Paul Interviews Peter Cushing
On April 16th 1986 I had the great pleasure and privilege to have a private interview with Hammer horror icon Peter Cushing who had just published his first volume of autobiography at the age of seventy-three. Needless to say, I was a huge Hammer fan. His urbane presence and cultured voice lent a degree of integrity to every film he was in and I found him to be as gracious a man in real life as he appeared on screen, the very embodiment of an English gentleman.
Incredibly, and to my surprise he actually telephoned me at my home to arrange the interview personally and when we met in a plush London hotel a few days later he left the publicity people who were controlling his tight schedule and invited me upstairs to his suite where we could talk without the distraction of those women who were limiting each interview to ten minutes or so. I think he sensed that I was a serious film buff and he wanted to allow me all the time I needed to ask my questions. And when it was over he signed a photo that I had brought with me of himself in the role of Dr Frankenstein ‘To Paul, God’s blessing on you always, in all sincerity Peter Cushing’ and graciously stood by the open door of his room until I had entered the elevator that would take me back down to the lobby. As I said, every inch a gentleman and the glow of that meeting remained with me for several days.
‘Taking Tea With Dr Frankenstein’
Paul: How do you prepare for a role? I believe you always undertake quite a lot of research.
Peter: Yes, if it calls for it. For Sherlock Holmes, whom I’ve played a number of times, you only have to read Conan Doyle to get a pretty good idea of how to approach that part, but whenever I played Doctor Frankenstein, or any of the other mad doctor parts, I consulted my own doctor to make sure that the operations I did on screen looked authentic. When I ring him up he always says, ‘Oh, thank heavens it’s you because you’re not ill, you only want to know how to take a heart out’. Even if only one doctor sees the film he’s going to regard it as a bit of an insult if I don’t perform the operation properly. So I try to get everything right.”
Paul: I must admit, I have always enjoyed the Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s with Basil Rathbone in the title role and I know many people associate Basil with that part. Were you not daunted at the prospect of following him when you first played Holmes in Hammer’s ‘Hound Of The Baskervilles’ in 1959?
Peter: Dear boy, everything is daunting! When I played Holmes, Basil had long finished with the part, although they were still showing his films on television. Fate is very cruel I think because he was the great Holmes of that era and then it was my turn. In 25 years I’ll be forgotten and it will pass to someone else. It all goes in phases and one is very lucky to have caught the public’s imagination and indeed affection for the character, for it’s the character they like and, I hope, the actor. The audience have always got to be with you when you are playing a beastly person such as Grand Moth Tarkin in ‘Star Wars’, which, incidentally I did in my carpet slippers because the size 12 boots they got for me were killing me! I said to the director George Lucas, ‘George, I’m not asking for close ups, but could you shoot me just from the waist up because these boots are agony,’ and he did. They had to dub my footsteps in later.
You don’t employ an angry actor to play an angry character or a bore to play a bore because it is overdoing it. The audience must have some sympathy even with the beastly characters or else they won’t care what happens to them.”
Paul: You began your career inHollywoodin the Thirties with a small part in ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ directed by James Whale, the director of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’, two of my favourite movies. What was Whale like to work with?
Peter: He was an awfully good director but a very nervous man. He had the habit of swinging his leg all the time and he had a nervous tick which was quite distracting when you were playing a scene. He planned everything meticulously though, but no more so than any other director. No director can direct without doing their homework. There is always room for spontaneity from the actors though.
I learn the entire script in case there is a change in plan and there usually is. There is seldom time for a proper rehearsal, maybe just a quick run through while the lighting crew are setting everything up, but otherwise it’s usually done in one take with a second for safety. In a way it’s a good thing because all acting for the cinema should be spontaneous.
Paul: Did the films always turn out the way you imagined they would when you were making them?
Peter: Yes, they always turned out the way I imagined they would. When I see them again after 25 years, I think they weren’t as bad as I thought they were, but when I went to the premieres I sat with my hands over my face and muttered, ‘Oh no, it’s him again!’ Whenever I finish a film I always say to myself, ‘right, now let’s do it again and do it properly’. But I’m so glad that the people I work for, the audience – they’re the ones that count – that they enjoy them.
