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Obituary: Peter Cushing (1913-1994)

By Jon Preddle

If someone were to ask you, what is the factor common to Frankenstein, Dracula, George Orwell's 1984, Star Wars, The Avengers, Space 1999, Sherlock Holmes, Biggles and Doctor Who, you would not be wrong in thinking they are all popular literary and/or cinematic and TV classics with a cult following. However, a more obvious link is that actor Peter Cushing appeared in them all.

Cushing was born in Kenley Surrey, England, 26 May 1913. He showed an interest in acting at a young age, working his way up with the Worthing Repertory Company. Making the move to Hollywood he made his film debut in the 1939 film The Man in the Iron Mask (although to be perfectly accurate, his role was actually that of the 'double' for scenes where the King talks to his twin.) He appeared in a number of films in America before returning to England in the forties. After the war he joined Laurence Olivier's Old Vic company which toured Australia and New Zealand.

In the fifties he became one of the most popular actors on British live TV. Following a performance as Winston Smith in the BBC's 1954 live TV adaptation of George Orwell's classic 1984, he was offered another classic role, that of Baron Frankenstein in Hammer films' The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), his genre debut. This film and its many sequels, as well as Hammer's Dracula series in which Cushing played Van Helsing to Christopher Lee's Dracula, made him an international horror star.

For a man who was regarded as very timid, he made some 40 horror movies, from 1956 to 1980, mostly for Hammer and Milton Subotsky's Amicus Films, where he faced a number of other popular monsters, such as the Mummy, the Gorgon and the Werewolf.

For Amicus he appeared in several horror anthologies, such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors, The House that Dripped Blood (with Jon Pertwee), Tales from the Crypt and From Beyond the Grave. He also starred in an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' At the Earth's Core.

It was through his association with Milton Subotsky that Cushing entered the world of Doctor Who, starring in the 1965 film Dr Who and the Daleks and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 AD a year later. Cushing jumped at the chance to play the Doctor and despite suffering from illness when making the second film, he never lost enthusiasm for the project.

Sadly, the two films were considered failures in the all-important American market so plans for a third Dr Who movie, presumably with Cushing in the lead, were dropped. However, this did not end Cushing's association with the popular TV series. In 1967 Stanmark Productions Ltd promoted a planned series of serialised radio dramas based on popular fictional characters, with 'Doctor Who starring Peter Cushing' being one of the major selling points of the series. Sadly, the project never came to fruition, Cushing's ill-health at the time apparently being a contributing factor.

While Cushing was never to play Dr Who again, he did play another popular cult hero, this time on TV. Following his stand-out portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 1959 Hammer film adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, he went on to star in a 16-episode Holmes series for BBC TV, his only regular TV role. One of his last film roles before he retired was again as Holmes, in the TV movie The Abbott's Cry (1986), a sequel to his appearance in The Masks of Death (1984), with Sir John Mills as Watson.

Cushing also made appearances in cult television series such as The Avengers: Return of the Cybernauts (1967) and The Eagle's Nest (1976); and Space 1999: Missing Link (1975).

In 1977 he appeared in another cult favourite, George Lucas's Star Wars, as the Empire's scheming Grand Moff Tarkin, one of Cushing's rare appearances as a villain. One of his last films was the 1985 version of Biggles, a time travel adventure which brought Capt WE Johns' famous war hero into the contemporary future.

Having retired from film-making in the eighties due to his failing health, Cushing used his time to write his memoirs, published in two separate volumes: Peter Cushing - An Autobiography in 1986, and the follow-up volume, Past Forgetting, in 1988. Cushing was awarded an OBE in 1989.

With the death of his beloved wife Helen in 1971 Cushing became a very lonely man (the couple had no children). His ill-heath was attributed to this loss and his many friends saw him deteriorate to the point where he just waited death so he could be reunited with her. His long battle with cancer finally ended 11 August 1994. He was 81.

By Phillip J Gray

Born in Great Britain in 1913, Cushing began acting with the Worthing Repertory Company in 1935-6 under the auspices of the late Bill Fraser (Grugger in Meglos). After working for a time in Hollywood in the late 1930s, Cushing returned to Britain during the Second World War. He worked in the theatre and films, notably the 1948 film Hamlet. Cushing was involved in the early days of the British television industry and was acclaimed for his performance as Winston Smith in the 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the 1950s Cushing was one of the acknowledged stars of the horror film genre. He was justifiably a significant member of the 'great triad' along with Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Peter Cushing appeared in many films, but perhaps two stand out in particular: the eponymous villain in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 and as Van Helsing in Dracula in 1958.

Peter Cushing was also part of the Doctor Who mythos. He appeared as Doctor Who in the two 1960s cinema films, Dr Who and the Daleks in 1965 and Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 AD in 1966. There has been much debate as to whether those should be acknowledged as part of Doctor Who by fans, but one thing is certain: they were both successful at the time and retain a considerable impact even now. I can remember when, aged sixteen in 1988, I saw the Invasion Earth film. I was amazed at the colour, and at that stage knowing very little about William Hartnell I thought Cushing must have been the first Doctor! To this day, I can visualise the scenes where the Daleks surround the shed and blow it up, and when the Doctor and his companions enter the Daleks' head-quarters. The films have a completely different attitude to their subject matter than the television series. The lead character is 'Doctor Who', and the characters of Barbara, Ian and Susan are different to their series' counterparts. But different does not mean worse, and when watched in the right mood the sixties films are enormously enjoyable; their garish colours and high production values are a stunning change from the television series. The stars of the films are, of course, the Daleks themselves. Cushing's role as Doctor Who was still significant, acting as a channel of information to the audience and as the heroic counterpoint to the Daleks' highlighted evil. Chosen because of his box-office marketability, Peter Cushing played Doctor Who with aplomb despite illness. I used to wonder why William Hartnell hadn't featured in the films. Hartnell was a second-rate actor who had featured prominently in only a few films like This Sporting Life. Cushing was a 'big-name' and whether fans like it or not, films are made with commercial success in mind.

Peter Cushing was not a happy man, after the death of his wife Helen in 1971 and a long illness, but he was always happy to talk about his career. Cushing's co-star Jennie Linden told the audience at a Panopticon recently that she would recommend Peter Cushing to attend next year' s event. I am sorry that this can not now take place, as the results I am sure would have been spell-binding. I was sad to hear of Peter Cushing's death, mainly because he had such immense screen presence and contributed so much to film and television this century. That Peter Cushing played a part in Doctor Who's success deserves to be remembered.

[Peter Cushing]
Rochelle Thickpenny

This item appeared in TSV 41 (October 1994).