A few hours from now, it will be May 26, 2013, a date I feel I should commemorate here because it happens to be the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of my favorite actors, the great Peter Cushing.
Those of us who love movies in the genres of horror, mystery, and science fiction should all be grateful to Cushing for his incredible body of work. Perhaps the most amazing thing about his work as an actor was his ability to play both sides of the game, switching from hero to villain and back again from film to film with what looked to viewers like flawless ease, though it was more likely hard-earned skill. While actors who usually play heroic characters, like Harrison Ford, for example, occasionally have a turn as an evil swine, and those who most often portray villains, like Bela Lugosi, have had some sympathetic roles, I have a hard time thinking of another actor who played both sides as well and as often as Peter Cushing.
To think about this in terms of just his most well-known roles, Cushing's version of Van Helsing was one of the best and most famous. He played Sherlock Holmes too, both in the Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and later in a BBC television series. He is among my favorite Holmes actors, right up there alongside Jeremy Brett and Basil Rathbone. And he also portrayed The Doctor in two Doctor Who movies. That's three massively important heroic characters.
On the evil side, who could forget his Dr. Frankenstein and, perhaps even more famously, his important role in a film that defined the childhoods of so many of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, Star Wars? As far as I'm concerned, Cushing's Grand Moff Tarkin was the main villain in Star Wars. Looking back with hindsight after all the movies, people tend to think of Darth Vader as the big bad guy in George Lucas's trilogy, but Vader wasn't much more than a henchman in the first one, while Tarkin was obviously in control. He barked, "Vader, release him!" and Vader did.
I wasn't always a big fan of Cushing. For years I thought of him as a minor character from Star Wars, but as I got older and saw more of his films, I grew to appreciate his work a lot more deeply. His Grand Moff Tarkin was incredibly important to that first Star Wars movie. His Van Helsing was a fit match for Christopher Lee's Dracula, and his Holmes, as I said before, is right up there with many other fine actors who sat in the rooms at Baker Street puffing that pipe while deep in thought.
So it's been a hundred years since his birth. I suspect that in another century, the work of this fine actor will still be appreciated and those who love horror, mystery, and science fiction will still marvel at the work of a man who played both good and evil with so much skill.
Now comes the hard part. I have to decide which of his movies to watch for the the occasion!