Christopher Plummer, Chagrined Star of 'The Sound of Music,' Dies at 91

Christopher Plummer
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Christopher Plummer

The Canadian stage and screen legend became the oldest actor to win an Oscar in 2012 thanks to his performance in 'Beginners.'

Christopher Plummer, the sophisticated star who in 2012 became the oldest actor to ever win a competitive Oscar — a just reward for his seven standout decades as leading man on the stage and screen — died Friday. He was 91.

A legendary performer on Broadway, for the National Theater and The Royal Shakespeare Company in England and for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Plummer died peacefully at his Connecticut home, ICM Partners announced. Elaine Taylor, his wife and best friend for 53 years, was by his side.

“Chris was an extraordinary man who deeply loved and respected his profession with great old fashion manners, self-deprecating humor and the music of words," Lou Pitt, his manager of 46 years, said in a statement. "He was a National Treasure who deeply relished his Canadian roots. Through his art and humanity, he touched all of our hearts and his legendary life will endure for all generations to come. He will forever be with us."

Survivors also include his daughter, Emmy-winning actress Amanda Plummer.

Plummer earned two Tony Awards: in 1974 for his portrayal of swordsman/poet Cyrano de Bergerac in the musical Cyrano and in 1997 for playing Hollywood legend John Barrymore in the one-man tour de force Barrymore. He's one of only four actors to win the top two acting Tonys (Robert Morse, Rex Harrison and Zero Mostel are the others).

A delighted Plummer accepted his supporting actor Oscar in 2012 for playing an elderly widow who begins exploring life as an openly gay man shortly after the death of his wife in Beginners. On the stage, Plummer, then 82, looked at his gold statuette and said, “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”

Two years earlier, the handsome Toronto native had received his first Oscar nomination, for his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009). And in 2018, Plummer became the oldest actor ever to be nominated after he stepped in for the disgraced Kevin Spacey at the last minute to play J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World.

Despite all the recognition he received as an octogenarian, Plummer is probably most widely recognized for his performance as Captain Von Trapp opposite Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music (1965), the syrupy family classic that he once referred to as “The Sound of Mucous.”

"It was so awful and sentimental and gooey,” he told THR in 2011. "You had to work terribly hard to try to infuse some minuscule bit of humor into it." He also said most of his singing parts in the movie were performed by someone else.

Plummer, however, had changed his tune when he appeared with Andrews before a screening of the musical at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and added his hand- and footprints to the collection outside the TCL Chinese Theatre.

"The world has lost a consummate actor today and I have lost a cherished friend," Andrews said Friday in a statement. "I treasure the memories of our work together and all the humor and fun we shared through the years."

With his towering demeanor, lush baritone voice and air of gravitas, Plummer was often cast in sinister or heavy roles, playing men of grave distinction and power.

Among these authority-type figure roles, he did turns as a tyrannical studio head in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in The Night of the Generals (1967), as Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), as Sherlock Holmes opposite James Mason’s Dr. Watson in Murder by Decree (1979), as 60 Minutes interrogator Mike Wallace in The Insider (1999) and as attorney F. Lee Bailey in the 2000 NBC telefilm American Tragedy.

Plummer also played a bad guy televangelist for laughs in Dragnet (1987), starred as a Shakespeare-savvy Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) and was the mysterious Dr. Rosen in the Oscar best picture winner A Beautiful Mind (2001).

He remained quite busy as of late, with roles in Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2013) for HBO; Elsa & Fred (2014) opposite Shirley MacLaine; The Forger (2014), playing the father of John Travolta’s character; as the manager of an aging rocker (Al Pacino) in Danny Collins (2015); as a voice in Pixels (2015); and as a wealthy crime novelist in Knives Out (2019).

Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born on Friday the 13th — Dec. 13, 1929 — the great-grandson of former Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott. He began his career in his native country onstage and in television, and with his stentorian voice perfect for Shakespeare, he became a leading actor at the National Theatre of England, The Royal Shakespeare Company and Canada’s Stratford Festival.

He palled around with Jason Robards and George C. Scott in his early days in New York and made his Broadway debut in 1954 opposite Mary Astor in The Starcross Story. “It opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!” he wrote in his autobiography.

He won notice in his first film, Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck (1958), as a playwright alongside Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg, and also appeared that year in Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades.

"I didn't really begin to enjoy the real depth of the screen until I did The Man Who Would Be King," he told THR's Scott Feinberg in 2018. "I was no longer a leading man; I was a kind of supporting actor, a character actor, and the minute I became a character actor, the parts grew much more interesting."

His many motion picture credits also included The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Oedipus the King (1968), Battle of Britain (1969), Waterloo (1970), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), Wolf (1994), Dolores Claiborne (1995), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Ararat (2002), Inside Man (2006), Alexander (2004) and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

He won an Emmy Award in 1977 as a banking executive in the NBC miniseries The Moneychangers, an adaptation of the Arthur Hailey novel, then received another in 1994 for narrating a Madeline cartoon.

In 2008, he published an autobiography, In Spite of Myself.

"He was a mighty force both as man and actor," said Helen Mirren, who starred alongside Plummer in The Last Station. "He was an actor in the 19th century meaning of the word — his commitment to his profession. His art was total, theater being a constant and the most important part of the totality of his drive to engage with storytelling. He was fearless, energetic, courageous, knowledgeable, professional and a monument to what an actor can be. A Great Actor in the truest sense."

Plummer was married from 1956-60 to two-time Tony-winning actress Tammy Grimes, the mother of Amanda, and was married to journalist Patricia Lewis from 1962 until their divorce in 1967. He and his third wife, British dancer-actress Taylor, had been married since 1970.

In an interview with Turner Classic Movies in 2008, Plummer said he welcomed the freedom that age brought him.

“My type of roles [early on were] sort of uptight, urbane, sophisticated young men, … sort of boring and dull. People don’t have any imagination in this business, do they?” he said. “I can do comedy. I can do all sorts of things. Why are they giving me this uptight crap? So I was so happy when I arrived at a certain age and I could become a character actor and be free of all that nonsense.”

Duane Byrge contributed to this report.