Monday, March 1, 2021
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‘Not in my wildest dreams’: On stage and off, with Christopher Plummer

‘Not in my wildest dreams’: On stage and off, with Christopher Plummer
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I was in heaven. The teen that snuck into a theatre 30 years earlier was now producing Plummer

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By Barry Avrich

I was petrified beyond belief as I walked in backwards to the Loews Theatre in Montreal.

The year was 1978 and I had successfully snuck in as a minor to a screening of The Silent Partner. The ad for the film in the Montreal Gazette had me at hello with its tagline: “terror, comedy and sex.”

I was also drawn to the casting of Christopher Plummer, who was playing the role of a terrifying and sadistic bank robber. My father had introduced me to both Sean Connery and Plummer a few years earlier, with the film The Man Who Would Be King. And my father loved that Plummer was Canadian.

Already a major film buff with dreams of working in the industry by at the age of 10, I was intrigued by The Silent Partner and had researched it thoroughly before sneaking in to see it. The score was written by fellow Montrealer Oscar Peterson and it was written by eventual Oscar winner Curtis Hanson.

More importantly, the film was getting really strong reviews including from the doyenne of film reviewers, Janet Maslin of The New York Times. As I sat in my seat in the last row, careful not to attract attention, I was haunted and mesmerized by Plummer’s evil yet charming performance. I decided I would follow his career for the rest of my life. I just never guessed that I would have chance to work with him over and over. But not just yet.

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Five years later, another Plummer encounter but this time in person. I was a first-year student at Ryerson in Toronto. I found the city to be unwelcoming and cold and I would spend my post classes at the Sutton Place Hotel listening to live music. I would sit at the bar and commiserate with the bartender about my new life in Toronto.

On one occasion, a man seated a few stools away decided to enlighten me through song and verse about the cruelties of Toronto. It was Christopher Plummer and we had a marvelous time and both drank heavily that night.

After last call, I stumbled out of the bar to find my way home and the doorman said to me, “ I see you had a few with liquid Plummer.” He thought it was funny, and I thought it was cruel.

It was true that Plummer was not having a robust film career in those days, but he would go on to kill it in Othello with James Earl Jones and then Macbeth with Glenda Jackson a few years later. What had this guy ever been in, besides a revolving door?

It would take 15 years before we would meet again. It was in New York, 1997, and Plummer was preparing for his eventual Tony Award winning star turn in Barrymore. We were at The Music Box Theatre shooting television commercials for the show.

Plummer hated doing commercials as he found the process repetitious and the senseless short takes of dialogue mind numbing and beneath him. We would have him walk out on stage as the great John Barrymore and deliver a brilliant line and then yell cut. Peter, the producer, asked me if I thought we had what we needed to cut the TV spots and I stupidly asked Plummer for another take. He glared into the dark and took my head off. “Barry, I am not a juke box spitting out records every time you put a nickel in!!”

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I was mortified. Of course, he was right. Thankfully, I would mend our fractured relationship, in my mind anyway, by later bonding over the endless radio commercials he patiently recorded for us to promote the show.

Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James in the Stratford Festival’s production of Caesar and Cleopatra. Photo by David Hou/File

In 2008, Antoni Cimolino, the Stratford Festival’s General Director approached me to finally give wings to our dream of filming Stratford’s productions and screen them all over the world. The first two plays I would produce (we have since shot 16 productions) would be George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, both for director Des McAnuff and both starring Christopher Plummer.

I was in heaven. The teen that snuck into a theatre 30 years earlier was now producing Plummer. We met with him to talk about the film and I said to him; “Chris, not in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined producing films with Christopher Plummer.” His response was a classic; “Barry, you should know that you have never been in my wildest dreams either.”

Over the next two years, we lovingly made what I think are two great films that will be a living testament to the sheer power of this man’s visceral yet elegant talent.

Plummer, at first, was very skeptical of committing his performances to film. He felt that cameras in a theatrical setting would distract the audience and take away the live experience of the theatre. He said to me before we rolled: “Barry, if I even see just one of those eight f—ing cameras in my face, I will turn around and walk out.”

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I had the camera operators dress in black and covered them in black tarps. We even removed the red camera lights. I did not want to end up like one of his victims in The Silent Partner, decapitated.

During post production, Plummer wanted to be involved and kept pushing me to always have a sense that it was the perfect blend of cinema and theatre. When we had our premiere in New York City, a woman yelled: Bravo!, Bravo! and Plummer responded by saying: “ I love it when Barry’s mother attends our screenings, she should go on the road with us.”

We would work together a few more times over the years when I produced lifetime achievements in his honour for both the Canadian Film and Television Academy and the Stratford Festival. At the Stratford Gala, Gordon Pinsent presented the award to Plummer, who responded: “Thank you Pinchy, I love a man who comes from a place where even the fish are alcoholic.”

Late last year, the Stratford Festival asked me to interview Plummer for encore digital screenings of both of our films on Stratford’s new platform, created during COVID. Plummer was in Connecticut and I was in Toronto and yet again he filled a frame with his beyond lucid theatrical magnetism and erudition.

Des McAnuff said that Plummer was not in fact 91 years old, he was 67 and 22, he was 49 with the curiosity of a six-year-old and the wisdom of Methuselah.” And Antoni Cimolino described Plummer’s work as having a “dangerous quality that was deeply, deeply thrilling.”

They are both right. He still had plenty of Plummer in him.

I am now working on plans for a remake of The Silent Partner with its original producer Joel Michaels. In my wildest dreams, it was indeed my fantasy to have Chris Plummer have a cameo. He would have been devilishly fabulous. Now, I can only dream about it.

Barry Avrich is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker

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