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Remembering 'Sound Of Music' Star Christopher Plummer


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Christopher Plummer, the prolific actor of stage and screen, best known for playing Captain von Trapp in "The Sound Of Music," died Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 91. In a career that spanned nearly 70 years, Plummer appeared in more than a hundred films and earned widespread acclaim as a Shakespearean actor.

The New York Times' senior theater critic, Walter Kerr, said of his 1981 performance as Iago in "Othello," it is quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time. Plummer won two Emmy Awards and two Tony Awards, but didn't win an Oscar until 2012 for his performance as an elderly man who comes out as gay after his wife's death in the film "Beginners." At age 82, he was the oldest person to win an Academy Award in a competitive category. Among his other films are "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind," "Syriana" and "Inside Man."

Terry spoke to Christopher Plummer in 2007, when he appeared in the film "Man In The Chair," where he plays the last living crew member of "Citizen Kane." He's a bitter, cranky, alcoholic old man who ends up helping a high school student with a film project. In this scene, he's showing the kid a hidden room in an old Hollywood studio lot. The student is played by Michael Angarano.


MICHAEL ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So this place was like a clubhouse?

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Yes, sort of. But it was a tough club to get into. No above-the-line wankers, that's for sure.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Above the line?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Producers, directors, writers, actors, those creeps.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So you know all these people?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Most of them. A lot of them are dead. These are my friends. Hey, that's me with the crew of "Citizen Kane."

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) You worked on "Citizen Kane"?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Yeah. The skinny guy in the middle.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So amazing. Is Orson Welles there?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) These are crew-only photos, for Christ's sake.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Oh, so no directors, no wankers?

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Right.

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Always wanted to be a wanker - director.

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) Director, huh? The man in the chair, huh?

ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Yes.

PLUMMER: (As Flash Madden) You guess? The man in the chair can't ever be a guesser. He's got to make decisions, you know, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. He's got to know what he's doing. Frank Capra says, if you're half right, you'll be a genius.


TERRY GROSS: Christopher Plummer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe your character in "Man In The Chair"?

PLUMMER: Oh, I think he was a wonderful old drunk, which I was for many years myself. So research was not a problem in that case. But he also - he was a gaffer on "Citizen Kane," but he spends most of his time drinking and prowling around and going to cinema, of which, of course, he's a huge authority. And he befriends this young kid who is mad to make movies himself. And their relationship grows. He becomes a grumpy, cynical, bitter old soak into someone who is now rejuvenated.

GROSS: Your character in "Man In The Chair" has grown bitter with age, whereas it seems to me in your life, you just keep getting better roles. You've been in a lot of interesting movies in the past few years.

PLUMMER: Yes. Yes, I have, which is great because once I hit the character actor level, the scripts started to improve as they came my way.

GROSS: Is there any movie that you see as like a turning point in your career?

PLUMMER: Yes. I think "The Insider" was. I mean, I spent my life on the stage. And I've done tons of film, both in England, Europe and here. But another level started to be reached after "The Insider," and the scripts that I was receiving were now much more intelligent and of an A level rather than a B-plus.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad that you mentioned "The Insider," because we just happen to have a clip from it.

PLUMMER: Oh, whoop (ph).

GROSS: And this film, for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's about - the insider is played by Russell Crowe. He's a whistleblower who had worked as a scientist at a tobacco company. And he knows all the secrets about the poisonous additives and all that stuff. So he's talking to "60 Minutes" about it. But this is the very beginning of the story in which your producer, Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, has been setting up an interview for you with an Islamic extremist. And at this point, you step in as Mike Wallace to actually ask the questions. And you want to create the rules. But, of course, the Islamic group wants to create the rules. So here's how the interview gets started.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He says you must not sit so close.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) What? I can't conduct an interview from back there.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You must move back your chair.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Well, you tell him that when I conduct an interview, I sit anywhere I damn please.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) There is no interview.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) I'm talking to you. Who the hell do you think I am, a 78-year-old assassin? Do you think I'm going to karate him to death with this notepad?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Are you interpreting what I'm saying?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yes.

PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Good. Well, ask him if Arabic is his second language.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).


GROSS: That's my guest, Christopher Plummer, in a scene from "The Insider." How did you get the part in "The "Insider," which you say, you know, was a turning point in your film career?

PLUMMER: Well, they sent me the script. I'm sure they sent it to others as well. But I got it. And I met Michael and Al. And I was in. It was just wonderful.

GROSS: One more clip for you. And this this one is inevitable (laughter). So the movie that made you famous, "The Sound Of Music," 1965, in which you were Captain Von Trapp, a widow who expects his children to behave as if they were in the military until you get a new governess played by, of course, Julie Andrews. And this is the scene in which she comes to your door. You meet her for the first time. And you're trying to evaluate her and also give her directions on how to handle the kids.


PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Now, fraulein...

JULIE ANDREWS: (As Maria) Maria.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Fraulein Maria, I don't know how much the mother abbess has told you.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Not much.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You are the 12th in a long line of governesses who have come to look after my children since their mother died. I trust that you will be an improvement on the last one. She stayed only two hours.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) What's wrong with the children, sir?

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) There's nothing wrong with the children, only the governesses. They were completely unable to maintain discipline - without it, this house cannot be properly run. Will you please remember that, fraulein?

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Every morning, you will drill the children in their studies. I will not permit them to dream away their summer holidays. Each afternoon, they will march about the grounds, breathing deeply. Bedtime is to be strictly observed, no exception.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Excuse me, sir. When do they play?

PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You will see to it that they conduct themselves at all time with the utmost orderliness and decorum. I'm placing you in command.

ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.


GROSS: Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in a scene from "The Sound Of Music." People have such strong feelings about that movie, they either love it, or they hate it and they think it's really insipid. Where do you stand on this issue of our time?


PLUMMER: I'm very fond of Julie. That's the nicest thing that came out of that film for me. We have a true and great friendship. She's an extraordinary woman, professional. I'm grateful to the film in many ways because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mawkishness. But we did our damned best not to make it too mawkish. And Robert Wise kept a very tight control on it, which was difficult enough. And the sound and the music is quite wonderful.

DAVIES: Christopher Plummer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at the age of 91. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Christopher Plummer, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at the age of 91.


GROSS: You know, in your movies, you have such good diction, such proper diction in some of your roles. I almost thought you were from England. You're from Canada. Is the diction a result of theater training? Is it a class thing?

PLUMMER: No, it's to do with my family, who spoke well. I mean, we speak well in Canada, as well as they do in Great Britain, may I remind you. And my family were educated, well-read. And they spoke beautiful English. So I really got a lot from them. And, of course, theater training continued to make it better.

GROSS: Now, you were a member of two very famous British theatre groups, the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. What years were you in England?

PLUMMER: I lived in England from 1961, right through into almost the mid 70s. So about 15 years, yeah.

GROSS: Oh, OK. So, I mean, you worked in a period when the method became very popular in the United States.


GROSS: But you were also doing classical theater.


GROSS: So you were doing classical theater and movies in which a lot of the actors were into the method. Did you find yourself going back and forth between more of a classical approach and more of a method approach to acting?

PLUMMER: Well, I think both. I think that one helped the other. I'm so glad that - I'm so glad I was Canadian, in a way, because the Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather good at that. We're kind of like chameleons in that respect. That's why there's so many good Canadian comics and mimics that are terrific. So that was valuable to use the method and use the classical technique together at the same time. It was very exciting.

GROSS: Now, early in your screen career, you were actually on television. And you did a lot of the early TV shows...

PLUMMER: Yeah, the Golden Age of Television, yes, in New York.

GROSS: Like "General Electric Theater" and "Kraft Theatre" and...

PLUMMER: Oh, all of them. I did them all. Yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those were live - right? - or all of them were live.

PLUMMER: All of them were live. Tape didn't come in until the late '50s, I don't think.

GROSS: You have any really good stories about doing live drama on television in the '50s?

PLUMMER: (Laughter) Well, yeah. I can't remember the name of the show, but Martin Manulis was the producer and director. And we were doing this time miling (ph) the story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Habsburg and his suicide attempt with Maria Vetsera, his lover. And the setting was in the hunting lodge. And on the night of the show - live, of course - Viveca Lindfors was such a beautiful Swedish actress. And she was playing Maria Vetsera. I had an immense crush on her. And the night came before I was supposed to make my entrance into the hunting lodge. And she is waiting for me. And the poor thing had to wait and wait and wait because offstage, I couldn't see anything. It was all black, and I couldn't find the door to come in. I didn't know where it was. And there was no stage manager, anybody to help me. So finally, I saw a light at the end of this long sort of black hole, and I thought, Oh, thank God. At last, I can find an entrance and make my entrance. So I sort of bent down and came out of it. But the audience must have been very startled to see Crown Prince Rudolf, with all his medals, coming out through the fireplace.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: And Manulis just screamed at me. He said, what the hell are you - after it was over - what the hell did you come in there for? I said, you got goddamn lucky I came in at all.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: Don't speak to me like that - after spending hours looking for this freaking entrance.

GROSS: So what'd you do to cover it up - anything?

