THE STAR WHO NEVER GREW UP
By Graham Payne
New Zealand Home Journal - June 1958
He will sit for hours on the carpet in his room playing "war" with his model soldiers. He has an accumulation of cigarette cards and rare comic papers that would make any young collector bald with excitement.
In the corner of his "den" is an old trunk filled completely with hundreds of games - one of them reputedly invented by Napoleon.
He is brimming with good humour, a love of practical jokes and, when the occasion calls, daring.
He once strode into a Hollywood film studio on the look-out for an expert swordsman to play opposite Louis Hayward, and announced himself as the British Champion. He had never held a sword in his life. But he got the part.
He is the star who never grew up: Peter Cushing. For the second year in succession he has topped the polls as Britain's leading TV actor.
Yet, as a youngster, is diction was appalling. "I shall never forget my first application for a scholarship at a school of drama," he told me. "I was called into a large room where the interviews were being held. 'I wanna go on the stage,' I said. The fellow behind the mahogany desk looked me up and down and said: 'Speak in your normal voice, please. It's not time to do your characterizations yet.' 'But this is me normal voice,' I protested as he politely showed me to the door."
Not a bright beginning for an actor who was destined to keep five million British housewives glued to their tiny screens while, outside in the kitchens, five million meals became burnt offerings.
"I practiced hard after that. I bought books on the art of elocution by the dozen. At long last, satisfied that my Queen's English was now of a higher standard, I wrote twenty-one letters - I recall it as that number exactly - to a repertory company before the last letter was, eventually, answered. It offered me my first walk-on part in J. B. Priestley's 'Cornelius'."
Other small parts came after that and Cushing graduated to many companies, gaining fuller experience in many theatres.
When he was 23, he made a sudden, important decision. He withdrew his worldly savings of 50 pounds, procured a generous loan from his father and bought a one-way ticket to the United States - to Hollywood.
He made his way to California and bluffed his way into Screenland. Alexandre Dumas's "The Man In The Iron Mask" was being made and the studio wanted an expert swordsman to play opposite Louis Hayward. Cushing walked up to the director and said he was the reigning British champion.
"Months of regular employment and 75 dollars a week prompted that white lie," Cushing grinned. "Nobody seemed to doubt my word and I was given the part!"
Imagine his dismay then, when, on arriving next day for a practice session, he learned that his advisor was to be a Frenchman named Cavern - the best swordsman in Hollywood.
"I laid me cards on the table. 'I know nothing about fencing, but I would liked to have kept the job ...'" To Cushing's surprise, Cavern roared out laughing. 'I knew you couldn't be the British champion, for I know him personally!" he said. 'Nevertheless, I like your courage so I have decided to give you a few personal lessons.'"
Today, Cushing can wield a foil as well as any other screen actor in the business.
"When the war came, I was Grade 4C. I was told to await further instructions and, consequently, fearing I might be sent home at a moment's notice, my studio gave me very few lasting parts."
Ill health followed and once again Peter Cushing experienced an acute down-and-out period. He actually reached a state of near starvation but was saved by a contract from a summer camp just outside New York. "I received no salary," Cushing explained to me. "Instead, accommodation, good food and plenty of sunshine."
It was the tonic he had awaited. He survived long enough to collect enough dollars for the passage home. When he arrived in England a friend suggested he approach ENSA and this he did. It resulted in his touring army camps in England and in other parts of Europe giving shows to the homesick troops of the time. It was on just a tour that Cushing met Helen, his wife.
"It was in the second act of Noel Coward's 'Private Lives', in the famous quarrel scene where I ended up with gramophone records being smashed on my head. Helen and I decided the fight should continue for life!"
Congestion of the lung forced him to leave ENSA and Helen, a born Florence Nightingale, nursed him through a difficult period.
"Now we were really hard up," he reflects. "I have always had a flair for painting, so I took to painting scarves. I managed to sell one or two, then came a contract from a large firm. Later, I designed and painted scarves to commemorate the Festival of Britain and the Coronation."
In 1947, Sir Laurence Olivier noted him and Peter Cushing joined the Old Vic Company and toured Australia and New Zealand. Before he left, he painted the "Hamlet Scarf" and later, when playing with Olivier in the "Hamlet" film, the Queen Mother and then the Queen accepted a Hamlet Scarf at the premier.
Much of his acting was in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Sheridan and he enjoyed his many character parts and his many disguises. "It all led to television producer Harold Clayton sending for me. He said: 'I've seen you act many times - but I've always wanted to know what you really looked like!"
And that was the beginning of it all.
Films again. And he did not have to bluff his way into the studios either. This time, they clamored after him. He was the rascally Sir Palamides in "The Black Knight" which also starred Alan Ladd. He was Deborah Kerr's weak husband in "The End of the Affair" and with Richard Burton and Clare Bloom in the epic "Alexander The Great". At the moment, he is engaged upon a horror production to be called "The Creature".
"Television is rather a frightening business," he grinned. "But I get all the relaxation I want from my collection of model soldiers. I am a keen member of the Model Soldier Society which meets, once a month, in a Regent street pub. Why do I collect soldiers? I like to play 'War', a game invented by H.G. Wells, himself a collector. It's a game, full of strategy and it takes the best part of nine hours to complete."
And, when he tires of his soldiers, there are his countless games to be played, his old books and comics to read...
Britain's Number One TV actor just hasn't grown up!