Onstage or on Camera, Christopher Plummer Shines

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

There's no one else quite like him these days. Christopher Plummer belongs to an endangered species of elegant, classically trained actors capable of playing anything from the crassest villain to the most sublime hero.

His career has included roles as diverse as a Klingon general in "Star Trek VI" and the romantic hero of "The Sound of Music." Now, his Tony Award-winning performance in William Luce's "Barrymore," a one-man show evoking the life of the legendary John Barrymore, demonstrates the range of Mr. Plummer's talents.

Taking the show on the road, Plummer recently did a turn in Denver before moving "Barrymore" along to San Francisco. (Other North American venues will follow.)

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Sliding gracefully up and down the scale of Barrymore's complex personality - from the lows of his bad-boy limericks to the heights of Shakespearean verse - Plummer says he didn't have to prepare for the role.

"I read 'Good Night, Sweet Prince' [a biography] when I was 14," he said over breakfast in Denver last week, "and I'd seen all his movies, silent as well as sound, well before I decided to become an actor. And I think the image of Barrymore largely made me want to become an actor.

"Don't forget he was the last of the great actors of that period (the late '30s, early '40s). Those creatures who influence you when you're young become part of you. So all I had to do was pull something out of me that I remembered. He was some personality - a larger-than-life character."

Barrymore was one of the great Hamlets of the early 20th century, but the fact that he played only two great classical roles (the other was Richard III) strikes Plummer as a great shame. Barrymore went aground in Hollywood. Plummer himself has negotiated the rocky shoals of show business, dividing his time among his great love, theater, movies, and TV. He is about to begin a new film directed by Michael Mann ("The Last of the Mohicans," "Heat") and costarring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe about last year's "60 Minutes" expos on the tobacco industry.

The Canadian-born actor began his Broadway career in the early 1950s and moved right over to television at the same time. "I started in the golden age of TV. I was doing theater, but television was the way young actors could make a living - all young actors had to work on the box. But TV was live and so like theater. There was an immediacy that was just so exciting. And there were just wonderful writers working then on TV.... Actually it is a medium of words," he says.

"But the stage offers the greatest words available - the great literature," Plummer adds. "In the movies, everything is spelled out literally. You see everything; nothing is left to the imagination. The theater is the medium of the imagination. The audience is required to work - an exercise of the imagination. You don't have to have a mountain; you can have a light that suggests a mount. It's the writing and the performance that sells the evening.

"The great roles are in the theater," he says. "I am one of the few stage animals left, I guess, who can still tackle all that stuff, because my body and voice have been [classically] trained for it. I feel like a dinosaur - but a happy dinosaur."

Plummer is often asked to speak to students in drama schools and conservatories, and he tries to convince them of the importance of classical training - which includes everything from the techniques of projection and stage presence to the complexities of verse plays. "The theater is the place to learn the craft," he says. "My advice ... is to put in some time on the stage because your mind and your technique will be formed there and make all the rest so much easier."

* For 'Barrymore' tour dates, see www.livent.com

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