May 262018

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 ). 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 —

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
sunflower oil
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.

May 262013

Bram Stoker

Annex - Lugosi, Bela (Dracula)_04

On this date in 1897 Bram Stoker’s Dracula was first published.  I first read the book when I was 11 years old.  I bought a used copy from a book stall near Adelaide train station on one of my Saturday jaunts. It cost the equivalent of about 25 cents in today’s money.  I started reading it on the train on the way home, and could not put it down until I was finished. At the time I found the style of the writing rather strange, but engaging.  I suspect that very few people nowadays actually read the book, but know the basics from movies and such.  This is a pity. Even the attempt at sticking to the original in the movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula was more or less of a flop in my estimation.  Someone should tell casting directors to stop hiring Keanu Reeves for serious roles (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is more his speed).  In any case, despite the title, the movie did not follow the book particularly closely.

Stoker’s original is what is known as an epistolary novel, that is, the plot moves forward via letters back and forth between key characters, journal entries, newspaper articles and such.  The beginning and the end, however, are conventional prose fiction. I won’t go into details about the plot because I would spoil it for you if you get inspired to read it – which I strongly urge you to do.  Some of the specifics of Stoker’s original conception of Dracula now floating around in folklore are close to accurate.  For example, Dracula does indeed go after beautiful young women, but he does not kill them with a single bite.  Rather he drains their blood slowly over weeks.  As the process progresses he and his victim become mystically attached to one another, able to communicate telepathically. The veiled eroticism is patent to a modern reader.

Although Stoker’s novel is now iconic, it was by no means the first novel about vampires. It was preceded and partly inspired by Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1871 Carmilla, about a lesbian vampire who preys on a lonely young woman, and by Varney the Vampire; or, the Feast of Blood, a long (667,000 words), inconsistent, and tedious “penny dreadful” serial published between 1845 and 1847 by James Malcolm Rymer. Many of the images of a vampire adopted by Stoker – fangs, two puncture wounds, hypnotic powers, superhuman strength – come from Rymer.  But his vampire usually appears as a normal human most of the time, and has no fear of garlic or the daylight. Vampirism comes over him in fits, and he despises himself when he is a vampire (a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character).

The image of a vampire portrayed as an aristocratic man, like the character of Dracula, was created by John Polidori in The Vampyre (1819), during the summer spent with Frankenstein author Mary Shelley, her husband, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron in 1816. The Lyceum Theatre, where Stoker worked between 1878 and 1898, was headed by the actor-manager Henry Irving, who was Stoker’s real-life inspiration for Dracula’s mannerisms and whom Stoker hoped would play Dracula in a stage version. Although Irving never did agree to do a stage version (which Stoker eventually wrote and produced), Dracula’s dramatic sweeping gestures and gentlemanly mannerisms drew their inspiration from Irving. It was Stoker’s synthesis of these elements from different sources that created the stereotypical vampire we know today.

What else could I produce for recipes but garlic dishes? Not dishes with garlic in them, but dishes where garlic is the headline star. You get a two-fer today: a garlic sauce from Transylvania, and a garlic soup.  The garlic sauce is a modern recipe and I have no idea what its roots are.  It is superb, though, especially with grilled meats such as lamb or beef.  Grill the meat until it is nearly ready, then spread the sauce thickly on top of it while still on the grill to warm through and suffuse the meat. Or you can serve the sauce chilled at the table for guests to help themselves. The combination of roasted and plain garlic cloves makes the flavor of the soup complex, and using 44 cloves of garlic in total makes it robust.  I recommend making the soup the day before and refrigerating over night for the flavors to marry and mature.

Mujdei De Usturoi, Transylvanian Garlic Sauce


1 head garlic, broken into cloves and peeled
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp kosher salt or table salt
½ cup sour cream
black pepper to taste


Use a mortar and pestle to crush the garlic and salt together into a paste. You can also use a garlic press and then mash the garlic to a paste in a bowl with the back of a spoon. (Or you can use a mini blender or food processor and process, in which case you would add the garlic and oil together.)

Put the garlic paste into a small bowl, and add the oil. Whip with a fork until it becomes fluffy. Add the sour cream and continue to whip until all of the garlic is incorporated. Add freshly ground black pepper to taste.

Garlic Soup


26 garlic cloves (unpeeled)
18 garlic cloves, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) butter
2 1/4 cups sliced onions
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
3 1/2 cups chicken stock or canned low-salt chicken broth
1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 2 ounces)
4 lemon wedges


Preheat oven to 350°F. Place 26 garlic cloves in a small glass baking dish. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover the baking dish tightly with foil and bake until the garlic is golden brown and tender, about 45 minutes. Cool. Squeeze the garlic between your fingertips to separate the meat from the skin. Discard the skin and put the garlic in a small bowl.

Melt the butter in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onions and thyme and cook until the onions are translucent but have not taken on color, about 6 minutes. Add the roasted garlic and 18 raw garlic cloves and cook 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock. Cover and simmer until the garlic is very tender, about 20 minutes.

Purée the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth (working in batches if necessary). Return the soup to the saucepan, add the cream and bring to simmer. Remove from the heat.

Season with salt and pepper.

Divide the grated cheese among 4 bowls and ladle the soup over it. Squeeze the juice of 1 lemon wedge into each bowl and serve.

Serves 4