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This is another of the early articles from our first months in 1999. Having stumbled upon a paperback edition of Cushing's Tales of A Monster Hunter anthology (long out of print), I typed up and posted the interesting background article explaining Cushing's early career with Hammer. As it may still interest fans, I've reposted the text and my original introduction below.

Robert JE Simpson
22 August 2006.


Peter Cushing produced several instalments of his autobiography over the years, and these have been reprinted for the first time in some while.
Whilst browsing in a local second hand bookshop very recently, I came across the Cushing-compiled
Tales of a Monster Hunter, published in 1977 by Arthur Baker Ltd and in 1977 by Futura. In it Cushing selects a series of short Horror stories by the likes of Robert Bloch, Bram Stoker and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, to tie in with the film roles which he has had over thirty years.
He supplies an introduction to each of the tales. Also, at the start of the book there is a biographical account of Peter and his rise to stardom through the death of his beloved wife Helen. I thought I would reprint it here for your benefit.
Although written by Peter himself, he oddly writes it in the third person, giving an unusual personal outlook on his life, something which he would expound in his autobiographies.

This reproduction is not intended to infringe any copyright, but as a non-profit celebration of a legend. Should I be infringing any laws, or you may know of any objection, then mail me and I will see that it is removed. But I am sure that Peter would like you to read it...

From his childhood it was Peter Cushing's ambition to be a film actor, but, as he recalls today, unless he had taken a most extraordinary gamble, his career might have been a very different one. For back in the 1930's he quite deliberately went to the very heart of the film industry, Hollywood, and asked for a part - and, much to his surprise, and that of almost everyone else, he got one! As he remembers it was a very important moment in his life for the experience gave him his first valuable lessons in the art of film making and inspired him in his quest to perfect his talent as an actor. actor.

Peter Cushing was born on 26 May 1913 in the small Surrey village of Kenley. When he was old enough to take a job, Peter was encouraged to become a quantity surveyor like his father, but, as he says, he was already a great film fan -the cowboy star, Tom Mix, being his particular idol. His heart was set on acting, and indeed there was a bit of family tradition in that one of his grandfathers had been an actor and also an aunt and uncle.

He decided, though, to be a dutiful son, and took a job as a surveyor's assistant at the Coulsdon & Purley Urban District Council. Peter admits that he was not very good at the job because he was already involved in local amateur theatricals and was often asking for time off. Even when he was in the office, he spent a lot of time up in the loft supposedly filing maps and documents and instead rehearsing his lines to an audience of spiders and mice!

His determination to get into the acting profession made him an avid reader of The Stage, and for a long time he kept replying hopefully to advertisements. But all to no avail. He wondered if a change of name would do some good, an as he was in the throes of first love he thought that Peter Ling - from darling - might just do the trick. He was in for a rude surprise, though, when one manager replied to an application with the comment that he thought there was very little scope for Chinese actors in the repertory movement!

Back to being plain plain Peter Cushing once more, his persistance at last seemed to have paid off when he got a reply from Bill Fraser, the well-known character actor, who at that time was running a company in Worthing. Peter had been writing to him for some months and was elated when he got the invitation to call at the theatre. The surveyor's assistant threw in his job and jumped on the first train to Worthing.

When he met Bill Fraser, though, he was in for the second set-back to his hopes. For immediately after they met, Bill told the young hopeful that he had only wanted to meet him and tell him to stop writing so many letters as he had much to do without answering mail.

Peter was heartbroken and burst into tears on the spot. But Bill Fraser took compassion on him when he heard how hard he had been trying to get into the theatre, and gave him a walk-on part in a play that very night. It was J. B. Priestley's Cornelius and Peter played a creditor. It was his very first professional role. He was just twenty-one years old.

For the next four years Peter appeared in repertory all over the country and considers that it was a marvellous experience, apart from providing a great training ground. As the time passed, though, he began to realize that if he wanted to further his career beyond repertory he would have to broaden his horizons. The memory of those Tom Mix films was still fresh in his mind and he decided that the answer lay in Hollywood. How he would go about getting into films he did not know -but go to Hollywood he would.

Peter only had a few pounds to his name, and so with some trepidation he went home to his father and asked him to lend him the fare to America. He remembers that dispite the fact that the very idea must have seemed lunatic to him, his father handed over the money. Just enough for a one way ticket. It never occured to Peter then how he might get back if the gamble failed. So the determined young actor made his way to Hollywood - stepping in, as he puts it, where even angels might fear to tread.

Of course, Peter knew no one in Hollywood, and it was by pure chance that he arrived at the imposing entrance to Edward Small's studios. At the gates he was immediately confronted by a heavily armed guard. The man glared at Peter and asked him what he wanted. Plucking up his courage, he explained that he wanted to get into pictures. The man looked at him absolutley dumbfounded. He had heard and seen it all before - but what was he to make of this Englishman just expecting to walk in and get a part in a movie! There was though, something about the young man's request that seemed to strike a chord with the guard, for he not only let Peter in, but told him just who to go and see. After that one door after another seemed miraculously to open until he was not only on a set but in a film, too.

Peter believes that it was his English manner and obvious innocence that got him in where others would have been turned away. In any event, his extraordinary good fortune did not end there, for the studio was at that moment making The Man in the Iron Mask and there was a vacancy of a kind.

The star, Louis Hayward, was playing twins in the film, a good brother and an evil brother, and the director, James Whale, needed someone to play opposite him for the split-screen process. In this way, the star had another person to 'speak' to and thereby make his acting more convincing. And though Peter's previous acting experience had only been on the stage, he convinced the producer he was their man.

