Christopher Plummer, Oscar winner and 'Sound of Music' star, dies at 91

Joal Ryan
·Contributor
·7 min read

Christopher Plummer, the Oscar-winning acting great who commanded first-class roles and accolades well into his 80s, but, above all, will always be The Sound of Music's Captain von Trapp, died Friday at home in Connecticut. He was 91.

"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, the actor's 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."

In 2018, when Plummer was 88, he became the oldest Oscar nominee ever after playing oil tycoon J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World — a role that had initially gone to Kevin Spacey. After sexual assault allegations were brought against Spacey, Plummer was part of an unprecedented Hollywood reshoot of the Ridley Scott film. In little more than four weeks, Plummer was cast, on the set, cut into the film and began receiving accolades.

He won the Oscar for 2011's Beginners, and was nominated for another for 2009's The Last Station. In a career that spanned decades and mediums, he also earned two Tonys, two Primetime Emmys and one Grammy nomination.

With The Sound of Music, Plummer scored generations of fans for his terse, but tender portrayal of the von Trapp family patriarch opposite Julie Andrews's sunny, singing nun. Though for years Plummer made no secret of his distaste for the Best Picture-winning musical, he would ultimately mellow on the 1965 film.

"This is sort of a fairy story brought to life. And in a world that is so horrific — we know what's going on now, it's inconceivable — it's the last bastion of innocence in a very cynical time," Plummer said at the 2015 TCM Film Festival, according to Vanity Fair.

Somewhere in Time, Dolores Claiborne, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and The Insider were other popular entries on Plummer's lengthy film résumé.

The bulk of his most prominent movies came after his 70th birthday: A Beautiful Mind, Syriana, Inside Man, David Fincher's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Pixar's Up, Beginners, The Last Station, Knives Out and All the Money in the World.

When the 82-year-old Plummer won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Beginners, he became the oldest-ever, Academy Award-winning actor. Upon claiming the historic trophy, he had a few words for Oscar.

"You're only two years older than me, darling, where have you been all my life?" Plummer cooed.

Early on, the ageless wonder was every bit the boy wonder. Born Dec. 13, 1929 in Toronto, Plummer began his career as a teenager on the Canadian stage. He was a contemporary of fellow countryman William Shatner; years before the two faced off in a Star Trek movie, Shatner understudied Plummer in Shakespeare's Henry V at the esteemed Stratford Festival.

As it turned out, the 1956 production launched both Plummer and Shatner to wider acclaim.

"My memory of him during those early years was one of total respect and admiration," Shatner said of Plummer to NPR in 2012. "Of course, he's become one of our great actors."

Plummer made his Hollywood debut in the 1958 backstage drama Stage Struck. And though film, and especially live TV dramas became staples of the young leading man's diet, Plummer never strayed far from the stage.

"I've done my share of idiotic parts," Plummer would tell The New York Times in 1981, "but I've done Shakespeare every few years so that I will remember that this is what acting is all about."

The Sound of Music notably did not represent one of the jobs that fueled Plummer's artistic fire. Though it was his first significant movie, as well as the record-setting, box-office blockbuster of its day, Plummer disparaged the movie on set as "S&M"; he found his role as the widowed, retired, "Edelweiss"-crooning naval officer a bore.

Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star in
Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer star in "The Sound Of Music" in 1965. (Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

"I behaved very badly [on set] on purpose. … I didn't want to be a sissy," Plummer once said at the TCM festival. "But [director-producer] Robert Wise understood my problem in a funny way ... and he made sure, in his innate good sense, that it worked for the movie."

Plummer was a relatively young 35 when The Sound of Music was released; for the film, his hair was grayed at the temples to age him into his role as a single father of six.

For years after playing Captain von Trapp, Plummer treated film as a means to an end: He cashed Hollywood's paychecks so he could return time and again to the theater. The "money movies," as he described the gigs to The New York Times, were mostly forgettable or unremarkable: a Dreamscape here, a Danielle Steel TV miniseries there.

Then came The Insider. The true-story thriller about a whistleblower in the cigarette industry cast Plummer as famed TV journalist Mike Wallace. The Michael Mann film was released a month before Plummer turned 70, and three days after his previous film, a Kevin Dillon horror movie, went straight to home video.

The Insider received raves, as did Plummer. New York film critic David Edelstein would later write that the actor "didn't show his genius on film" until that performance.

"Suddenly, my whole career changed," Plummer said in the Times.

While Plummer continued to appear on stage, including a 2004 production of King Lear for Broadway, he now became an in-demand big-screen figure. He diagnosed Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. He hired Jodie Foster in Inside Man. He was cast as Aristotle (Alexander), Leo Tolstoy (The Last Station), and Scrooge (The Man Who Invented Christmas). He provided the voice of the dashing, but dastardly Charles Muntz in Up. He won his Beginners Oscar for playing a senior citizen who comes out as gay to his adult son. Of the latter performance, Entertainment Weekly said Plummer "create[d] an inspiring, fully rounded man"; Rolling Stone called him "simply stupendous."

Even when Plummer lost out on a part, as he did to Kevin Spacey, with All the Money in the World, he won in the end. While Spacey had required special makeup to play the 80-year-old Getty in the true-life tale, the 87-year-old Plummer was now authentically gray.

Ridley Scott chose to reshoot Spacey's scenes after Spacey was accused of unwanted sexual advances by several men. Plummer called the situation "a shame," but said he'd always wanted to work with Scott. He read the script, accepted the role, hopped on a plane bound for London (and later Rome) and shot all of the Getty scenes in nine days.

Christopher Plummer attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

Christopher Plummer attends the 90th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on March 4, 2018 in Hollywood. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)

When asked by the Hollywood Reporter what the toughest part of the job was, Plummer replied, "Learning all those lines!"

Plummer, who wrote at length about his Lothario days in the 2008 book, In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, was married to the former "Bond girl," Elaine Taylor (1967's Casino Royale), since 1970. Other survivors include his daughter by his first marriage to Broadway star Tammy Grimes, the acclaimed actress Amanda Plummer of Pulp Fiction fame. Plummer and Grimes divorced when their child was young; Plummer, in fact, said he didn't see his daughter until she was 18.

"Well, I'm a terrible father," Plummer told Australia's Daily Telegraph in 2017. But I'm glad I have Amanda because she's got incredible talent, which didn't come from me."

Plummer described himself as someone who "need[s] to work."

"I love my work. I love what I do. And I'm so sorry for a majority of people who do not like their jobs, and can't wait to retire, which of course, is death," Plummer told the Associated Press in 2017. "I'll never retire. I hope to drop dead onstage. That's what I really want to do."

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