Peter Cushing is probably best known to you as Grand Moff Tarkin. But Cushing had a lengthy career as an actor, a lot of it in genre film, and Peter Cushing: A Life In Film gets into detail on pretty much every genre movie he ever made.
David Miller’s book is pretty much the complete overview of Cushing’s career, covering everything from his early stage work right up to his death. Pretty much on every page there’s a movie you didn’t realize he was in, or a movie that you read about and suddenly want to see. I was a bit sad to discover, for example, Cushing’s work in the BBC’s adaptation of The Caves Of Steel is long gone. There’s even a complete chronology of Cushing’s performances on stage and screen in the back.
It’s also an information-dense book: Miller packs it with production stills, posters, behind the scenes photographs, you name it. Combined with the fact that the book is crammed with tiny type, though, it can be a little bit of information overload, and it would have been nice to see some of the photos, many of which are hard to find, in a larger size. David Miller is also, obviously, quite a fan and that means he can be a bit… charitable towards movies even a professional like Cushing obviously saw a paycheck gig.
But overall, it’s a fascinating and insanely detailed look at a beloved genre actor’s career, and worth picking up for horror fans or those looking for details on British science fiction film, both well known and obscure. Titan, the publisher, has included an excerpt, about, of course, Star Wars:
Lucas originally considered Cushing for the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi before deciding that his lean features would be better employed as the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin. (‘I’ve often wondered what a “Grand Moff” was,’ said Cushing later. ‘It sounds like something that flew out of a cupboard.’) Tarkin is a charming and calculating villain, at his best in a confrontation with Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. ‘Governor Tarkin,’ she spits. ‘I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board.’ ‘Charming to the last,’ replies Tarkin blithely. ‘You don’t know how hard I found it signing the order to terminate your life.’
Tarkin’s second-in-command, Darth Vader, would achieve greater significance as the Star Wars trilogy continued. Here, though, Tarkin exerts some control over Vader – with a word, he stops him from telepathically throttling an underling and Leia observes that Tarkin is ‘holding Vader’s leash’. By an occasional haunted glance, however, Cushing is able to imply that Vader holds the real power, and Tarkin is uneasy in his presence. Thus both characters are made more frightening.
‘Peter Cushing is a very good actor…’ George Lucas said in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine. ‘Adored and idolised by young people and by people who go to see a certain kind of movie. I feel he will be fondly remembered for the next 350 years at least.’ Certainly, Cushing was adored by those who worked with him on Star Wars, including Monster from Hell David Prowse (Darth Vader), Don Henderson (General Tagge) and Leslie Schofield (Imperial Commander). Carrie Fisher remembers that Cushing was very kind to her, giving her the benefit of his years of experience in film acting.
There is a final shot of Tarkin, a split second before Luke and his friends destroy the Death Star, as he stands alone, having refused to abandon the station ‘in our moment of triumph’. With his hand at his mouth, he is almost chewing his nails. In his moment of quiet terror, we see the humanity of the monster – classic Cushing.
Cushing’s filming at the EMI-Elstree Studios (formerly MGM-EMI) was sandwiched between The New Avengers and flying to America to appear in The Great Houdinis. Like all the Star Wars ‘guest stars’, apart from Guinness, Cushing was on a specially arranged flat fee of £1000 for a week, which he finished on 4th May 1976, and he received no further payment.
‘One spares a grain of compassion for Grand Moff Tarkin, Governor of the Imperial Outlands, despite his unconscionable villainy,’ said Films and Filming, ‘simply because he is so excellently played by the immaculately-spoken Peter Cushing, who regardless of their cross purposes in the plot, seems in effect to share with Guinness a Movement Towards The Perpetuation Of Clear Speech.”
Cushing’s chief memory of Star Wars was the trouble with his boots. Close to the opening of Star Wars, the Evening News revealed: ‘The reason Peter Cushing’s size twelves led to a knees-up’, accompanied by a helpful picture of the Cushing feet. ‘Sharp- eyed cinema-goers may note, when the fabulously successful film Star Wars opens here at Christmas, that Peter Cushing only ever appears on screen filmed from the knees up. The reason is that wafer-thin Mr Cushing – he is six feet tall but weighs only nine stone – has such enormous feet that the film’s wardrobe department was unable to cater for him. As the Grand Moff Tarkin … the man who made horror respectable was supposed to wear proper dictator-style riding-boots and the wardrobe duly supplied a pair of size nines. “But alas, I have taken a size twelve since my youth,” Cushing said. “When I crammed on the size nine boots I could hardly walk. So I persuaded the director George Lucas to shoot me from the knees up – which meant I could wear comfy plimsolls.” Surprisingly, Mr Cushing’s partner in horror, Mr Christopher Lee, who can give him a good four inches in height, takes only a size eleven – and a narrow at that.’ For the record, Cushing is seen wearing the boots in one brief long-shot.
Peter Cushing: A Life In Film is out this week.