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Thursday, May 30, 2013

What Might Have Been: Peter Cushing in the ‘70s (And Beyond)

One of the most iconic performers in the history of the horror film genre, Peter Cushing attained that iconic status thanks to a string of roles—mainly for legendary Hammer Films—during the 1950s and 1960s that saw him play the likes of Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes and others. A classically trained actor who played it much straighter during his earlier years in the 1930s and 1940s, Cushing will nevertheless always be remembered for the reputation he established as one of the true gentlemen of horror.

Nevertheless, after nearly 20 years as the face of British terror, Cushing’s career took a step back in the 1970s. There are a few reasons for this. One would be the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971—a loss that left him a shell of his former self for the remainder of his life. There was also the fall of Hammer from its position of prominence into oblivion. For much of the decade, the actor slummed it in roles that his fans and supporters believed to be clearly beneath him. Even the role of the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars, for which Cushing is perhaps best known by younger audiences, was mainly undertaken by Cushing because he felt it would appeal to children. Whatever the reasons for it, there is no doubt that Cushing’s 1970s output was decidedly more erratic and of lower quality than the work that had come before.
But it didn’t have to be that way. There are several tantalizing “What Ifs” surrounding Cushing’s career during this period that are enough to give any horror aficionado pause. The 1970s (and even 1980s) could have played out very differently for him than they did, if only a few different choices had been made.
In 1970, when American International Pictures was in pre-production on a quirky, ambitious vehicle for Vincent Price, Cushing was approached to play the chief protagonist alongside Price. Aside from Price, the film starred an assortment of British character actors, and Cushing would’ve been perfect heading up the bunch. It would’ve been a breakout role for American audiences who knew him mainly for the British imports from Hammer. However, Cushing’s wife Helen was very ill with the emphysema that would soon claim her life, and the actor turned down the part in order to stay by her side and care for her.
The film was The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and the role was that of Dr. Vesalius, the noble foil to Price’s titular villain. American Oscar-winner Joseph Cotten was eventually chosen for the part, and although he is very effective in the finished film, his American-ness does make him stand out like a sore thumb amongst the film’s cast (while Price was also American, of course, his bearing and demeanor always helped him get away with it somehow). The movie is easily one of the finest horror pictures of the entire decade, and arguably better than any Hammer film put out during the same period. There can be no doubt that Cushing’s presence alongside his fellow horror icon Price would’ve only made it that much better.
Cushing as the ship's captain in Dr. Phibes Rises Again.
Interestingly, Cushing—mere months after Helen’s passing—would appear in the 1972 sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again, but in a tiny role so unworthy of him one wonders why he was even cast. It would not be until two years later that Cushing and Price would finally have the opportunity to properly co-star with each other, in the Amicus production Madhouse. It would be one of the only times.
Two years after Madhouse, wunderkind filmmaker George Lucas was ramping his soon-to-be game-changing space opera Star Wars into production. Although the cast would be made up largely of young unknowns, Lucas wanted two British actors with established gravitas for two of the key roles—that of wizened Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, and of the evil galactic tyrant Grand Moff Tarkin. Initially, the director approached Cushing for the role of Kenobi—but presumably the actor’s horror track record and aristocratic, aloof on-screen presence (a direct contrast to his warm, gentle personality in real life) led Lucas to switch gears and instead cast him as the icy Tarkin. Fellow acclaimed Englishman Alec Guiness was instead chosen to play the benevolent Kenobi.
Needless to say, had Cushing landed the part he was originally approached for, he would’ve had the opportunity to appear in both Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (as Guinness did in the role), not to mention have his character reprised by a younger actor in the later prequels (which Ewan McGregor did for Guinness). As it stands, Cushing’s appearance in perhaps the most successful movie franchise of all time is relegated to a one-time appearance that covers less than ten (albeit memorable) minutes of screen time.
Star Wars raised Cushing’s profile with American audiences higher than it had been in years, and hot on the heels of that mega-blockbuster, Cushing was approached by another young upstart filmmaker by the name of John Carpenter, hard at work on a project that was decidedly grittier and less grandiose, and yet just as ambitious in its own right: Halloween.
Carpenter was looking to redefine the parameters of horror, taking some cues from earlier films like Psycho, but moving them in a completely different direction. Nevertheless, it was a very small picture, and no one understood at the time that he was basically inventing the modern slasher subgenre. A rabid fan of 1950s and 1960s horror, Carpenter wanted Cushing, one of his idols, for a key role in the film—that of Dr. Sam Loomis, the beleaguered psychiatrist of psychopathic killer Michael Myers, who tracks the maniac down to the sleepy town of Haddonfield, Illinois.
The movie Cushing made
instead of Halloween

It was quite a meaty role, but Cushing nevertheless turned Carpenter down. Perhaps the then-somewhat-sordid subject matter was the reason for this, although that argument loses some steam when one realizes that Cushing instead chose to star in a clunker called Son of Hitler. Incidentally, a disappointed Carpenter next asked Cushing’s Hammer cohort Christopher Lee, who also turned down the part—a decision he would later cite as the biggest mistake of his career. The part instead went to another British character actor—and former Bond villain—Donald Pleasance.
In the wake of Hammer’s demise, Halloween could have been Cushing’s grand return to horror relevance. The film became one of the most groundbreaking horror pictures not only of its time, but of all time, and Cushing as Dr. Loomis would’ve been the most eloquent evolution of his old Van Helsing character, a scientist tracking a ruthless murderer, taken to a whole new, thoroughly modern level for a new generation of horror fans. It also would’ve all but guaranteed repeat appearances for Cushing as Dr. Loomis in the three Halloween sequels in which Pleasance instead appeared over the course of the 1980s. That would’ve meant we’d have Peter Cushing front and center in a top horror film series during an era when all his fellow former horror icons had faded from prominence in the face of Freddy, Jason, Pinhead and their ilk. Now that would’ve been something.
As it stands, we’re left only to speculate on the further greatness Peter Cushing may have sustained in the 1970s and 1980s, and an alternate reality in which Cushing starred alongside Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes, played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars movies, and was Michael Myers' mortal enemy. Clearly, it just wasn’t meant to be, and the actor’s deep depression during those years is reflected in both his lackluster roles and comparatively half-hearted performances. Peter Cushing gave us all he had during his entire career—it’s just sad that in those later years he had so little left to give. We’ll have to be happy with the Peter Cushing of the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of his powers, creating a breathtaking and unforgettable body of work. For most of us, that’s more than enough.
This post is part of Pierre Fournier's Peter Cushing Centennial Blogathon, celebrating the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of horror's greatest treasures. Please check out Pierre's excellent blog Frankensteinia to find all the other posts in the blogathon!


Kevin said...

I'd read somewhere that Christopher Lee was offered Tarkin, but he turned it down and he'd suggested Cushing for the role.

Joe Thompson said...

Peter Cushing in Doctor Phibes. That would have been wonderful. Thanks for the essay.

The Real Cie said...

My first introduction to Peter Cushing was as Grand Moff Tarkin. I think the best "what if" of all is if he had been Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, I guess the Universe has a plan.

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