Christopher Plummer | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Christopher Plummer

Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer, actor (born 13 December 1929 in Toronto, ON; died 5 February 2021 in Weston, Connecticut). A great-grandson of Prime Minister Sir John Abbott, Christopher Plummer was an international star of theatre, film and television. He was Canada’s most distinguished movie star in the classical mould — the New York Times hailed him as “the finest classical actor in America.” He took on innumerable larger-than-life roles, including Cyrano de Bergerac, King Lear, Hamlet, Rudyard Kipling, John Barrymore, and Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965), one of the most popular films of all time. He won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, two Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards, a BAFTA Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Film Independent Spirit Award, a Canadian Screen Award and a Genie Award. He received lifetime achievement awards from the Governors General’s Awards, the Canadian Screen Awards and the National Arts Club of America. A Companion of the Order of Canada, he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and Canada's Walk of Fame.

Christopher Plummer

Early Years

Raised and educated in Montreal, Plummer became fluently bilingual. After watching Laurence Olivier in Henry V, he decided to pursue an acting career. He apprenticed with the Montreal Repertory Theatre, along with fellow Montrealer William Shatner.

Stage Career

Christopher Plummer made his professional debut in 1948 with Ottawa’s Stage Society. He performed more than 100 roles with its successor, the Canadian Repertory Theatre. Performances in Bermuda led to a US tour of Nina (1953) and Broadway recognition in The Starcross Story (1954), The Lark (1955), and as Marc Antony in Julius Caesar in the American Shakespeare Festival’s 1955 inaugural season.

Other notable New York City engagements included The Dark Is Light Enough (1955); the devil in J.B. (1958); Arturo Ui (1963); Pizarro in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965); The Good Doctor (1971); and the title roles in the musical Cyrano (1973) and the one-man play Barrymore (1996–98 and again in 2011), both of which garnered him Tony Awards. Then came Iago in Othello (1981–82) and Macbeth with Glenda Jackson (1988); Pinter's No Man's Land (1995) with Jason Robards, Jr; and King Lear (2004). In 2007, he appeared in Inherit the Wind and was nominated a seventh time for a Tony Award.

In 1961, Christopher Plummer appeared at Stratford-upon-Avon, UK, as Richard III while alternating in London as Henry II in Becket (winning the Evening Standard Award). He continued his British career at the National Theatre in revivals of Amphitryon 38 (directed by Laurence Olivier); Danton's Death in 1971; and The Scarlet Pimpernel at Chichester in 1985. His first King Lear was directed by Sir Peter Hall in 2001.

Between 1956 and 1967, he starred at Canada’s Stratford Festival. He played Henry V, Hamlet, Andrew Aguecheek, Mercutio, Leontes, Macbeth, Cyrano de Bergerac and Marc Antony, as well as other roles. He returned 26 years later, on 13 July 1993, to help the festival celebrate its exact 40th anniversary day with a gala one-man show entitled A Word or Two, Before You Go. Barrymore made its 1996 Canadian debut at Stratford and Plummer’s King Lear was seen in 2002. He played Caesar in the Stratford Festival's Caesar and Cleopatra, which was also filmed for television in 2009; it garnered him a Gemini Award nomination for best performance in an arts program. He also played Prospero in Stratford’s The Tempest in 2010.

Christopher Plummer
Image: Lois Siegel.
Christopher Plummer
Christopher Plummer at the 69th Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. January 15, 2012 Beverly Hills, CA Picture: Paul Smith / Featureflash.

Film Career

Christopher Plummer has accumulated more than 200 feature film, television movie and miniseries credits, either as a leading man or a distinguished supporting player. His first was a small part in Nicholas Ray’s Wind across the Everglades (1958). The following year, he was cast opposite Julie Harris in a US television production of Ibsen's A Doll's House. He also had a major part in the Hollywood blockbuster The Fall of the Roman Empire (1962), which led to the role of Baron von Trapp in The Sound of Music (1965). Not a trained singer, Plummer was uncomfortable in the role of the stuffy baron and was upstaged by the brilliant singing voice of his co-star, Julie Andrews. He said publicly that he disliked the part; however, the film proved enduringly popular and its success propelled Plummer into a prestigious and long-lasting film career.

Following The Sound of Music, he was cast opposite Robert Redford and Natalie Wood in Inside Daisy Clover (1966); as the lead in Oedipus the King (1967); as Field Marshall Rommel in Night of the Generals (1967); as the Duke of Wellington in Waterloo (1970); and as Rudyard Kipling in John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine.

Plummer seemed to disappear into character parts in the 1970s and 1980s. He re-emerged in the 1990s in smaller but more refined roles that suited his patrician bearing and Shakespearean training. After playing the villain in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), he had a small part in Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning Malcolm X (1992) starring Denzel Washington; and was in Mike Nichols's Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson. He appeared in Dolores Claiborne (1995) with Kathy Bates and in Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1996) with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. He gave another powerful performance as broadcaster Mike Wallace in the Russell Crowe thriller The Insider (1999).

Plummer appeared in Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001) and was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actor in 2009 for his role as Leo Tolstoy, opposite Helen Mirren as Tolstoy's wife Sophia, in The Last Station. His performance drew nominations for best supporting actor from the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild.

Christopher Plummer played a gay father who “comes out” late in life, in the romantic comedy Beginners (2011). He also co-starred in the American remake of the Swedish film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), based on the international bestselling thriller.

