The Vegetarian Society

Peter Cushing OBE
from The Vegetarian Autumn 1994 [photo: Peter Cushing]

Peter Cushing, Patron of The Vegetarian Society and one of Britain's most respected film and television actors, died on 11 August 1994, aged 81. Tributes poured in from fellow actors and friends in memory of a warm, gentle and sincere man whose professional stature belied the fame he attained for his roles in 'horror' films. By today's standards the 20 films he made in this genre hardly warrant the description. In the main they represented re-workings of the classic Dracula and Frankenstein stories; Gothic fantasies that captured the nation's imagination and were occasionally gruesome but never gory. It was Mr Cushing's meticulous preparation for such roles as Baron Frankenstein and Professor van Helsing that lent the impression of true quality to what were predominantly low-budget movies.

Born in Surrey on 26 May, 1913, the son of a quantity surveyor, Peter Wilton Cushing showed early promise as an actor and after brief employment as a surveyor's assistant for the local council, attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Following three years apprenticeship in repertory he took a bold step and moved to Hollywood. Between casual jobs he secured roles in The Man in the Iron Mask in 1939 and in Laurel and Hardy's A Chump at Oxford in the same year. Appearing on stage as Elyot Chase in Noel Coward's Private Lives, he met Helen Beck his leading lady whom he married in 1943. After playing Osric in Laurence Olivier's fiim production of Hamlet, Peter Cushing spent the next few years as a theatre actor on Broadway and in the West End of London before settling again in Britain in 1952.

Peter Cushing was a pioneer in television drama, showing great nerve and giving compelling performances in early live productions. The most famous of these ground-breaking programmes was an adaptation of George Orwell's 1984, in which Cushing played the lead as Winston Smith. His portrayal was so outstanding that the first screening led to questions being asked in Parliament; such was the public's reaction to the play's realism. Even viewed today, the vigour with which Peter Cushing played Orwell's hero is absorbing and the production is only dated by the poor recording quality of 1950s valve technology.

In 1957 Peter Cushing, aged nearly 45, made The Curse of Frankenstein, his first Hammer film playing the Baron as an intellectual scientist whose intentions were misinterpreted by hapless bystanders. The performance created the archetypal 'mad professor', a film, television and literature stereotype that was to be forged countless times by others. His pretenders could never equal the combination of eccentric verve and sombre dedication Peter Cushing depicted in his characters. Unashamedly produced for mass-market consumption, the Hammer films in which he starred alongside Christopher Lee and Vincent Price, rose above the silliness displayed in the Karloff/Lugosi creations of the 1930s. The gravity with which Cushing and his co-stars undertook their roles added an extra dimension to the 20 'horror' films he made, and endowed them with a lustre entirely out of proportion to the budget or quality of sceenplay.

The Hammer films were beautifully photographed and allowed Cushing's stage skills to be displayed to great effect. His screen presence was magnificent. His characters were imbued with a sparkiing energy and a natural charm, all delivered with precise diction and unaffected grace. His fastidious preparation for roles once included his insistence on being trained by a surgeon to wield a scalpel authentically. With the recent proliferation in the film industry of violent 'frighteners', Peter Cushing grew uncomfortable with the Hammer film work for which he was inevitably to be remembered. Certainly his success in horror movies was to overshadow his immense talent as a classical actor. On television he took lead roles in Pride and Prejudice, Richard of Bordeaux, The Winslow Boy and Beau Brummell. In 1977 he played the villain Tarkin as a cameo role with great substance in George Lucas's blockbuster cinema hit Star Wars.

An ardent vegetarian for most of his life, Peter Cushing will be remembered as a softly-spoken, kindly man. He ioved wildlife and was a keen ornithologist. When his wife died in 1971 he felt his life had ended too. His autobiography, published some 15 years later, made no mention of his life after Helen's death. On 11 August 1994 after a long illness which he bore with characteristic dignity, he joined her. His friends will miss his dazzling intellect and keen wit. His life, for which we give thanks, stands as a fine testimony to vegetarianism. We are proud to have had Peter Cushing OBE as our patron.

The Vegetarian is published by The Vegetarian Society and is sent free of charge to all members.

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