Today is the birthday (1913) of Peter Wilton Cushing OBE, an English actor known to successive generations for roles in the Hammer Productions horror films of the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, as well as his performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars in 1977. In the latter, he was by far the best known of the cast at the time, and the highest paid (based on weekly rates). His acting career included appearances in more than 100 films, as well as many television, stage and radio roles.
Cushing was born in Kenley in Surrey and made his stage debut in 1935 after a completely undistinguished time in school in various places. He spent three years with repertory theater in London before moving to Hollywood to pursue a film career. Cushing made his motion picture debut in the 1939 film The Man in the Iron Mask, in a minor role, although he was originally hired as a stand-in for scenes that featured both characters played by Louis Hayward, who had the dual lead roles of King Louis XIV and Philippe of Gascony. Cushing would play one part against Hayward in one scene, then the opposite part in another, and ultimately the scenes were spliced together in a split screen process that featured Hayward in both parts and left Cushing’s work cut from the film altogether. Although the job meant Cushing received no actual screen time for those roles, he was eventually cast in a bit part as the king’s messenger.
Cushing began to find modest success in films in the U.S. before returning to England at the outbreak of the Second World War. Despite performing in a string of roles, including one as Osric in Laurence Olivier’s film adaptation of Hamlet (1948), Cushing struggled to find work during this period and began to consider himself a failure. His career was revitalized once he started to work in live television plays, and he soon became one of the most recognizable faces in British television. He earned particular acclaim for his lead performance in a 1954 adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Cushing gained worldwide fame for his appearances in twenty-two horror films by the independent Hammer Productions, particularly for his role as Baron Frankenstein in six of their seven Frankenstein films, and Doctor Van Helsing in five Dracula films (by minor coincidence, today is the anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/bram-stokers-dracula/ ). Cushing often appeared alongside actor Christopher Lee, who became one of his closest friends, and occasionally with the U.S. horror star Vincent Price.
Cushing appeared in several other Hammer films, including The Abominable Snowman, The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles, the last of which marked the first of many times he portrayed Sherlock Holmes throughout his career. Cushing continued to perform a variety of roles, although he was often typecast as a horror film actor. He played Dr. Who in Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966) when William Hartnell, the original Dr Who for the television series was unavailable. The physical resemblance between the two actors was useful, but the mannerisms onscreen of the two were markedly different. Both movies were eminently forgettable.
Cushing probably gained the highest amount of visibility in his career in 1977, when he appeared as Grand Moff Tarkin in the first Star Wars film. Since the film’s primary antagonist Darth Vader wore a mask throughout the entire film and his face was never visible, George Lucas felt a strong human villain character was necessary. This led Lucas to write the character of Grand Moff Tarkin, a high-ranking Imperial governor and commander of the planet-destroying battlestation, the Death Star. Lucas felt a talented actor was needed to play the role and said Peter Cushing was his first choice for the part. However, Cushing has claimed that Lucas originally approached him to play the Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi, and only decided to cast him as Tarkin instead after the two met each other. Cushing said he would have preferred to play Kenobi rather than Tarkin, but could not have done so because he was to be filming other movie roles when Star Wars was shooting, and Tarkin’s scenes took less time to film than those of the larger Kenobi role. Although not a particular fan of science fiction, Cushing accepted the part because he believed his fans would love Star Wars and enjoy seeing him in the role.
Cushing joined the cast in May 1976, and his scenes were filmed at Elstree Studios in Borehamwood. Along with Alec Guinness, who was ultimately cast as Kenobi, Cushing was among the most famous actors at the time to appear in Star Wars, as the rest of the cast was still relatively unknown. As a result, Cushing was paid a larger daily salary than most of his fellow cast, earning £2,000 per day compared to weekly salaries of $1,000 for Mark Hamill, $850 for Carrie Fisher and $750 for Harrison Ford. Like Guinness, Cushing had difficulty with some of the technical jargon in his dialogue, and claimed he did not understand all of the words he was speaking.
Cushing got along well with the entire cast, especially his old co-star David Prowse (who played Darth Vader) and Fisher, who was appearing in her first major role. The scene in which Tarkin and Princess Leia appear together on the Death Star, just before the destruction of the planet Alderaan, was the first scene with major dialogue that Fisher filmed for Star Wars. Cushing consciously attempted to define their characters as opposite representations of good and evil, and he purposely stood in the shadows so the light would shine on Fisher’s face. Fisher said she liked Cushing so much that it was difficult to act as though she hated Tarkin, and she had to substitute somebody else in her mind to muster the feelings. Although one of her lines referred to Tarkin’s “foul stench,” she said he actually smelled like “linen and lavender,” something Cushing attributed to his tendency to wash and brush his teeth thoroughly before filming because of his self-consciousness about bad breath.
When Star Wars was first released in 1977, most preliminary advertisements touted Cushing’s Tarkin as the primary antagonist of the film, not Vader. Cushing was extremely pleased with the final film, and he claimed his only disappointment was that Tarkin was killed and could not appear in the subsequent sequels. The film gave Cushing the highest visibility of his entire career, and helped inspire younger audiences to watch his older films.
For the 2016 film Rogue One, CGI and digitally-repurposed-archive footage were used to insert Cushing’s likeness from the original movie over the face of actor Guy Henry. Henry provided the on-set capture and voice work with the reference material augmented and mapped over his performance like a digital body-mask. Cushing’s estate owners were heavily involved with the creation which took place over twenty years after his death. This extensive use of CGI to “resurrect” an actor who had died decades ago created a great deal of controversy about the ethics of using a deceased actor’s likeness. Joyce Broughton, Cushing’s former secretary, had approved recreating Cushing in the film. After attending the London premiere, she was reportedly “taken aback” and “dazzled” with the effect of seeing Cushing on screen again.
Cushing continued acting into his later years, and wrote two autobiographies. He was lovingly devoted to his wife of twenty-eight years, Helen Cushing, who died in 1971. Cushing himself died in 1994 due to prostate cancer.
Cushing was a lifelong vegetarian and this site gives clues into his eating habits — http://watchinghorrorfilmsfrombehindthecouch.blogspot.it/2011/05/happy-birthday-peter-cushing.html
In his own words, “As to my favourite recipe: I am a strict vegetarian, and enjoy greatly wholemeal bread toast with butter and Olde English Marmalade, served with a pot of Typhoo tea with milk and sugar! Simple, but delicious.” Otherwise, he particularly enjoyed beetroot and celery, and the site gives this recipe:
4-6 medium beetroots, scrubbed
2 sticks celery, scrubbed
2 large onions, roughly chopped or 8-10 pickling onions, whole
2 large potatoes, pre-boiled for 10 minutes
freshly ground black pepper
Dice the beetroot and finely slice the celery. In a large pan sauté the onion until just turning brown. Add the beetroot and celery. Turn down the heat and cook for 2 minutes. Chop the potatoes into chunks and add to the pan. Season with pepper. Cover and cook on a very low heat until the potato is tender, stirring every few minutes to prevent sticking.