“Strangely enough, I don’t like horror pictures at all. I love to make them because they give pleasure to people, but my favourite types of films are much more subtle than horror. I like to watch films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Apartment (1960) or lovely musicals.” –Peter Cushing
Peter Cushing enjoyed a lengthy career spanning over six decades, appearing on film, television, stage, and radio. Though he had notable roles in various British productions, his worldwide claim to fame would come during his work in horror films for the Hammer studio, including appearances in their Frankenstein and Dracula films.
Peter Wilton Cushing was born on May 26, 1913, in Kenley, Surrey, England. He was the youngest of three boys born to George and Nellie Cushing. His father worked as a surveyor, though his grandparents and several other relatives on the Cushing side were actors.
Peter would soon develop an interest in acting upon seeing a stage version of Peter Pan while growing up during World War I. He had a vivid imagination and enjoyed orchestrated performances as well as staging puppet shows for his family members. Throughout his education in England, he continued to pursue his interest in acting as well as athletics.
While he would earn the lead role in many school productions, his father did not approve of Peter working professionally as an actor. He secured a role for Peter as a surveyor’s assistant. Though Peter remained in the role for three years, he still felt that the performing arts were his passion. While working as a surveyor’s assistant, Peter would rehearse roles for amateur plays during any spare moment and actively sought roles.
Recognizing his need for professional training, Cushing aimed to attend drama school. While working to secure a scholarship, he was offered a small walk-on role in a play called Cornelius in 1935, which became his professional stage debut. He worked odd jobs at the theater but did ultimately receive a scholarship to further his studies. In the following year, he accepted a repertory company role, giving him time on stage as well as stage managing experience.
Near the end of the 1930s, Cushing decided to transition from the stage to acting in American films. He moved to Hollywood, thanks to funds from his father, and worked at Edward Small Productions. Cushing first worked as a stand-in for the company and gave him experience in fencing and stage fighting. After his film debut in The Man in the Iron Mask (1939), was completed, he performed a small role for Hal Road in the Laurel and Hardy film A Chump at Oxford (1940). Cushing would eventually receive critical praise for Vigil in the Night (1940).
By the 1940s, Cushing longed to return to England. After briefly working in New York, he moved back to England during World War II. He entertained troops by performing with the Entertainments National Service Association, touring various military stations and hospitals.
In 1947, Cushing worked with Laurence Olivier in Hamlet (1947), carrying out the role of Osric with much critical praise. Cushing and his wife, Helen, were invited to be part of Olivier’s repertory company, taking them on tour as part of various Shakespeare performances.
Following this, Cushing would go on to take radio and television roles, appearing in a BBC Television version of Pride and Prejudice (1952) as well as a television version of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954). Though he predominantly appeared in television performances during this period, he would also make occasional film appearances, as in The Black Knight (!954) and The End of the Affair (1955).
In the late 1950s, Cushing learned of the Hammer production company and was interested in their efforts in creating a new film version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Hammer studio executives were eager to hire Cushing as their protagonist, casting him as the lead in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first of 22 films he would make for Hammer. The film was a major success and also happened to feature Cushing alongside Christopher Lee for the first of many occasions. Cushing would also work in other Hammer serials, including Dracula and The Mummy. He would also portray Sherlock Holmes for other Hammer endeavors.
Later in his career, Cushing worked in yet another famous series—Star Wars (1977). His performance as Tarkin was praised, though the character would not appear in subsequent sequels. Rogue One (2016) would use CGI and archival footage to recreate Cushing’s likeness and insert it over the face of another actor in order to portray the character once again, causing controversy and ethical discussions surrounding using the likeness of a deceased actor.
In his later years, Cushing was honored by the British Film Institute. He worked toward charitable causes, including raising money for cancer care and other charities, while also penning two autobiographies: Peter Cushing: An Autobiography and Past Forgetting: Memoirs of the Hammer Years. His last acting job would be alongside Lee, narrating a documentary about Hammer Films, entitled Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror (1994).
Cushing and his wife, Helen, were incredibly close and devoted to one another. Her passing in 1971 affected him deeply. Though he continued on with his career, at heart, he wanted to be with Helen again. He passed away on August 11, 1994, at 81 years old.
Today, tributes to Cushing are evident in his native England. Cushing was commemorated with a plaque at his former residence, located at 32 St. James’ Road in Purley, London.
Additional tributes to Cushing can be located in Whitstable.
His seaside home at 3 Seaway Cottages, Wavecrest, also has a plaque affixed to it in honor of him.
A former cinema is now an Art Deco-style bar called The Peter Cushing, housing memorabilia and cinema equipment. The bar stands at 16-18 Oxford St. in Whitstable.
The Whitstable Community Museum and Gallery, once supported by Cushing, now houses some of his personal items. It is located at 5A Oxford St. in Whitstable.
The Tudor Tea Rooms, which he frequented, display pieces of Cushing Memorabilia, including poems and letters he wrote to the staff. They are located at 29 Harbour St.
Finally, a memorial bench at Cushing’s View in Whitstable can also be spotted near the sea wall.
Today, Cushing’s life and legacy can continue to be enjoyed through his written works as well as through his lengthy filmography.