Star of the Month: Peter Cushing
October 2, 2020 | by Shannon
“The Gentleman of Horror.”
No other nickname seems quite so fitting for our classy Star of the Month, Peter Cushing. Over the course of his lengthy career, Cushing appeared in 22 horror films for England’s Hammer Film Productions, the studio that revived gothic horror tales for a new generation of audiences. Cushing would famously bring to life such classic characters as Baron Victor Frankenstein and Dracula’s Van Helsing. With his detail oriented, character-driven portrayals, Peter Cushing would, to quote fellow actor and friend Ron Moody, “ennoble the genre.”
But despite the fame garnered for his frequent horror and sci-fi film roles—he’d even appear as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977)—Cushing expertly crafted non horror characters in comedies and dramas, including Shakespeare (!!), on stage and screen for over two decades before making his horror film debut in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein.
Reel vs. Real Life
Off screen, Peter Cushing couldn’t have been more different from the characters he became so associated with on screen. A man of great humor, Peter never lost his passion for the interests of his youth. He was an artist, and relied on his great painting talents to get his family through the financially insecure periods that frequented much of his acting career. A gentle-hearted soul, Peter was a vegetarian with a fear of the dark. And above all else, Peter was a spiritual man with an extraordinary love for his wife Helen.
Is it any wonder that quite literally everyone who worked with this “Gentleman of Horror” over his six-decade-long career had nothing but glowingly positive things to say about him?
Here are a few things about Peter Cushing you didn’t know:
His Mother Wanted a Daughter, His Dad Wanted a Mathematician
Peter Cushing was born in Kenley, Surrey, England, on May 26, 1913. At birth, Peter disappointed his mother, who, already having a son—Peter’s older brother David—really wanted a daughter. Peter would spend the first few years of his life with long blond tresses, wearing feminine attire, before his dad, as Peter writes in his autobiography [aff. link],
“…exerted his gentle authority and insisted upon a change of attire more in keeping with my sex and also a haircut.”
At an early age, young Peter showed an interest and talent for the arts, in everything from acting to painting. To the great disappointment of his father, Peter was not interested in academics. I love this quote from Peter’s autobiography that drives home his great humor and disinterest in traditional schooling during his youth:
“By no stretch of the imagination could I be called a good or attentive student. Anything that didn’t interest me had no chance even of going in one ear, let alone coming out of the other. Even that passage was denied it. But I’ve always had an inquiring mind, pestering ‘grown-ups’ with questions, some of which were impossible to answer.”
Older brother David helped Peter with his math homework, the only reason, Peter insisted, it ever got done. His innate honestly, a trait apparent even from these early days, led Peter to make note to his teachers when David helped out, and Peter would write “helped” next to each problem David assisted him with!
Young Peter was also a natural athlete, and, by secondary school, in addition to painting the sets for school plays and earning the lead in nearly every production, he was also a star rugby player and swimmer. These interests and skills led Peter’s father to deem him “hopeless” when the time came for Peter to seek employment after school:
“Poor Father. What could he do with me? Just consider my qualifications for the harsh world of commerce and big business: top marks in art: nil for everything else: capped for Rugger: Gold, Silver, and Bronze medalist for athletics and swimming: played the lead in nearly all the school productions…an ability to fall down a cliff without breaking my neck: and just for good measure, an appetite like several horses.”
Unique qualifications indeed! Little did Peter know at the time, but during his acting career, many of those abilities would come in handy.
It Took Him Years to Start Acting Professionally
Initially, Peter tried to please his father by accepting a position as a surveyor’s assistant in the drawing department of the local district council’s surveyor’s office. Peter held the job for three years, enjoying very little of the work, other than drawing the prospectives for proposed buildings. Even with this, Peter’s artistic side proved dominant, and, as he writes in his autobiography, his drawings [aff. link]
“were always rejected on the grounds that they were too imaginative, too expensive and having suspect foundations—a mere detail I never bothered about.”
Peter would spend as much time as possible during these years in the surveyor’s office looking through The Stage, a theatrical employment listings paper, hoping to find stage work. Finally, in 1936, Peter was hired as Assistant Stage Manager for the Connaught Theater in Worthing, which eventually led to a position in Southhampton Rep., a repertory theater company that gave Peter professional acting experience on stage. Over the next three years, Peter Cushing would play 100 parts for Southhampton Rep. and other local theaters. !!!!!
