Tomorrow is International Star Wars Day.
May the Fourth. Be with you.
Which is why it is a suitable date to remember actor Peter Cushing, whose former home at 32 St James’ Road, Purley, now bears a blue plaque to commemorate his life and career.
Cushing was born in 1913, and died in 1994 after what was regarded as a stellar career even before his appearances in George Lucas’s Star Wars epics.
Appearing on the radio, stage, television and in a staggering 91 films, Cushing was well-known as a star of post-war British movies, including 23 Hammer horrors, as well as stand-out performances as Sherlock Holmes, Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four and Doctor Who.
Cushing was in his Sixties when director Lucas cast him as Grand Moff Tarkin, a high-ranking Imperial governor and commander of the Death Star in the first of the Star Wars movies, which was released in 1977. Famously, Cushing had to be filmed from the waist up because he was wearing plimsolls: the boots provided for him by the film’s wardrobe department were too small.
It was a key role which would even see Cushing return to the screen posthumously, in Rogue One, through the use of state-of-the-art visual effects in a movie made in 2016 – more than 20 years after the actor’s death.
As the Death Star commander, Cushing would often be on set with another actor with strong Croydon connections, Dave Prowse, the former body-builder and Green X Code man, who provided the imposing body double for Darth Vader, while the wheezing voice was dubbed in by James Earl Jones.
Cushing’s blue plaque in Purley was unveiled last year by English Heritage.
Cushing lived at 32 St James’ Road from about 1925 until June 1936, during which time he attended Purley County Secondary School and then worked at the local council, where he was a surveyor’s assistant.
Cushing meanwhile took acting classes at evening school at the Guildhall School, and in 1936 got his first job in rep, as assistant stage manager the Connaught Theatre in Worthing, which led to roles with local acting companies.
Cushing first went to Hollywood to pursue his dreams in 1939, before returning to wartime England. There, as part of ENSA, the Entertainments National Services Association, he performed in Noël Coward’s Private Lives at military camps all over the country, and met his future wife, Helen Redgrave.
It was after the World War II, with the coming of a national television service, that Cushing’s career really took off. After touring with Laurence Olivier’s company, Cushing was the first TV Mr Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in 1952, and he gave an acclaimed performance as Winston Smith in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), which has been described as “British television’s first masterpiece”.
Cushing’s greatest legacy, though, came in Hammer productions, which he always preferred to refer to as “fantasy”, rather than horror films.
He played Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), Dr Van Helsing in Dracula (1958) and John Banning in The Mummy (1959). The success of Frankenstein and Dracula prompted a string of sequels – in all, he played the Baron six times and Van Helsing five.
“Described as never having given a bad performance, Peter Cushing was an incredibly accomplished actor with a varied career ranging from Shakespearean theatre to blood-curdling horror,” said Howard Spencer, the senior historian for English Heritage Blue Plaques, on announcing last year’s Purley unveiling.
“But it was the epic Star Wars for which he gained international fame. The London Blue Plaques scheme prides itself on celebrating extraordinary people at the places where they lived and worked. May the Fourth be with you!”
There is one legend around Cushing, though, which has been proven never to have happened. Rumours of his marriage to Hollywood actress Whoopee Goldberg are completely unfounded, so that the Oscar-winner has never gloried in the stage name of “Whoopee Cushing”.
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