Doctor Who Cuttings Archive

Peter Cushing 1913-1994

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Baron Frankenstein has performed his final operation. Dr. Van Helsing has staked his last vampire. Britain's grandmaster of Gothic cinema, 81-year-old Peter Cushing, lost his decade-long battle with prostate cancer on August 11, 1994—dying peacefully in his sleep at a Canterbury hospice to which he had been admitted a week earlier.

Beloved by several generations of fans and filmmakers alike for the meticulous artistry of his acting and the warmth and humility of his personality, Cushing was equally comfortable playing heroes or villains. Although best known for his forceful portrayals of the ruthless Frankenstein and the courageous Van Helsing in long-running parallel series for England's Hammer Films, he also created a definitive characterization of Sherlock Holmes (in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles, a 16-episode BBC TV series and The Masks of Death), two big-screen romps as a renegade Time Lord (Dr. Who and the Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.) and the sadistic Governor of the Galactic Empire, Grand Moff Tarkin (in Star Wars).

"I suppose I couldn't help becoming well-known," Cushing told STARLOG in 1985, "because my Hammer films are shown on television somewhere in the world nearly every day. The problem is, the young people who see them now weren't even born when they were made. They think I made them just recently. When they see me in the street. they ask: is your son still making films?' They think I'm my own father."

Christened "Saint Peter" by his countless admirers, he was nicknamed "Props Cushing" by his colleagues due to his custom of bringing his own props to his film sets without anyone's knowledge, the better to add bits of business to enhance the reality of his performances. A gifted watercolor painter and model builder, he filled the margins of his scripts with detailed drawings of his characters, to aid him in devising his own costumes. Renowned for his versatility, he always sought to add a touch of humanity to his most imperious roles, thereby eliciting empathy for even his most heinous actions.

"I'm never really satisfied with any of my performances," he revealed. "I always feel I could have done them better. Fortunately, the pain of seeing myself eventually wears off. If the time ever comes when I'm actually pleased with one of my performances, that will be the time I start slipping."

Peter Wilton Cushing was born on May 26, 1913 in Kenley, Surrey, England, to a middle-class family. An ardent film buff whose childhood hero was silent screen cowboy star Tom Mix, he dreamed of becoming an actor himself. After four years of repertory theater experience, he accepted a one-way ticket to Hollywood from his skeptical father, and landed his movie debut doubling for Louis Hayward in James Whale's The Man in the Iron Mask in 1939. Minor roles in six more American films followed, before World War II accelerated his return to England. After touring the country performing plays at Army camp sites in lieu of military service, Cushing appeared in many post-war London stage productions. Spotted by Laurence Olivier, he was cast as Osric in Olivier's Oscar-winning 1948 film version of Hamlet, which led to his joining Olivier's famed Old Vic Company.

Alternating supporting parts in mainstream British films with starring roles on English television, Cushing made his genre debut in 1954, as Winston Smith in the BBC

adaptation of George Orwell's 1984. His award-winning performance brought him to the attention of Hammer Films head James Carreras, who cast him in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1956, teaming him for the first time with Christopher Lee as the patchwork creature. Curse's unprecedented international success rejuvenated the comatose horror field, and initiated a cycle of similar Hammer Gothic revivals, beginning with Horror of Dracula in 1958. Cushing, as the swashbuckling vampire hunter Van Helsing, was pitted against Lee, as the sanguinary Count.

"It's one of those incredible Cinderella stories," Cushing marveled. "I never dreamed that Curse of Frankenstein would start a snowball which would continue rolling for nearly 20 years. I'm very proud it was such a success. I felt the material would appeal to audiences. They're always the people to consider. What did the majority of audiences want to see? How many would have wanted to see me play Hamlet? A few. How many would have wanted to see me play Frankenstein? Millions."

Box-office returns sealed both actors' fates, and led to more than a dozen further teamings. During the next 15 years, Cushing returned to the laboratory five more times—in The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), The Evil of Frankenstein (1964), Frankenstein Created Woman (1967), Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) and Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973)—and sharpened his stakes for four further vampire en-tries—in The Brides of Dracula (1960), Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972), The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) and The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974).