Who would have thought the “Gentleman of Horror” had so much stage experience under his belt before ever appearing before a camera??
He Tried Hollywood
After his years with Southhampton Rep., Peter tried his hand at Hollywood, and found success not long after his arrival in California as the body double for Louis Hayward in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939). Though Cushing’s screen time was minimal, it was nevertheless a prestigious production that led to friendships with important names in the industry, like Hayward and his wife, Ida Lupino.
Cushing found further success in Hollywood when he was cast in the secondary male lead opposite Carole Lombard in Vigil in the Night (1940). Still in Hollywood when World War II began in 1939, Peter was classified 4C due to old rugby injuries, but felt a strong pull to return to England for the duration of the war.
It’s pretty admirable that Peter felt so strongly about returning for England, for it was becoming obvious to many that MGM, impressed with his most recent performances for the studio, was grooming Peter for stardom. Still, Peter began the journey home at the start of 1941, never guessing that it would take him 15 months to get there: with next to nothing to his name, Peter would have to work his way back to England, finding odd jobs along the way as a drafter, theater usher, and even a small role in an unsuccessful Broadway production as he passed through New York City.
He Was A Talented Artist
Peter’s natural talent and interest in art from his youth would come in handy countless times over the years as he struggled to make ends meet as an actor. Even when the acting work was steady, Peter often still had financial worries: repertory stage work and minor film roles just didn’t pay very much.
On his way back to England from Hollywood in 1941, Peter ran out of money in Canada, and stayed at the YMCA there while working to earn the funds necessary to continue his journey home. His artistic skills soon landed him a job as a drafter at a Canadian film studio, and Peter was commissioned to draw some flags for a film, The 49th Parallel (1941).
But these weren’t just any flags Peter was hired to draw. As Peter writes in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“They required some flags depicting the red rising sun of Japan and the black Nazi swastika—half a dozen of each…I made a few that evening….pinning them to a board in a neat row. I left the board on the chest-of-drawers.”
Well, apparently Peter’s artistic skills were a little too accurate: when the YMCA chambermaid came to clean his room while Peter was out that afternoon, she was scared witless. When Peter returned that evening:
“I entered the lobby of the YMCA, and saw two gigantic “Mouties” [Canadian police] standing there…They grasped under my armpits, and practically frog-marched me to their Headquarters, where I was grilled.
…[The chambermaid] had seen the flags…and with commendable, if somewhat overzealous patriotism, reported me as a suspect spy.”
A phone call to the studio cleared Peter of any espionage charges, but that’s how good the art skills of Peter Cushing were!
Designing for Royalty
Later in his career, after Peter and his wife Helen were married, Peter would use his artistic talents to make Helen gifts when there wasn’t enough money in the bank to buy them. One year he made Helen a pair of beautiful earrings, and another year he painted a scarf for her. The scarf was so gorgeous, when Helen wore it out one evening, it caught the eye of a local scarf manufacturer, who promptly hired Peter to design scarves for his company!
Later, Peter would be commissioned to design “Sammy” scarves for the English department store, Marks and Spencer. Queen Elizabeth herself was even known to wear a scarf designed by Peter Cushing in his pre-stardom days!
He Was Big on Dental Hygiene
Peter Cushing was a meticulous man, particularly when it came to dental hygiene.
Peter’s wife Helen once shared that her husband owned about twenty-seven toothbrushes at any given time! Cushing himself said he kept thirty toothbrushes at home and a “good supply” at the film studio. Few things frightened Cushing more than the possibility of offending a co-star with bad breath. He always tried to have breath fresheners on hand, and was teased that he might “wear them [his teeth] away” due to his frequent brushing.
In his autobiography, Peter joked that
“In these modern times, with explicit love-scenes proliferating on our screens, which can be very tiresome, I often find myself thinking—I DO hope they’ve both brushed their teeth.”
He Loved His Wife
Peter Cushing lived an extraordinary life. But the most extraordinary part of Peter’s life was his beautiful relationship with his wife Helen.