Among the most memorable of his many Canadian film roles are the psychopathic thief who terrorizes Elliott Gould in Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner (1978); Sherlock Holmes to James Mason's Dr. Watson in Bob Clark's Murder by Decree (1979; Genie Award for best actor); the customs official in Atom Egoyan's Ararat (2002; Genie nomination for best actor), and the lead in Terry Gilliam's Canada/UK/France co-production The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). Plummer also received Genie nominations for The Amateur (1981; best actor), Impolite (1991; best supporting actor), the children's film Blizzard (2002; best supporting actor) and Emotional Arithmetic (2007; best actor).

Other notable film credits include: Battle of Britain (1968); The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969); The Return of the Pink Panther (1974); International Velvet (1978); Where the Heart Is (1989); The Gospel of John (2003); Cold Creek Manor (2003); National Treasure (2004); Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004; as Aristotle); Must Love Dogs (2005); Syriana (2005); Terrence Malick's New World (2005); Spike Lee's Inside Man (2006); The Lake House (2006); Richard Attenborough's Closing the Ring (2007); Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World (2017), for which he received an Oscar nomination after stepping into the role (originally filmed with Kevin Spacey) at the last minute, making him the oldest actor ever nominated for an Academy Award; and the whodunit spoof Knives Out (2019).

Television Career

Plummer’s work on British, Canadian and American television is equally extensive. He began with live American television, appearing in anthology shows such as Studio One; Kraft Television Theatre; The Dupont Show of the Month; and Hallmark Hall of Fame (1959), for which he received his first Emmy Award nomination, for his role in “Little Moon of Alban.” He attracted attention, and his second Emmy nomination, for the BBC production of Hamlet at Elsinore, as Hamlet (1965). Then came The Sound of Music, after which Plummer worked less in television.

Productions for the small screen include Arthur Hailey's The Money Changers (1976; Emmy Award for outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or movie); as Sir John A. Macdonald in George Bloomfield's Riel (1979; for the CBC); The Thorn Birds (1983; Emmy nomination for outstanding supporting actor); The Young Catherine (1991); the made-in-Canada series Counterstrike (1991–93; Gemini Award nomination for best actor); American Tragedy as the lawyer F. Lee Bailey (2000; Golden Globe nominee for best supporting actor); the miniseries Nuremberg (2000), filmed in Montreal; Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby (2002; National Board of Review for best cast); and as Cardinal Bernard Law in Our Fathers, an indictment of the Catholic Church's sex scandals (Emmy Award nomination for outstanding supporting actor, and a SAG nomination for outstanding performance by an actor). He was also nominated for Gemini Awards for The Summit (2008; best supporting actor) and Harrison Bergeron (1996; in the same category).

Plummer, Christopher

Man of Many Talents

Plummer was also a skilled narrator. His rich, modulated voice has been heard on everything from cartoons to TV series to feature films, and even the audio soundtrack for the 1994 Barnes Art Exhibit in Toronto. He recorded several books for young people, including Alice in Wonderland and Mordecai Richler's Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. An accomplished pianist, he branched out musically to narrate concert versions of Henry V (with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in 1992–93), Peer Gynt (1995) and Prokofiev's Ivan the Terrible (1996). Other platform presentations included a solo evening with the works of Stephen Leacock; as well as Love and Master Will, Shakespeare’s verse in tandem with actress Zoë Caldwell.

Plummer narrated six TV movies based on the French children's books Madeline and the animated Madeline series (1993–94; Emmy Award for outstanding voice-over performance). He provided a voice for the features An American Tail (1986) and Rock-a-Doodle (1991); his was the voice of the villainous Charles Muntz in Pixar’s Up (2009), which won an Academy Award for best animated film; and he narrated Frédéric Back's NFB short The Man Who Planted Trees (1987), which won an Oscar for best animated short. Plummer was again nominated for an Emmy in 2011 for narrating The Classic Movie Channel's miniseries Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood.

Personal Life

Christopher Plummer was married three times: to Tony Award-winning actor Tammy Grimes from 1956 to 1960; to actor and producer Patricia Lewis from 1962 to 1967; and to English actor Elaine Taylor from 1970 until his death following a fall in 2021. His only child, with Grimes, is the actor Amanda Plummer (born 23 March 1957). Her career includes roles in films such as The Fisher King (1991) and Pulp Fiction (1994); as well as in The Lark (2005) at Canada's Stratford Festival. Plummer’s autobiography, In Spite of Myself, was published in 2008.


The New York Times hailed Christopher Plummer as “the finest classical actor in America.” He was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1968 and received many honours and awards for his work. He was inducted into the American Theatre's Hall of Fame in 1986 and into Canada's Walk of Fame in 1997. The National Arts Club of America awarded Plummer its gold medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Arts (1999). In 2001, he was made an honorary doctor of fine arts at New York's Juilliard School and received the Governor-General's Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2002, he was the first performer to be presented with the Jason Robards Award for Excellence in the Theatre. He received the John Gielgud Award for Excellence in Dramatic Arts (2006); three New York Drama Desk Awards; the Shakespeare Society Medal (2004); and the Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award (1997). He won the 2012 Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in Beginners, co-starring Ewan McGregor.

In Canada, he received honorary doctorates from McGill University, the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, the University of Western Ontario (now Western University), the University of Ottawa and the University of Guelph. In October 2021, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp in Plummer's honour that features him in several of his most iconic roles.

See also Christopher Plummer (Profile).

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