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[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.]
More than 20 years after his death, Peter Cushing has returned to the big screen with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The revival of his villainous Grand Moff Tarkin from 1977’s Star Wars has largely been greeted with acclaim and helped the film rocket to a $155 million opening weekend. Cushing’s return was accomplished thanks to visual effects, and raises questions about the future of cinema and whether death will continue to be the end of a performer’s career.
There’s something that feels particularly poetic about Cushing’s onscreen revival. The actor had profound thoughts on death and the afterlife, with his views shaped both by his childhood (his mother would pretend to be dead as a strange way of punishing her young son) and the untimely passing of his beloved wife, Helen, in 1971.
Cushing was fascinated with nature and the changing of seasons, which give us examples of birth, death and rebirth.
During the candid conversation, he spoke about the sorrow he suffered after his wife’s death (“I didn’t lose her…she’s just elsewhere,” he said.) and he suggested he considered suicide for a time.
“I was contemplating everything. I knew I’d never have the courage to do it, but you can’t have the experience and the love of a person such as Helen and then suddenly it’s not there anymore,” Cushing said. “It’s more than three quarters of your own self taken from you. So you either buckle under and say, ‘that’s it,’ and give up, or you have to go on and run the race before you, which is set before you.”
After Helen’s death, he threw himself into his work — accepting every job he could to keep busy and fill that void. 1977’s Star Wars was among those jobs, just one of dozens of enduring performances from the man who is also remembered for his pioneering work in horror films and many onscreen appearances with close friend Christopher Lee.
Part of what inspired him to live a full life in the 20-plus years he had after Helen’s death was a letter she wrote to him before she died. In the interview (see the video above), he recites it from memory: “Do not pine for me, my beloved Peter, because that will cause unrest. Do not be hasty to leave this world, because you will not go until you have lived the life you have been given. And remember, we will meet again when the time is right. That is my promise.”
In an extraordinary coincidence, Cushing recalled walking on a beach shortly after Helen’s death. It was during a storm, and the wind blew a piece of paper to him. Without looking at it, he put it in his pocket.
“I went in doors and I started rushing up and down the stairs…in a vain attempt to induce a heart attack so I could join Helen there and then. It didn’t work, of course.”
Soon after, he felt in his pockets for a pack of cigarettes and found the paper from the beach. It was a page of the Telegraph newspaper, which featured a Bible verse: “And ye now therefore have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you.”
At one point, Cushing asked a clergyman what his wife’s final words to him (“God bless you. You will save me.”) may have meant, but found it an unhelpful experience.
“That’s what I find, sad enough,” said Cushing. “When you really need help from the church in my experience — I went to several. I never got it. They seem to fear talking about the afterlife and what they believe in.”
Cushing was diagnosed with prostate cancer in the early 1980s, and faced the idea of death without fear.
“I accepted it completely, because I accept this might have been the end of the line. It didn’t worry me at all, because I thought, ‘This is lovely. It’s been a long time’ [since Helen died],” he said. “I shall be with Helen at last. Her promise will have come true, but it always worries me for those left behind. They are the people who really suffer.”
One of those people Cushing left behind was his longtime secretary, Joyce Broughton, who is now involved with his estate and still refers to him as “sir” out of devotion to him. She and her then-husband, Bernard, were key in helping Cushing overcome the grief of losing his wife. Reached by phone in England, she declined to say much, citing an NDA with Disney surrounding the release of Rogue One, but she did say affectionately, “I have 35 years’ worth of stories with him” and that she cheered for Guy Henry, the actor who helped bring Grand Moff Tarkin back to life.
After his cancer diagnosis, Cushing would live on for more than a decade, dying in 1994 at 81. He earned his last onscreen credit in 1986’s time-travel adventure movie Biggles: Adventures in Time. The director of that film, John Hough, tells Heat Vision that Cushing was a rare breed, an actor who could capture viewers’ attention no matter who was sharing the scene with him. He says Cushing was so attentive to detail that he’d wear white gloves to keep his hands clean for close-ups.
“He was always word-perfect, and my direction was always only what movement he should take,” says Hough. “I would have a dream that I would direct him alongside Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Tom Cruise. Paul Newman. He would have held his own. He was very generous toward his fellow actors. He was quiet in rehearsal and then would unload for the scene when it mattered. I have nothing but admiration for him and I wish I could do it all again.”
As for Heaven, Cushing had a few ideas of what it would be like, for him at least.
“Yes. Helen will be there. That’s enough for me,” Cushing said in the 1990 interview. “I reckon it’s the places you love yourself. That will be yours. Don’t forget, [John 14:2] ‘In my father’s house are many mansions.’ I think mine mansion will be a bit of English countryside. If I should die, think only this of me, that there is some corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
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