Helen was an aspiring actress when she and Peter met. Both were performing with ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association), the British equivalent to the USO. It was May of 1942, and Helen, new to the company, was to play the female lead opposite Peter in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. Helen poetically wrote to a friend about her first impression of Peter:
“From the stage-door stepped a vision, and my heart skipped a beat. I had never met him, yet I knew, deep in my deepest heart, we had met before. Tall and lean, a pale, almost haggard face, with astonishing large, blue eyes…
There was an aura about this ‘beloved vagabond.’ His hands told me he was either a musician or an artist…and when he bent over one of mine to kiss it, a faint and quite delightful waft of tobacco and lavender-water hung upon the air. I knew I would love him for the rest of my days—and beyond…”
Helen’s and Peter’s romance is a real life example of love at first sight. Peter would echo Helen’s feelings, knowing right away they’d be together forever. As he wrote in his autobiography [aff. link]
“From its beginning, our relationship had been unique, as though we were continuing something that had begun in another age. It was a spiritual union, the physical element holding little importance. We just had a mutual desire to spend the rest of time together.”
At the start of their courtship, Helen and Peter each nursed the other back from potentially fatal illnesses. Helen would tragically suffer from respiratory illnesses her whole life, but Peter was always there to care for her at home, and ensure she saw the best doctors. And Helen, recognizing Peter’s great talent, became his constant support and greatest champion. A master linguist, fluent in English, French, Russian, and German, it was Helen’s training that made Peter so good with accents in his stage and film work, a skill that became his trademark.
A True Partnership
Because of her burning belief in Peter’s talent, and their mutual desire to never be separated, Helen gave up her career after they married on April 10, 1943. Peter shared about this sweet sacrifice in his autobiography [aff. link]:
“If we pursued individual careers, we knew there would be inevitable separations, which neither of us wanted, so we decided that I should remain the breadwinner, with Helen contributing her wealth of experience and knowledge to help me in the struggles ahead.”
How sweet is that? The marriage of Peter and Helen Cushing was a true partnership, one that would last until Helen’s death from emphysema in 1971. Though Helen’s passing was extremely difficult for Peter, he believed that their earthy separation was only temporary, that one day he and Helen would be together again:
“I have been doubtful many times about many things during my life, but of this I have no doubt—no doubt whatsoever.”
He Found Success Late in Life
By the world’s standards, Peter Cushing didn’t find success until late in life. As Peter himself said:
“I was getting on in age before I had any money in the bank.”
The low point in Peter’s career came just before he turned forty, when, in desperate need of money, he asked his father for a loan. His father’s response to the request was to call Peter “forty and a failure.”
How incredibly cruel.
Despite several false starts, Peter Cushing didn’t achieve the stability or acclaim his acting career deserved until he found steady television work on the BBC, starting with the 1951 television play comedy, Eden End. Peter would appear in a staggering total of thirty-one live television plays—including a turn as the BBC’s very first Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice—and became a beloved television star in the process. Finally, Peter achieved the recognition Helen knew he deserved all along.
It was Peter’s great popularity on television that proved to be his segue into film stardom with his roles in Hammer’s horror films.
He Was Afraid of the Dark
Yes, Peter Cushing—the man who on screen played Frankenstein, the creator of monsters, and Van Helsing, the destroyer of Dracula—suffered from nyctophobia off screen.
Peter’s fear of the dark stemmed from a traumatic childhood incident when his father locked him alone in a dark cold cellar as punishment for bad behavior. The episode led to an irrational fear of the dark that stayed with Peter into adulthood.
Eventually, Peter controlled this fear by forcing himself to take long walks alone at night on paths he knew to be beautiful and safe in the daytime. Experiencing these familiar surroundings at night helped Peter combat his nyctophobia.
He Didn’t Like Horror Films
Though Peter Cushing found his greatest success, fame, and financial stability as a horror film star, he wasn’t particularly fond of the genre. In an interview with the BBC, Cushing shared that
“Strangely enough, I don’t like horror pictures at all. I love to make them because they give pleasure to people, but my favorite types of films are much more subtle than horror. I like to watch films like Bridge Over the River Kwai, The Apartment, or lovely musicals.”
Cushing’s favorite film genre was Westerns. He particularly loved Gary Cooper Westerns, so when Peter starred alongside Coop in The Naked Edge (1961), though not a western, it was still a dream realized.
