Othello, act II, scene III: A rapier-thin Iago, his shrewd eyes ablaze, intervenes in a drunken sword fight. Suddenly, for one breathtaking moment, Christopher Plummer's reach has exceeded his grasp. As the rest of the cast stands horrified, Iago attempts to disarm one of the swordsmen, but instead sends the blade catapulting toward a middle-aged woman in the second row of the audience. Adroitly, Plummer leaps to the woman's side, discovering to his boundless relief that the woman has been grazed but not skewered. "I said: 'Are you all right, darling?' and gave her a big kiss on the cheek," he recalls afterward. "Shakespeare demands audience participation, but this time they got more than they bargained for."
Even without such Errol Flynn-like heroics, theatergoers have been stunned by the dramatic ferocity of the Othello that came to Broadway last month. The tragedy also stars James Earl Jones in the title role, but much of the critical glory has fallen to Plummer, playing his betrayer, Iago, to reptilian perfection. Plummer's demonic exertions, proclaimed Walter Kerr in the New York Times, constitute "quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time."
The object of such extravagant praise is an aquiline-nosed John Barry-more look-alike who has been in the acting business for 35 of his 52 years. The versatile Plummer has, variously, won a Tony on Broadway for Cyrano in 1974, played leading roles with the Stratford Shakespearean Festival in Ontario and with Britain's National Theatre under Laurence Olivier, and performed in movies ranging from The Royal Hunt of the Sun to The Return of the Pink Panther. Of all his movie roles, none brought him more fame than that of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music, which he has wryly called "The Sound of Mucus." Explains Plummer: "That sentimental stuff is the most difficult for me to play, especially because I'm trained vocally and physically for Shakespeare. To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role. That damn movie," he continues with mock distress, "follows me around like an albatross. It's shown to millions of television viewers every year."
Though Plummer is grateful for the recognition that came from playing von Trapp—it helped get him the best tables in restaurants—he says ruefully of Hollywood, "My great film role is yet to come. I've always been out of epoch in Hollywood, or sans époque, as they say in France. I would have been right in the '30s. But when I started doing movies in the '50s, Leslie Howard types and romance were going out and the Angry Young Men—John Osborne and the boys—were coming in. I was caught in the middle. For today's films, my face is all wrong. You can't cast me as a beach boy."
Plummer's true love is, unquestionably, the theater. "I couldn't live without it," he confesses. James Earl Jones confirms Plummer's passion. "Christopher is the first actor I've ever met who leaves the theater after I do," says Jones. "He doesn't want to break that fragile thread from which we actors swing."
From that slender lifeline dangles yet another stagestruck Plummer: Amanda, Christopher's 24-year-old daughter by his first wife, actress Tammy Grimes. Already an accomplished actress in her own right, Amanda opens with Lee Remick and Geraldine Page on Broadway in Agnes of God later this month. Father and daughter will be taking curtain calls only six blocks apart. "Mandy is a much more emotional actor than me or Tammy," says Plummer. "She is her own master. My feelings toward her are those of great pride."
Yet Plummer lived abroad much of the time Amanda was growing up in Manhattan. "I was a distant, very bad father," he reflects. "Tammy would call and remind me about bills I had to pay and inform me where Mandy was in school." When Amanda was very young, her mother would supply presents on Christmas and birthdays and tell the little girl they had been sent by her daddy. "Christopher wasn't a conventional father," says Tammy. "But Amanda has got it figured out now. I think my daughter adores her father."
Perhaps. But even now Amanda says, "I don't really see my father. I know him through his work." As for Plummer, he has no intention of siring more progeny. He and his third wife, British actress Elaine Taylor, 38, are voluntarily, and happily, childless. "Christopher dislikes children intensely," says Elaine. "He likes dogs." Plummer himself offers a more tempered assessment. "Children," he says, "are not of great interest to me until they form their own personalities in their teenage years."
His own childhood was played out in genteel Canadian society. Plummer is the great-grandson of Sir John Abbott, Canada's first native-born Prime Minister. His father, an Irish lawyer (whose cousin was Nigel Bruce, Dr. Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes), and his English-Canadian mother were divorced when Christopher, their only child, was a year old. Plummer was brought up by his mother and her family in a suburb of Montreal. "We had kippers and finnan haddie for breakfast, and 5 o'clock high tea," he remembers. His cultured mother introduced Christopher to poetry almost as soon as he could read, and propelled him toward opera and the theater. "It was all very Edwardian," says Plummer. Ultimately he turned somewhat rebellious. "I got involved with the local baddies," he says with a chuckle. "I got into the fast set and learned how to drink at an early age. At that time there was a joke that there were more nightclubs in Montreal than days of the year. I tried to go to one a day."
