Christopher Plummer, Star Of Stage, Screen, 'Sound Of Music,' Dies At 91

Feb 5, 2021
Originally published on February 5, 2021 3:18 pm

In 2012, when he was already well into his 80s, Christopher Plummer told NPR that he was busier than he had been in a long time – and that was OK with him. "You never stop learning how to act, both on screen and on the stage," he said. "I feel like I'm starting all over again. Every sort of decade I feel this, and that's very satisfying."

The Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award-winning actor died Friday at his home in Connecticut. He was 91.

Plummer was ironically best known for playing Capt. von Trapp in the wildly successful The Sound of Music — a movie he didn't much like. "It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mawkishness, but we did our damn best not to make it too mawkish," he told Fresh Air in 2007.

Plummer was "quite peeved," explains New York University theater associate professor Laurence Maslon, when his voice was dubbed for songs in the film. (You're actually hearing the voice of Bill Lee on Rodgers and Hammerstein classics such as "Edelweiss.") "Christopher Plummer was a classically trained actor. He thought, quite rightly, he could do anything," Maslon says.

Plummer told Fresh Air that he was ultimately grateful for the film and its success, though in 2012 when Scott Simon asked him whether he ever found himself singing "Edelweiss" all these years later, his response was: "Of course not — are you mad?!"

Christopher Plummer did not particularly relish his role as retired naval officer Capt. von Trapp in The Sound Of Music.
Silver Screen Collection / Getty Images

Plummer was born in 1929 in Toronto and fell in love with theater in high school. He developed some serious acting chops, playing Shakespearean roles in both Canada and England.

Christopher Plummer starred as as Sherlock Holmes in "Murder by Decree" in the late 1970s. He split his career between the screen and stage.
Keystone / Getty Images

"I'm so glad I was Canadian, in a way, because a Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school," he said. "We're rather good at that — we're kind of like chameleons in that respect."

He said his relationship with Shakespeare changed over the years. "As you grow older, and you have some experience of life, you see more into the depths of each character," he told Fresh Air. Take King Lear for instance — "It is so very modern in its dysfunctional family and all of the trappings of power that are disappearing from them — is so modern, it's so human. You need to be much older to understand the depths of a part like that," he said.

For most of his more than 60-year career, Plummer split his time appearing both on stage and in films – among his movies were Stage Struck and The Man Who Would Be King. He even played a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

Onstage, he played Iago to James Earl Jones' Othello. He played Cyrano de Bergerac in a musical version of the Edmond Rostand play, for which he won a Tony Award ... using his own voice.

"His characters were so big," Maslon says. "He filled them with so much verve and talent."

Plummer's film career flowered as he got older. He says playing Mike Wallace in The Insider was a turning point — the scripts got more "intelligent" he said, an "A-level rather than a B-plus." He was cast in plummy character roles, including J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World, and a father who comes out as gay at the age of 75 in Beginners — a performance that won him an Oscar.

"I adored the part and I thought it was so well-written and so unsentimental and brave and witty and free ..." Plummer said of playing Hal in Beginners. "It was tackled with such humanity and sweetness and fun."

Plummer said the characters he played later on in his career were the ones that that interested him: "They're witty," he said. "They've got a wonderful edge to them."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Oscar, Emmy and Tony award-winning actor Christopher Plummer has died at age 91. He is best known for playing Captain von Trapp in "The Sound Of Music." But our reporter Jeff Lunden says he was much more than that.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Let's get this out of the way first.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

BILL LEE: (As Captain von Trapp, singing) Edelweiss. Edelweiss.

LUNDEN: The man singing the famous Rodgers and Hammerstein tune "Edelweiss" in "The Sound Of Music" is not Christopher Plummer. It's the late Bill Lee, a singer who dubbed voices for several Hollywood stars in several films.

LAURENCE MASLON: Christopher Plummer was a classically trained actor who thought, quite rightly, he could do anything.

LUNDEN: NYU theater professor Laurence Maslon wrote a book about "The Sound Of Music."

MASLON: So he was quite peeved when he was dubbed singing couple of pretty simple songs like "Edelweiss" in the film of "The Sound Of Music." And of course, the role for which he'll be remembered for posterity and beyond is the one he hated the most, which was Captain von Trapp.

LUNDEN: But Plummer eventually came to terms with it, he told Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: I'm grateful to the film in many ways because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because I do think it borders on mawkishness, but we did our damned best not to make it too mawkish.

LUNDEN: Christopher Plummer was born in 1929 in Toronto and fell in love with theater in high school. He developed some serious acting chops playing Shakespearean roles in both Canada and England.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HAMLET AT ELSINORE")

PLUMMER: (As Hamlet) To be or not to be. That is the question.

LUNDEN: Christopher Plummer in "Hamlet" for the BBC in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PLUMMER: I'm so glad I was Canadian, in a way, because a Canadian can take the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather good at that. We're kind of like chameleons in that respect.

LUNDEN: For most of his more than 60-year career, Plummer split his time, appearing both on stage and in films. Among his movies were "Stage Struck" and "The Man Who Would Be King." He even played a Klingon general in "Star Trek VI." On stage, he played Iago to James Earl Jones' Othello and Cyrano de Bergerac in a musical version of the Rostand Play, for which he won a Tony Award using his own voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF PERFORMANCE OF "CYRANO")

PLUMMER: (As Cyrano de Bergerac, singing) Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano, Cyrano.

LUNDEN: Theater professor Laurence Maslon.

MASLON: His characters were so big. He filled them with so much verve and talent. He played John Barrymore. He was the only actor who could sort of do that and be credible.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARRYMORE")

PLUMMER: (As John Barrymore) I can add colors to the chameleon, change shapes with Proteus for advantages and set the murderous Machiavel to school.

LUNDEN: Plummer's film career flowered as he got older. He was cast in plummy character roles - Mike Wallace in "The Insider," J. Paul Getty in "All The Money In The World." And he won an Oscar for playing a father who comes out as gay at the age of 75 in "Beginners." Plummer said those were the kind of characters that he was interested in playing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PLUMMER: They're witty. They've got wonderful edge to them. And I think people think that I exude a sort of power, so they keep casting me in these things.

LUNDEN: And audiences enjoyed Plummer's wit and edge in those roles, even as they worshipped him in the movie he found so mawkish.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Now and forever (ph).

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.