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Peter Wilton CushingBorn: Monday 26th May 1913
Died: Thursday 11th August 1994 (age: 81)
Peter Wilton Cushing, OBE was an English actor and a BAFTA TV Award Best Actor winner in 1956. He is mainly known for his many appearances in Hammer Films, in which he played the sinister scientist Baron Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes and the vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing, among many other roles. He appeared frequently opposite Christopher Lee, and occasionally Vincent Price. A familiar face on both sides of the Atlantic, Cushing's best-known roles outside the Hammer productions include Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977) and Dr. Who in Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966), films based on the Doctor Who television series.
Early life and career
Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, the second son of George Edward Cushing and Nellie Maria (née King) Cushing. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Dulwich, South London. After the end of the First World War, they returned close to Kenley; this time to neighbouring Purley, Surrey, where in 1926 his quantity surveyor father built Clearview, an Art Deco house on St James Road. It was here that Cushing remained until early adulthood.
Educated at Shoreham College, Cushing left his first job as a surveyor's assistant to take up a scholarship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. After working in repertory theatre in Worthing, Sussex, he left for Hollywood in 1939, debuting in The Man in the Iron Mask later that year, before returning to England in 1941 after appearing in several films. In one, A Chump at Oxford (1940), he appeared opposite Laurel and Hardy. His first major film role was that of Osric in Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (1948).
In the 1950s, he worked in television, notably as Winston Smith in the BBC's 1954 adaptation of the George Orwell novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), scripted by Nigel Kneale. Cushing was highly praised for his performance, although he considered his acting in the surviving version of the broadcast — it was performed live twice in one week, then a common practice, and only the second version exists in the archives — to be inferior to the first.
Among other TV appearances, Cushing starred as Fitzwilliam Darcy in the BBC's production of Pride and Prejudice (1952), as King Richard II in Richard of Bordeaux (1955), and as Raan, a Prospero-like character, in "Missing Link" (1975), an episode of Space: 1999. He also appeared in The Avengers and its successor series, The New Avengers. In 1956, he received the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor.
Hammer Horror and Doctor Who
Cushing is well known for playing Baron Victor Frankenstein and Professor Van Helsing in a long series of horror films produced by Hammer Film Productions in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. He was often cast alongside Christopher Lee, who became his best friend. His first appearances in his two most famous roles were in Terence Fisher's films The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958). He later said that his career decisions entailed selecting roles where he knew that he would be accepted by the audience. "Who wants to see me as Hamlet? Very few. But millions want to see me as Frankenstein, so that's the one I do."
Cushing also played Sherlock Holmes many times, originally in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), the first Holmes adaptation to be filmed in colour. This was followed by a performance in 16 episodes of the BBC series Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes (1968), of which only six episodes survive. Cushing reprised the role, now playing the detective in old age, in The Masks of Death (1984) for Channel 4.
In the mid-1960s, Cushing played Dr. Who in two films (Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.) based on the BBC science-fiction TV series Doctor Who. He decided to play the part as a lovable and avuncular figure to counter the public's image of him as a horror actor.
In an interview published in ABC Film Review in November 1964, Cushing stated, "People look at me as if I were some sort of monster, but I can't think why. In my macabre pictures, I have either been a monster-maker or a monster-destroyer, but never a monster. Actually, I'm a gentle fellow. Never harmed a fly. I love animals, and when I'm in the country I'm a keen bird-watcher." In an interview published in 1966, he added, "I do get terribly tired with the neighbourhood kids telling me 'My mum says she wouldn't want to meet you in a dark alley'."
In 1971, Cushing withdrew from the filming of Blood from the Mummy's Tomb following the death of his wife, actress Violet Helene Beck (8 February 1905 – 14 January 1971), to whom he had been married since 1943. The following year, he was quoted in the Radio Times as having said, "Since Helen passed on I can't find anything; the heart, quite simply, has gone out of everything. Time is interminable, the loneliness is almost unbearable and the only thing that keeps me going is the knowledge that my dear Helen and I will be reunited again some day. To join Helen is my only ambition. You have my permission to publish that ... really, you know, dear boy, it's all just killing time. Please say that."
In his autobiography, Cushing implies that he attempted suicide on the night of his wife's death by running up and down stairs in the vain hope that it would induce a heart attack. He later stated that this had simply been a hysterical response borne out of grief, and that he had not purposely attempted to end his life; a poem left by Helen had implored him not to die until he had lived his life to the full, and he had resolved that to commit suicide would have meant letting her down. Although not conventionally religious, Cushing maintained a belief both in God and an afterlife.
The effects of his wife's death proved to be as much physical as mental. For his role in Dracula A.D. 1972, Cushing had originally been cast as the father of Stephanie Beacham's character, but had aged so visibly and lost so much weight that the script was hastily re-written to make him her grandfather: it was done again in the last Dracula film from Hammer, The Satanic Rites of Dracula. In a silent tribute to Helen, a shot of Van Helsing's desk includes a photograph of her. He repeated the role of the man who lost family in other horror films, including Asylum (1972), The Creeping Flesh (1973), and The Ghoul (1975). In 1986, Cushing appeared on the BBC TV show Jim'll Fix It, his wish being to have a strain of rose named after Helen; the "Helen Cushing Rose" was the result. As the 1970s ended, Cushing did two final Hammer films, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell and The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires.
In 1976, Cushing was cast in Star Wars in the part of Grand Moff Tarkin. He was presented with ill-fitting riding boots, which pinched his feet so much that he was given permission by director George Lucas to play the role wearing his slippers. The camera operators filmed him only from the knees up, or else standing behind the table of the Death Star conference room set.
Morecambe and Wise
Following Star Wars, Cushing continued to appear sporadically in film and television, as his health permitted. In 1969, he had appeared in a comedy play by Ernie Wise on The Morecambe and Wise Show on BBC2. Throughout the BBC era of the show, he would regularly join Wise and his comic partner, Eric Morecambe, on stage; he would constantly seek payment for his first appearance, wearily asking "Have you got my five pounds yet?"
This running joke continued when the duo left the BBC and moved to Thames Television in 1978. Cushing appeared in their first special for Thames Television on 18 October, still asking to be paid, with the hosts repeatedly trying to get rid of him; at the end of the show, Morecambe placed some money in a wallet wired up to a bomb, in an attempt to blow Cushing up in exaggerated comedic style. In the duo's Christmas special, Cushing pretended to be the Prime Minister while Morecambe and Wise caroled outside 10 Downing Street; he made the comedians give him money and finally came out to declare "paid, at last!"
Wise was a guest for Cushing's appearance on This Is Your Life in 1990. He promptly presented Cushing with a five-pound note, only to extort it back from him. Cushing was delighted and exclaimed "All these years and I still haven't got my fiver!"
Later life and death
Cushing was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982, but managed to survive for 12 years without surgery, although his health remained fragile. In 1989, he was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, although his friend Christopher Lee publicly opined that the honour was "too little, too late". Cushing retired to Whitstable, on the Kent coast, where he had bought a seafront home in 1959, and continued his hobby of birdwatching while writing two autobiographies. He also worked as a painter, specialising in watercolours, and wrote and illustrated a children's book of Lewis Carroll-style humour, The Bois Saga. He was the patron of the Vegetarian Society from 1987 until his death.
Cushing's final professional commitment was the co-narration of the TV documentary Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror, produced by American writer and director Ted Newsom. His contribution was recorded in Canterbury, near his home. The programme was broadcast only a few days before his death on 11 August 1994, aged 81.
In an interview included on the DVD release of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), Lee said of his friend's death: "I don't want to sound gloomy, but, at some point of 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 with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again."