink and too few good film roles, are frankly discussed in his beautifully written autobiography, In Spite of Myself. They are not part of Plummer onstage at the Avon. Of his contemporaries, only Richard Burton gets a passing mention.
Good author that he is, though, Plummer continues to promote In Spite of Myself, giving himself over to a book signing following a recent performance.
The lineup snaked around the Avon’s lobby. Plummer arrived dressed in a black pullover, apologizing for being late, the soul of charm. The kid who couldn’t get into Antony and Cleopatra lined up for an autographed book, fearing that as it was so many years ago, he would get to the front of the line and Plummer would once again disappear in that puff of smoke.
However, this time the kid brought along some insurance in the form of friends, Hans Gerhardt and his wife, Helga.
Hans is something of a legend himself, the former general manager of the Sutton Place Hotel–“the hotelier to the stars,” as TV personality Robin Leach called him. Hans has known Plummer since the days back in the eighties when the actor stayed at the Sutton Place, often tinkling the ivories on the house piano into the wee small hours. Plummer in fact provided an admiring blurb when Hans published his autobiography, HotelBiz:A Memoir. If anyone could get me to Plummer, it was Hans.
Sure enough, as soon as Plummer spotted Hans and Helga he lit up. They shook hands, exchanged warm greetings, and then Hans did what he was supposed to do: “I’d like to introduce you to my friend Ron Base.”
Plummer acknowledged me with a vague smile. Ah, well, at least he didn’t disappear in a puff of smoke.
As I left the theatre, I stopped for one final look back at Plummer, still patiently signing away. Longevity never turns out to be all that long. Any way you cut it, this is the end of something. The final curtain is not down yet, but you can’t help but think it’s on its way, and when that happens, that’s it. There are no more Christopher Plummers out there waiting in the wings.
I keep thinking we will replace the fallen legends that so informed our lives, but they don’t get replaced. They simply disappear and are irreplaceable, and we are the poorer for their absence.
For the moment, thankfully, we still have Plummer, the aged aged man defying the deities that have made us all aged aged men. I know he won’t, but I hope he goes on forever.
With me chasing, still trying to get into the theatre.