"I never think about a picture's commercial potential while I'm making it," Cushing remarked. "If you go into work with commercial success in mind, you're doomed to the very reverse of what you're hoping for. You must only focus on the work itself. So, I'm always amazed when one of my movies turns out to be popular. Of course, it's wonderful to be involved with a hit—not from a monetary point-of-view, though, but rather because success for oneself breeds success for others."

Showcased by Hammer in a total of 20 films, Cushing also confronted The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, resurrected The Mummy, battled Robin Hood as the Sheriff of Nottingham in The Sword of Sherwood Forest, challenged The Gorgon, opposed She, defeated The Vampire Lovers and persecuted the Twins of Evil. For Hammer's chief rival, Amicus Productions, he appeared in 15 genre forays, including the popular horror anthologies Dr. Terror's

House of Horrors, Torture Garden, The House that Dripped Blood, Tales from the Crypt, Asylum and From Beyond the Grave—as well as the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy adventure At the Earth's Core. He discussed his work in a two-part STARLOG interview (issues #96, #100). Introduced to a new generation of audiences in Star Wars, Cushing capped his career with a return to SF in his last film, Biggles—Adventures in Time, in 1985.

"When you get to be my age and you're still wanted, it gives you an awfully nice feeling," Cushing mused. "The older you get, the lonelier you feel. When you're over 60, you think you're on the shelf. Then, you get offered a movie like Star Wars, and you realize it's because you've become established from all the work you've done."

Diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1982, Cushing was given 12 to 18 months to live by his doctor. Although his declining health made further strenuous assignments impossible, he never lost his desire to work. In 1986 and 1988, he wrote two bestselling volumes, Peter Cushing: An Autobiography and Past Forgetting: Memoirs of the Hammer Years. In 1989, he was presented to Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, to receive the prestigious Order of the British Empire.

Fittingly, Cushing's final engagement reunited him with his longtime friend Christopher Lee. On May 17, 1994, the two recorded the narration for Ted Newsom's documentary tribute Flesh & Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror. Broadcast by the BBC in August, it will soon air in America. (For further details, see FANGO-RIA #136). One other performance remains to be seen—or in this case, heard. His penultimate project, Zachary Zito's stop-motion puppet animation feature film Walpurgis Night, for which Cushing provided his voice as the Poor Traveler, may not be completed until 1997.

"It's difficult to talk about Peter without being overly sentimental, which he would hate," Christopher Lee told FANGORIA. "Peter is truly one of the really good people I've ever met. He has played all these evil, wicked characters, but he's completely the opposite of that. A truly superb actor, with a marvelous sense of humor."

A deeply religious man, Peter Cushing never fully recovered from the death of his wife Helen in 1971, although his grief was eased by his belief that they would eventually be reunited. "My life changed completely when she died," he reflected. "I had so looked forward to spending our old age together, but that was not to be. There is nothing left for me now as far as personal happiness is concerned. Life without Helen means very little to me. My only satisfaction comes from working, which I do to occupy my mind. I have to keep busy, because whatever happens to you in this life, you have to go on with it, until your time comes to join your loved ones. I know that Helen is waiting for me, wherever she is."

Peter Cushing was one of fantasy films' most beloved legends

In the "70s, Cushing gained a whole new legion of fans as the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin of Star Wars.

Cushing is known to genre buffs as a monster builder named Frankenstein, vampire hunter Van Helsing and that Great Detective, Sherlock Holmes.

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  • APA 6th ed.: Swires, Steve (number 208 (November 1994)). Peter Cushing 1913-1994. Starlog p. 76.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Swires, Steve. "Peter Cushing 1913-1994." Starlog [add city] number 208 (November 1994), 76. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Swires, Steve. "Peter Cushing 1913-1994." Starlog, edition, sec., number 208 (November 1994)
  • Turabian: Swires, Steve. "Peter Cushing 1913-1994." Starlog, number 208 (November 1994), section, 76 edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=Peter Cushing 1913-1994 | url= | work=Starlog | pages=76 | date=number 208 (November 1994) | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 May 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=Peter Cushing 1913-1994 | url= | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=27 May 2024}}</ref>