A dismal scholar, Plummer was a devoted student of the piano. He briefly considered a career as a concert pianist, but he had done some acting at high school in Montreal and later began working with local and national repertory groups. Eventually, equipped with a letter introducing him to a family friend, Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, Plummer came to New York in 1949 at the age of 19. Five years later he made his Broadway debut in The Starcross Story with Eva Le Gallienne.
In 1955, while starring in The Dark Is Light Enough, he met Tammy Grimes, a young actress, when she came backstage to congratulate him on his performance. "He was so magnetic onstage," she recalls. "He was like a knife blade catching the sun." They were quickly smitten, and married the following year. "He had an impatience and high temperament about him," says Grimes. "Days were tough for Christopher then, but the nighttime after the theater was a kind of celebration." Once, after disappearing for three days, Plummer arrived home in a three-piece suit with his tie impeccably knotted, but with no shirt, no shoes and no socks. He promptly fell asleep, sat bolt upright a few moments later, asked his astonished wife, "Are you the ambassador?" and returned to a state of unconciousness. At other times, mellowed by booze and bonhomie after a party, Plummer would read aloud to friends like Jason Robards, Budd Schulberg and Jack Warden. "His favorite," remembers Grimes, "was Winnie-the-Pooh."
Plummer's marriage to Grimes ended in divorce in 1960. "We were both too young and interested in our separate careers," he says. Moving to England, he was interviewed by British journalist Patricia Lewis while working at Stratford-upon-Avon. They married in 1962 and divorced five years later. "Another failed marriage," sighs Plummer.
Soon after this domestic crackup, Christopher recalls, he peered in the mirror one day and realized he had been drinking too much. "I looked, as the French say, a little gonflé," he declares. He promptly gave up hard liquor—to this day he drinks only wine—and soon afterward began a movie in Ireland. In the cast was Elaine Taylor, a stunning 25-year-old actress who had once been a member of the corps of the London Festival Ballet. "I was into my red period," Plummer explains, "and she had this red hair and I thought she was pretty terrific. Later," he grumbles, "she told me her hair was really mouse-colored." Recalls Elaine of their early courtship: "I thought he was extremely selfish and conceited, but he made me laugh. And he did get the best tables at restaurants."
Plummer and his petite ersatz redhead were soon living together in England and taking off for romantic trips to Paris. "I refused to lie to the people who ran those hotels and say we were husband and wife," says Plummer. "I thought they should shut up and do what we told them. But the French are puritanical. Finally I said: 'The hell with it. Let's get married.' " The Montreal clergyman who conducted the ceremony in 1970 was the same man who married Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor the first time. "I know why Richard liked him," Christopher observes with a chuckle. "He had the voice of Paul Scofield."
Since their marriage the Plummers have discovered a mutual passion for renovating houses. In the last dozen years they have gutted and remodeled six—two in London, one near Grasse in the south of France, one in West Hollywood and two in Connecticut. Their current project is a rambling, white-clapboard mongrel of a house in Weston, Conn. "I'm the architect, Elaine is the decorator," says Christopher, who scrupulously avoids manual labor. The partially finished home, which has the feel of an English manor house, is filled with floral chintzes, antique Spode china and country tiles. Come spring, Elaine will plant a proper English garden of lavender, hollyhock and roses. In the midst of this rustic serenity, the Plummers savor endless games of backgammon, Elaine's gourmet French cooking and Christopher's still-expert renditions of Chopin on the Steinway.
After a dozen years of matrimony, the Plummers are comfortable pursuing their separate interests. "When Christopher is working, I don't hang around that much," says Elaine. "You have to do your own work. That way you have something to talk about at night." She rarely accompanies Plummer when he's filming, and, no longer acting frequently, has thrown herself into decorating. "Christopher is impossible to live with," says Elaine with an indulgent smile. "He's moody and temperamental, but he is a romantic."
Well, yes and no. Heeding his wanderlust—his hankering, he says, "for being wherever I'm not"—he will probably leave Othello sometime this spring, forsaking the $20,000 or so a week he earns in the role. He is considering putting together a one-man show in which he would read the works of such writers as Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling and T.S. Eliot. "I've thought about calling it 'A word or two before you go,' which is one of Othello's last lines," Plummer says. But would he be doing it for the sheer glory of the thing? "Are you kidding?" Plummer asks incredulously. "I'd only do it to make a fortune!"
Eventually, of course, the quest for fortune must lead back to Hollywood. "I've got a few scripts I'm reading, and they're all absolute rubbish," says Plummer. "But if you wait for a good script, you might wait forever. You finally have to say: 'Well, how much money will I get for this one, Charley?' One has to live, you know, and live well!" That, in the Plummer philosophy, is a revenge to surpass even Iago's.
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