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Monday, 26 May 2014

Peter Cushing: a birthday tribute

Peter Cushing reunited with Dave Prowse in Star Wars

The presence of Alec Guinness ensured the critics would pay some attention to Star Wars – but the name that would have attracted the interest of genre fans was that of Peter Cushing.

Cushing would have been 101 today. (Thanks to the fundraisers of @UKGarrison for reminding me of that on Twitter this morning and inspiring this blog post.) So it's a fitting time to consider his contribution to the most successful film of his long career.

Cushing was 62 when he shot his role in Star Wars. He had been in films since 1939, when he talked his way into a bit part in The Man in the Iron Mask and followed that with a small role in the Laurel and Hardy comedy A Chump at Oxford. He had played Shakespeare with Laurence Olivier, performed in plays by Coward and Sheridan, and had been one of British TV's first true stars. But he was best known as a genre star, appearing in a succession of Hammer horror films over a period of 17 years, including The Curse of Frankenstein, Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in the US) and The Mummy. As well as horror films for other producers, he had played Sherlock Holmes on TV and film, played the lead in two Doctor Who films and, in 1976, had been in another family SF movie, At the Earth's Core.

Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin
George Lucas had reportedly considered casting Cushing as Obi-Wan Kenobi before making him his Grand Moff Tarkin, a role which earned him either £1,000 or £2,000 (sources vary) and required two weeks' work at Elstree Studios at the start of May 1976. The movie reunited Cushing with Dave Prowse, who had played his creation in Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell in 1973, and with Don Henderson (playing General Tagge), with whom he had made The Ghoul in 1974.

Everyone who writes about Cushing mentions how nice he was, and that's certainly the impression given in accounts of the making of Star Wars. Carrie Fisher has recalled how hard it was to be nasty to him in their scenes together, while Dave Prowse remembers Cushing tutoring Fisher on set. “He really bent over backwards for her because it was her first major film,” he said. “He explained all the pitfalls, what she should look for, how to take advantage of all the key light.”

But all the talk of Cushing's niceness sometimes threatens to sidetrack us from appreciating what a big star and what a skilled actor he was.

Even though the Hammer films had fizzled out before Star Wars, and even though he had appeared in plenty of films that were beneath him, Cushing's presence still made a film worth seeing for many fans. That may explain why he is billed above Alec Guinness in the cast of Star Wars and on the posters, despite having a smaller role. Cushing's status as a genre legend is illustrated by the fact that Mark Hamill came into Elstree Studios especially to watch him at work and get his autograph.

Cushing was also a highly professional actor, who gave his all to even the least of his films, and who had a large box of acting tricks at his command. His tightly controlled movements within the frame, his precise diction, his facility with props and stage 'business', were all hallmarks of a Cushing performance, and you can see his professionalism being deployed as Tarkin.

Whether he was playing the hero or the villain, Cushing was at his best when bringing a steely conviction to his roles. (I always wish he'd been encouraged to take that approach in the Doctor Who movies, rather than making the Doctor a kindly old gent.) That's exactly what he does in Star Wars, and as a result the character carries incredible authority. In his first scene, he instantly quietens the bickering Imperial generals aboard the Death Star. Moments later, he orders Darth Vader to stop throttling General Motti. Cushing's presence on screen is so compelling that you can believe he has the authority to order Vader about. But it's an uneasy relationship. When the Millennium Falcon leaves the Death Star, homing beacon aboard, and Darth Vader declares that this day “will soon see the end of the Rebellion”, the anxious sideways look that Tarkin gives Vader suggests that their power relationship is shifting.

Unlike Alec Guinness, Cushing never betrayed any irritation at being associated with Star Wars, although he admitted he had been confused as to what it was all about. He may not be on screen for very long, yet Star Wars would not have been the same without him. 


Hywel Evans said...

I've stumbled across this wonderful site by accident, so I apologise for the late reply.Peter Cushing remains my favourite actor and his performance would often elevate what in lesser hands would be a bad film into a good one.His gentlemanly attitude towards Star Wars is in stark contrast to Sir Alec's.Always wished Tarkin had escaped the destruction of the Death Star ( and that Kenner had made an action figure of him! )

Darren Slade said...

Hello Hywel. Many thanks for commenting and the kind comments about the site. Do share it if you can.
Funny about Guinness and Cushing and their differing attitudes to Star Wars. Cushing claimed he didn't understand a lot of it, but was, as you say, very gracious about the movie and grateful to have been in it. Guinness was much more central to it but unkind about the film and its fans later on.
Cushing became my favourite genre actor, thanks to Star Wars prompting me to seek out his other movies. As you say, he could often turn a bad film into something worth watching.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guys,
Bit late to the party, but greatly enjoyed reading this article. Cushing was a maestro and treated every film he was in with the utmost sincerity, what a pro.
I'll second Hywels thoughts on the Kenner figure, apparently they thought kids wouldn't play with a Tarkin figure. I've also heard that the Death Squad Commander/Star Destroyer Commander was the Tarkin prototype altered late in the game.
Its a pity he was killed off, although fitting as he was the main villain of the film. I think they should have kept the Regional Governors as villains as was the original plan, in the kind of unofficial sequel Splinter Of The Minds Eye, Vader is again an emissary of the Regional Governor and not the defacto second in command of the Empire as he appeared in later
works, kind of shrunk the "world" a bit I think having all the officers answer to him.

Darren Slade said...

Hi St Claire. Many thanks for your comments. Great to have a fellow Cushing fan commenting. Yes, I'd forgotten that Vader still answers to regional governors in Splinter of the Mind's Eye. Somehow having him subordinate to Tarkin but obviously keen to rule the galaxy made him even more sinister back then.