Most of the horror films were made on tiny sets with short shooting schedules and on incredibly small budgets. That’s what the Americans couldn’t get over when they saw ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ in 1958. They couldn’t believe that we had such a small budget and only six weeks to shoot it in and yet it looked the way it did. ThenColumbiaand Warner Brothers came in as distributors and it all grew from there.”
Paul: To what do you attribute the success of ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’, Hammer’s first foray into horror?
Peter: If we knew the secret, we’d all be millionaires now! I suppose one reason was that the story hadn’t been touched for 25 years, it was in colour and it was directed at a new generation. Films go in cycles and I guess we produced the right thing at the right time.
Paul: I was particularly impressed by the period atmosphere of the early Hammer horrors. Was that something you also found appealing?
Peter: Oh yes, I think they were beautifully lit. Atmosphere is so important in horror movies and Hammer had some very good people behind the scenes who made so much with such meagre resources.
Paul: Such as Bernard Robinson, the Art Director.
Peter: Dear boy, you know more than I do! Yes, Bernard designed superb sets and jack Asher was one of the best cameramen around at the time. Jack used to say that he painted with light as an artist would do. Where Hammer were so clever was in getting top people in all branches of production. They all loved their jobs and there was a real family atmosphere in the studio. And they had very good casts. If the whole crew, who are the chaps you count on, take an interest then everyone is out there to do their best. That’s the way films are made.
Paul: In the early days at Hammer you were associated closely with Terence Fisher. What was his particular strength as a director?
Peter: Well, he was an Editor to start with, which was an enormous help, because it was so economical for Hammer. He didn’t shoot unnecessary scenes and he knew exactly what he wanted. He was a dear, dear man and so approachable. A wonderful man.
Paul: The image we have of Hammer is that of a movie factory, where the films were turned out very quickly, often filmed back to back using the same sets to save money. Did the studio encourage directors such as Freddie Francis and Roy Ward Baker to turn out films in a ‘house’ style or did they allow them to work in their own way?
Peter: The directors were engaged because the studio liked their work and so they were encouraged to be themselves. They were like orchestral conductors in that they were hired to put their own stamp on the material. But it’s not really true that it was a factory system. It implies that the films were just strung together when in fact, they were very carefully made.
Paul: You played Doctor Frankenstein in five movies for Hammer. Why did you stay with the role for so long?
Peter: I have to admit it was simply because I had to work. But I did love working for Hammer and making those films gave me so much pleasure. The first Frankenstein film I made for them took off like a hot cake and then ‘The Horror of Dracula’ took off like an extra hot cake. In filmmaking, if you’re onto a good thing you keep making it.
Paul: Were you disappointed with the creature’s make up in ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ which left Christopher Lee looking like the victim of a hit and run driver?
Peter: Jack Pierce’s design was a superb creation, it was the best of those devised for the studio’s Frankenstein series, but I must admit I didn’t like it myself. We were denied use of the original makeup by Universal who had the copyright on it, but when we were finally able to use it in ‘The Evil of Frankenstein’ it was disappointing, in my opinion at least. The truth is that the original was just so good.
Paul: Finally, do you enjoy horror movies yourself and what do you think if the appeal of these films in a world plagued by real horrors?
Peter: I don’t like horror movies or books myself, although I derive pleasure from the pleasure that they give to others and I love making them. ‘Curse’ and ‘Dracula’ were beautifully written. The horror tag was applied for commercial reasons, but I don’t think it was justified. I call them fantasy films because they take people away from the horrors of the real world. I get letters from people who say that they get a harmless thrill like that from a ride on a roller coaster. The boyfriends put their arms around their girlfriends and say, ‘don’t worry, it’s only oldCush’. They say that today horror movies are so repellent, but the films that I made never were.
Only now do I consider myself a success. I cannot help but know that from the tremendous affection which is showered upon me by the public. I was sure that they would regard me as an old duffer with a walking stick, but they don’t and I’m so grateful.