Christopher Plummer, the revered Canadian actor who launched a stage career and later became an Academy Award-winning movie star best known for “The Sound of Music” and “Beginners,” has died. He was 91.
Plummer died peacefully with his wife, Elaine Taylor, by his side, Deadline reported.
Plummer appeared in more than 200 films, television shows and plays dating back to the late 1940s. Born in Toronto to wealthy parents, his smooth mid-Atlantic elocution befit his tony tendencies. Plummer initially considered screen work inferior to the theatre, having portrayed Oedipus in a well-received Montreal production of Jean Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine” at age 18. In his 20s, Plummer became a regular on Broadway and at the esteemed Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he starred in “Hamlet,” “Macbeth,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and others.
After more than a decade on Broadway, including a Tony nomination for Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.,” Plummer played the militant Captain von Trapp in 1965’s “The Sound of Music,” which at one point was the highest-grossing movie of all time. His fame soared. Plummer had appeared in only two films ― “Stage Struck” and “Wind Across the Everglades,” both released in 1958 ― and didn’t enjoy the “Sound of Music” experience one bit. He first turned down the role, until director Robert Wise told Plummer he could help shape the character into something more substantive. Plummer acquiesced, seeing it as an opportunity to train to play Cyrano de Bergerac in a Broadway musical. Still, he found the film “awful and sentimental and gooey,” saying the only positive to come from it was his enduring friendship with co-star Julie Andrews.
“I was ... a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theatre roles,” Plummer wrote in “In Spite of Myself: A Memoir,” published in 2008. “Ludicrous though it may seem, I still harboured the old-fashioned stage actor’s snobbism toward moviemaking. The moment we arrived in Austria to shoot the exteriors I was determined to present myself as a victim of circumstance ― that I was doing the picture under duress, that it had been forced upon me and that I certainly deserved better. My behaviour was unconscionable.”
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Plummer epitomized midcentury showbiz hedonism. He had many lovers and drank heavily, a habit he’d developed as a teenager. (In 2015, he joked that the secret to his longevity was “a long life of hard drinking.”) He turned down a seven-year film contract from high-powered producer David O. Selznick, wanting instead to prioritize the theatre. At 27, Plummer married actress Tammy Grimes, who originated the lead roles in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” and “California Suite.” They had a child together, actress Amanda Plummer, but Grimes filed for divorce after four years and did not let him see their daughter. (Christopher and Amanda reconciled when she was an adult.) At 33, he married journalist Patricia Lewis; their relationship lasted five years.
As the ’60s wound down, Plummer appeared in a handful of films, none of which made a huge cultural splash. In the theatre world, however, he was royalty. He worked with Laurence Olivier, Jason Robards and Bibi Andersson, and in 1975, his labor on “The Sound of Music” paid off when he won the Tony for “Cyrano.” That same year, he appeared opposite Peter Sellers in the blockbuster sequel “The Return of the Pink Panther” and opposite Sean Connery in John Huston’s Technicolor adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” Through it all, Plummer continued to revel in the excess of the entertainment industry.
“Jason Robards and I used to play scenes on the stage, and after we’d say the line, we’d ask, under our breath, ‘Where are we starting out tonight?,’” Plummer recalled in 2011. “It was usually the White Horse Inn, and we couldn’t wait for the show to be over to invade that bigger show called life. I thought at one or two glamorous moments that I wasn’t going to last very long. I thought, If I make 35, it’ll be okay, and then at 40 I got scared, and now that I’m 81 I’m scared to death.”
In the ’90s and 2000s, his American film work picked up, though he never abandoned the stage, winning a second Tony in 1997 for playing John Barrymore. Onscreen, Plummer collaborated with some of the period’s most celebrated directors: Spike Lee (“Malcolm X” and “Inside Man”), Mike Nichols (“Wolf”), Terry Gilliam (“12 Monkeys”), Michael Mann (“The Insider”), Ron Howard (“A Beautiful Mind”), Oliver Stone (“Alexander”), Terrence Malick (“The New World”) and David Fincher (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”). For his performance as Leo Tolstoy in 2009’s “The Last Station,” he received his first Oscar nomination at age 81. The following year, he won Best Supporting Actor for “Beginners,” making him the oldest winner in the awards’ history, a record he still holds.
“Beginners” was significant in other ways, too. Mike Mills, who wrote and directed the film, based Plummer’s character on his own father, who had come out as gay after the death of Mills’ mother. The movie, which in 2010 became a modest box-office hit, presented a positive, even quirky portrait of queerness at a time when LGBTQ acceptance was on the rise. Plummer portrayed a septuagenarian who suddenly embraces his gayness and strikes up a courtship with a younger man (Goran Visnjic). His performance was funny and moving. As Roger Ebert put it in his review, “Christopher Plummer, an actor filled with presence and grace, brings a dignified joy to his new gay lifestyle.”
Plummer’s two most significant screen roles in the late 2010s were “All the Money in the World” and “Knives Out.” In the former, he replaced alleged sexual predator Kevin Spacey after the movie had been shot, portraying billionaire oilman J. Paul Getty, for which he earned his third Oscar nomination. In 2019, the acclaimed whodunnit “Knives Out” cast him as a wealthy mystery writer whose family is squabbling over how his fortune will be split. It was a box-office smash that accentuated Plummer’s appeal; he was slick, amiable and enigmatic.
“My great-grandfather was prime minister of Canada, and I had a very Edwardian upbringing,” he said in 2011, referring to prime minister John Abbott. “It was a beautiful, romantic way of growing up, until the family lost its money. And I decided to be bad and rough and find the streets rather than the gates. Most actors come from the streets, and their rise to fame is guided by a natural anger. It was harder to find that rage coming from a gentle background. I think anger does fuel a successful acting career. To play the great roles, you have to learn how to blaze.”