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Peter Cushing bio describes the country ‘gentleman’ of Hammer horror films

Dennis King Published: June 5, 2013

What can you say of an actor whose film roles have included Baron Frankenstein, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Professor Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Who and the Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars?”

In his 60-year career on stage, screen and television, Peter Cushing established himself as both a respected classical actor and an underground cult figure. Among horror fans, he’s celebrated for his masterly and chillingly operatic roles in scores fright films produced at Britain’s storied Hammer Studios.

But more than an unforgettable cult figure in horror films of the 1950s through 1970s, Cushing was one of England’s most recognizable and beloved actors of the era, and in “Peter Cushing: A Life in Film” (Titan Books, $24.95), author David Miller has produced a insightful and touching portrait of a brilliant actor who portrayed scary but by all accounts lived gently.

Compiling loads of anecdotal tales of Cushing’s acting prowess, along with analyses of his many roles – bolstered by conversations with his acting cohorts and friends (most notably his lifelong pal Christopher Lee), archival material from the BBC and Hammer Films, plus lots of private correspondence – the book presents a vivid and entertaining portrait of a man largely identified as a horror figure but one dedicated to the art of acting.

Cushing, who died 1994 at age 81 (the book was published to mark the centenary of his birth), began his acting career in small regional theaters and ended them playing small roles in tawdry, low-budget pictures. But, as Miller reveals, everyone who knew and worked with him, whether in big productions or small, described him in one word – “gentleman.”

While the author devotes ample space to Cushing’s high-profile roles (particularly Van Helsing, Frankenstein and Grand Moff Tarkin) and carefully analyzes many of his more obscure parts, the book’s big revelations come in delving into the famously private actor’s personal life.

There are details of his life in the U.S. before and during World War II (when he was ruled medically unfit for military duty), his early Hollywood piecework (a bit part in Laurel and Hardy’s “A Chump at Oxford”) his friendship with Laurence Olivier that led to a worldwide theater tour and a nervous breakdown, his devotion to his wife Helen, especially during her grave illness, and his love for painting and bird watching at his pastoral country home in Whitsable, Kent.

Miller dutifully covers the darker tones of Cushing’s life – his late-career disappointments, his lifelong battles with depression, hints of affairs and suicide attempts. Yet, even as Cushing bristled at the typecasting that locked him into the horror genre and limited his acting scope, friends such as Christopher Lee say he was never bitter and always maintained his grace, kindness and professionalism no matter how small or kitschy the role.

Miller is a widely published writer in magazines such as TV Zone, Starburst and Film Review and is the former editor of Shivers. He’s also co-author with Mark Gatiss of the book “They Came From Outer Space.”

- Dennis King