PLUMMER: No. We just valiantly went on. But her face was something extraordinary.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: She didn't dream I was going to come through that thing. But...

GROSS: That sounds like such a nightmare, though. You know, it's, like, live TV, and you can't find the entrance to the stage.

PLUMMER: Oh, it's awful. But the cameramen were so great in those days because if you were - I was on a long soap opera once, and I - it was so bad, I can't remember its name and refuse to remember its name (laughter). But they were so great. There were only four of them, you know, four cameras. And then we never knew our lines. So then when we forgot a line, we wink at the cameraman, and the cameraman would then go and shoot a vase or something on a table...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: ...Or a grand piano while we quickly looked at the script and nodded. And then he came back, and we finished the scene. That happened all the time (laughter). But it was beautiful. They'd mastered it so smoothly, these cameramen. They were heroes.

GROSS: Did stuff like that make you more fearless on stage because you'd experienced such...


GROSS: ...Traumatic things on TV?

PLUMMER: Well, of course. If you put yourself in disaster, that's the best training of all; isn't it? You know how to get yourself out of trouble. I've never been frightened on the stage, though. It's always - for some crazy reason, I felt very much at home on the stage.

GROSS: Now, you've performed Shakespeare as a young man. You've performed Shakespeare as an older man, most recently as King Lear on Broadway. Does Shakespeare read differently to you now than it did when you were young? Are there things you see in it now that you didn't then or interpretations that are different?

PLUMMER: Well, of course there are. But the poet himself remains as magical and as extraordinary and as simple and as human as he did when I was young because that's what strikes you right away - is the humanity of the plays when you're - and the simplicity of them when you're a young person. That's why he's head and shoulders above all the other writers that wrote at his time particularly - because they're much more florid and grandiloquent, and Shakespeare is so extraordinarily simple. And that stays with you always.

Of course, as you grow older and you have some experience of life, you see more into the depth of each character. "King Lear," for instance, which is an extraordinary play - it's so very modern. And it's a dysfunctional family, and it's - and all the trappings of power that are disappearing from them - I mean, it's so modern. It's so human. It's a great piece of work, I must say.

GROSS: So - yeah, go ahead.

PLUMMER: You need to be much older to understand the depths of a part like that.

GROSS: I never think of Shakespeare as being simple.

PLUMMER: Oh, yes. I mean, oh, no. Come on. When he picks the great moments, the key moments in plays, his language becomes terribly simple. You notice that.

GROSS: Give me an example.

PLUMMER: Well, nothing could be simpler than, the rest is silence. That's as modern a statement as there ever was.

GROSS: You said at the beginning of the interview - the character that you play in your new movie, "Man In The Chair" - that you used to drink a lot.

PLUMMER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: That was a very enthusiastic yes. Was this mostly, like, in the 1950s and '60s?

PLUMMER: Yeah, that was the drinking era. Then the '60s sort of became more of a drug era; didn't it? And then the '70s were so boring I can't remember them. But the '50s was a very communicative era. Everybody loved their drink. New York was wide open. So was Montreal. In fact, Montreal stayed open 24 hours a day. There wasn't a joint in town that closed. And I used to, you know, commute shuttle back from both.

It was a glorious time. And we were - all us young actors, my friends, Jason Robards - were all big drinkers. Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole - oh, all of us were good, hard-fisted drinkers. And our intention was that we should be. If we were to be called men, we must be - drink as much as we can. And if we can still get through "Hamlet" the next day without a hitch, that made you a man, my son. You weren't worth anything unless you could - you'd do the test of time.

GROSS: Is it harder to do "Hamlet" with a hangover?

PLUMMER: Terrible. It's just a nightmare. And I have done it with a hangover, yeah. It was very fast, though. We did it very fast. We got off very quickly.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PLUMMER: It was no longer a 3-1/2-hour, four-hour play. It was something like two hours.

GROSS: What would you do to, like, make yourself feel better before having to do "Hamlet" or any kind of heavy lifting with a hangover?

PLUMMER: Fernet-Branca was my favorite pick-me-up - Fernet-Branca laced with a little creme de menthe. It goes down like silk, and, boy, does it wake you up. If you have another one, if you have two or three Fernet-Brancas, you're drunk again. So just stay to - stick to one, and you'll be OK.

GROSS: And it wouldn't - you wouldn't forget your lines with that?

PLUMMER: No. Somehow, "Hamlet" remained intact in my memory. So - it was such a glorious play that I wouldn't insult it by forgetting it.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PLUMMER: Thank you.

DAVIES: Christopher Plummer speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2007. Plummer died last Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 91. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Judas And The Black Messiah," which revisits the events leading up to the 1969 death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.