Peter refused to watch modern horror films in his later years, which he deemed “much too gruesome,” but he was always grateful for the steady income his horror film career provided Helen and himself, and never complained about being typecast.
He Was Vegetarian
As a vegetarian food writer and recipe developer, of course I find this Peter Cushing fact interesting! Peter classified himself as a “strict” vegetarian, and became a patron of the Vegetarian Society of England.
In 1983, he even contributed to Peter Robbins’ Cookbook of the Stars. Peter wrote in his contribution to the book that:
“As to my favorite recipe: I am a vegetarian and greatly enjoy wholemeal bread toast with butter and Olde English Marmalade, served with a pot of Ty-phoo tea with milk and sugar. Simple, but delicious.”
Peter’s favorite meal does indeed sound simple, delicious, and so very English! Be sure to stay tuned for my Peter Cushing-inspired recipe, which I’ll share later this month!
He Collected Model Soldiers
From the time he was a boy, Peter Cushing loved model soldiers. William Britain model soldiers were his particular favorite, and Peter collected, painted, and displayed model soldiers throughout his adult years. He was even a member of the Model Soldier Society. (Yes, apparently that’s a thing.). Peter’s model soldier collection at one pointed totaled 5,000!
In his autobiography [aff. link], Peter relates a hilarious anecdote about how, because of his model soldier hobby, he became his sister-in-law’s favorite person to shop for:
“It delighted her whenever she went shopping for my Christmas or birthday presents, watching the toy-counter assistant’s expression, when, in reply to his question ‘How old’s the little chap?’ She’d say, quite seriously (and, I might add—truthfully), ‘42!’”
He Was Spiritual
Peter Cushing was a deeply spiritual man. Cushing’s spirituality became even more apparent in his later years as he discussed his belief in an afterlife following the passing of his beloved Helen. Hammer Films writer Tudor Gates, who worked closely with Peter, shared that
“He was a strong Christian and when his wife died [he] was convinced that their separation was only temporarily and that they would meet again in the afterlife. I hope they did.”
Peter beautifully articulated his beliefs in a 1990 interview with Peter Williams on The Human Factor: For the Love of Helen, which you can watch above, (and I highly recommend you do!), but this quote from an interview Peter did with Women’s Weekly in 1988 is an excellent summary of this sweet man’s spirituality:
“What’s the point of praying or believing in God when something like this [the death of a loved one] happens to you if this [life] is all we’ve got? But it isn’t. The Lord put it simply: in spring, everything comes to life; in summer, it blossoms; in autumn, it rests, and in winter, it dies. And what happens next season? The same cycle. So be it with human life, although I don’t know what form the after-life will take…”
He Was Funny
Another aspect of Peter Cushing that’s easily overlooked due to his association with horror films is that he was funny. Friends and co-stars frequently commented on Peter’s wit, humor, and appreciation for the absurd.
Peter’s autobiography [aff. link] is filled with hilarious anecdotes and one-liners, recounted by a man who’s humor was so great, none of it is lost on the written page.
I have to share a few of my favorite Cushing one-liners:
On the real reason why he married his wife, Peter humorously wrote:
“It is a well-known fact in our circle of friends that I married Helen for her money: she had 30 pounds and I had about 23 pounds.”
Now that’s a gold digger for you.
And now for Peter’s standby pleasantry to politely persuade party guests to get out of his house after an evening of hosting:
“Well, I’m home—I wish everyone else was…So sorry you have to go—at LAST. Do come again when you can’t stay so long.”
And lastly, Peter Cushing on the realities of a day in the life of a film actor:
“The reality goes something like this: rise at 5 a.m. to get to the ‘factory’ by 7:15, where you are met by the second assistant, forever looking worriedly at his watch, who greets you by saying, ‘Right, get your toupee nailed on, you’re wanted on the set in five minutes. We’re working ’til midnight, the dialogue’s been altered, and all your best lines have been given to the producer’s girlfriend.’”
How awesome is that??
The “Gentleman of Horror” certainly had a sense of humor!
More Peter Cushing Next Week!
And that’s it for my introduction to our October Star of the Month, Peter Cushing.
And join me next week as I review Peter’s performance opposite Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1948), his fight for stardom, and his friendship with Sir Laurence and the lovely Vivian Leigh.