Peter Cushing: In Tribute

By Steve Vertlieb

(Originally printed in The 5th Annual Festival of Fantastic Films Programme - Sept. 1994)

Like many of us I was deeply saddened when the news reached me that Peter Cushing had succumbed to the ravages of cancer. A champion of the forces of good against evil had been taken from these mortal surroundings, leaving us naked and stripped bare. Who then would take up the noble gauntlet of heroism and root out the terrible plague of vampirism from the earth? Surely the world we live in would seem just a little less secure without the striking figure of Dr. Van Helsing traversing the Transylvanian countryside on our behalf in search of Dracula's horror.

Crime must surely now run rampant with the untimely demise of the world's most dashing detective. To face the perils of existence without the astonishing intelligence, wit and grace of that most noble resident of 21-B Baker Street is too terrible a thought to contemplate.

And what of the villainous genius of crime itself. Surely there is a reluctant admiration of the gifted doctor who created life in the image of, if not the almighty, then of himself. Has any man accomplished more for science than Baron Frankenstein?

If all of these men bear an uncanny likeness, if they walk under the vibrant inspiration that influences all those who wear the thorny crown of greatness then there is a romantic commonality that bears a single countenance. From 1939 until 1985 the breeding wit, culture and ultimate sensitivity of Peter Cushing brought a vibrant intelligence to motion picture screens that has left a profound and significant legacy which will be difficult to forget.

An actor of Shakespearean training, Peter Cushing was a rare commodity; a performer who never brought anything less to his parts than passion and infectious enthusiasm. From his earliest  roles to final performances, when physical frailty prevented a wider range of expression, one sensed the burning passion of a man who had lived his life well. In Vigil in the Night (1939), his third motion picture, Cushing delivered a heart wrenching performance as a soul consumed with grief over the death of his wife, a role he would play in reality over the death of his real mate, Helen, some thirty years later. In both Tales from the Crypt (1971) and The Ghoul (1974) Mr. Cushing enacted the part of a man lonely and suffering the trauma of his wife's passing. So convincingly is his on-screen agonizing that it's difficult to tell where artistry ends and grieving begins, making these sequences nearly impossible to watch. The intensity of his work is excruciatingly honest...

Cushing always brought with him the enormity of his personal integrity to the screen. After essaying the part of Sherlock Holmes in Hammer's The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958) with urgency and flamboyance he played the part once more in one of his final films, The Masks of Death (1984). This time, however, both Peter Cushing and Sherlock Holmes had aged dramatically, suffering the unflattering ravages of time. Consequently, the film and the characterization are filled with an overwhelming sense of melancholy... It is a sweet, lovely rendering by an aging actor whose own sensitivity and intelligence served him well.

In between, of course, were the now classic performances that have established Peter Cushing unquestionably among a handful of the world's most powerful and influential genre stars. In films like Horror of Dracula, Curse of Frankenstein, The Mummy, Revenge of Frankenstein, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, Brides of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (with the hauntingly beautiful Veronica Carlson), The Hound of the Baskervilles and, of course, Star Wars, he established himself as a wonderful persona, far larger than life.

In his personal life, Peter Cushing was a warm, kind and compassionate man. I was fortunate enough to know and have befriended him by correspondence from 1966 until 1973. In his letters, at times warm and cultured... at times painfully honest as when his Helen died in 1971... he revealed a kind, caring and gentle soul. I met him at last at a film conference in New York in 1974 where he joked that my brother, Erwin, and I had written to him as a team for many years... "just like Laurel and Hardy."

When I learned of his death in August of 1994 I cried. Such was the charm of the man. I shall miss him. So shall we all.

COPYRIGHT 1994 - Steve Vertlieb

Special thanks to Steve Vertlieb for allowing the PCA to repost his tribute.