CUSHING, Peter (1913-1994)
Plaque erected in 2018 by English Heritage at 32 St James' Road, Purley, London CR8 2DL, London Borough of Croydon
Theatre and Film
PETER CUSHING 1913-1994 Actor lived here
Peter Cushing is regarded as one of the finest actors of his generation. He made over 90 films in his long career, many of them in the horror and fantasy genres, but today he is most widely remembered for his performance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars. He is commemorated with a blue plaque at 32 St James’ Road in Purley, Croydon, where he lived as a child.
ST JAMES’ ROAD CHILDHOOD
Peter Wilton Cushing lived at 32 St James’ Road from about 1925 until June 1936, during which time he attended nearby Purley County Secondary School and worked at the local council. Cushing made his first stage appearance as a hobgoblin while still at kindergarten and played the lead in most drama productions at secondary school. His father, however, would not support his acting ambitions. Undeterred, Cushing went to evening classes at the Guildhall School, taking the train to London twice a week from 1935. Eventually he managed to leave his job as a surveyor’s assistant at the council to become assistant stage manager the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, which led to roles with local acting companies.
Cushing left England for Hollywood in 1939, landing a few minor roles before returning to wartime England. As part of the Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA), he performed in Noël Coward’s Private Lives at Army, Navy and Air Force camps all over the country, and met his future wife, the actress (Violet) Helen Redgrave (née Beck). Helen subsequently gave up her acting career to support Peter’s, and her contacts helped him make a considerable mark on BBC television drama.
FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA AND HAMMER HORROR
After a spell with working with Laurence Olivier on his Old Vic tour of Australasia, Cushing landed the role of Mr Darcy in the BBC's six-part serial Pride and Prejudice (1952). Further BBC productions followed including his acclaimed performance as Winston Smith in the BBC’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), which has been described as British television’s first masterpiece.
But it was Cushing's portrayal of Baron Frankenstein in Hammer Film Productions’ The Curse of Frankenstein (1956) that took his career to another level. It was followed by roles such as John Rollason in The Abominable Snowman (1957), Doctor Van Helsing in Dracula (1958), Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1958) and John Banning in The Mummy (1959). The success of Frankenstein and Dracula in particular prompted a string of sequels – in all, he played the Baron six times and Van Helsing five.
Cushing continued to work in the horror genre – or fantasy as he preferred to call it – throughout his career. He appeared in 23 films by Hammer Films Productions, and numerous others with other British production companies such Amicus, who cast him as a kindly and forgetful Doctor Who in Dr Who and the Daleks (1965).
Cushing was devastated by his wife Helen’s death in 1971. As an antidote to his grief he threw himself into work, completing 32 films in 11 years. His film career gained a boost when he played the villain Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1976). Famously, he had to be filmed from the waist up because he was wearing plimsolls, the boots provided for him being too small. His legacy in the franchise was so great that in the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Cushing’s Tarkin was brought back to cinematic life through the use of state-of-the-art visual effects.
Cushing continued to work into late age, despite being diagnosed with prostrate cancer in 1982. His final film appearance was in the 1985 production Biggles.