So Peter Cushing broke into films - though because of the very nature of his engagement he was snipped off the film in the cutting room and the two Louis Hayward's ended up talking to each other. However, Peter did have the opportunity to see something of his acting in the daily rushes. He remembers the experience somewhat ruefully to this day. For he says he was dreadful! His voice sounded awful and he thought he looked just like a dumpling.

But the experience was one he enetered into wholeheartedly, and as the weeks passed he undoubtedly got better, and was eventually offered a one line part. He was to play the captain of the guard and gallop onto the set shouting the words, 'The King wants to see you!' He was delighted with the chance for two reasons. Firstly, it meant he would actually appear on the screen -and secondly he would be able to indulge his passion for dressing in period costume. The story of The Man in the Iron Mask is set during the reign of Louis XIV when the art of the costumier was at a peak, and Peter was able to claim from the wardrobe department a richly ornate suit, sashes, a huge feathered hat and even a pair of spurs.

It was almost too good to be true. He could imagine all his Tom Mix dreams becoming fact, and without thinking jumped on the back of his horse. Too late he realized he had never been on one before - and the only experience of riding he had was on his mother's bicycle which served as his steed when he had acted out his youthful fantasies of being a cowboy. Immediately the animal took fright and charged onto the set, knocking down some of the scenery. Even if he could have controlled the horse by grabbing the reins, Peter was now completely unable to do so because the sashes over each shoulder had fallen down and pinioned his arms. For several moments everything was confussion as the horse charged hither and thither and Peter clung on as best he could. At last some members of the film crew got hold of a lasso and brought horse and rider to a standstill. It was a very shamefaced young actor who climbed down and was de-spurred on the spot. And severely rebuked for causing damage that would not only hold up production for hours but cost several thousand dollars.

Luckily for Peter no further action was taken against him, and he finished his work on the film without further mishap. He felt it had been a great experience because it enabled him to study the technique of the great Hollywood stars at first hand. He had benefited, too, from his contact with the director, James Whale, who had earlier made the famous Frankenstein films for Universal Pictures. The young actor had no way of appreciating the coincidence here, or that the Frankenstein story was later to feature so largely in his own career. The fact that Peter had worked in this prestigious picture, and that he had an English accent, undoubtedly helped him get a small part in the Laurel and Hardy film A Chump at Oxford made in 1940, and then the second male lead in Vigil in the Night with Brian Aherne and Carole Lombard.

Despite his activity, it was not long before Peter started to feel a little homesick, particularly now that the Second World War was in full spate. He had very little money in his pocket, but he knew he must return and offer his services in whatever capacity they might be used. Peter realized his best method of getting back would be by working his passage, and that he was most likely to find a boat going to England from Canada. He decided he would work his way there by way of New York. His journey was not to be without incident - or humour.

Arriving in New York, he remembers, the first thing he saw was a notice outside a hospital saying 'Give Blood for Britain'. To penniless Peter that was the only thing he had to offer - so in he went and donated a pint. When he walked out, though, he fell flat on his face and had to be taken straight back in again and given two pints to revive him! Such was his first contribution to the war effort - brought about he believes by his general poor state of health through only eating when he could afford to during his impoverished sojourn in Hollywood.

To replenish his finances, Peter signed on as a car park attendant, but was fired after only two hours when he refused to carry out the company policy of bumping cars off each other so that they could be parked more speedily. He was a little luckier when he got a job as an usher in a small cinema, although he recalls that he had a uniform that didn't fit and had no fly buttons on the trousers! When the embarrassed young man complained about this to the manager, he was told that no one would notice in the dark and that in any case he should hold the torch in front of himself. Peter thought this looked far worse! He made the best of the job, however, and even managed to earn a few tips by helping people to seats that they particularly wanted.

After New York, Peter had a brief return to his old profession of acting with a small theatre company playing a summer camp at Warrensberg near the Canadian border. The pay was $100 for four months work plus lodging and two meals a day, so he was able to build up his strength. There was also to be one further incident on the journey which remains closely in his mind. Although today he can see the funny side of the story, Peter admits it was quite frightening at the time.

After the summer camp, he crossed the border into Canada and with his funds low once more, went to see if he could get employment in a small film studio. The company was doing some work on the Eric Portman film, The 49th Parallel and although it had no opening for an actor, the art department offered him the task of making some model war insignia. It was the most fortuitous for Peter, because ever since his schooldays he had enjoyed painting and making cardboard models. Indeed he had been whiling away his spare time at the YMCA hostel where he was staying by making a miniature grand piano. So he accepted the commission gratefully. The company wanted him to make a number of Japanese and Nazi flags to be used ona huge map. As there was not enough room for him to work in the studios, Peter was given the neccessary materials and sent back to his small room at the hostel.

All went well for a day or two, until one morning Peter found that the miniature grand piano on which he had lavished so much care was missing. Anxious not to lose it, he reported the matter to the management. Unbeknown to him, however, the maid who usually cleaned up his room while he was out overheard part of the conversation, and thought he was complaining of losing a normal grand piano! She already thought he was a bit strange, but the idea of something so large in a room scarcely big enough to hold a bed, convinced her he must be mad.

When Peter returned to the hostel that evening there were two huge Mounted Policemen waiting for him. They immediately grabbed him by the arms and announced that they were taking him to the local station to be charged as a spy! The bewildered young Englishman asked why. The Mounties replied that they had received a report that he had been acting strangely, and when they had investigated his room concerning the missing grand piano, they had found the collection of swastikas and rising suns. That confirmed their suspicions about his nefarious activities.

As they hurried him off, Peter fortunately recovered from his senses enough to persuade them to make contact with the film studios and ask the real reason why he was making the little flags. Once they did that, the matter of the flags and the grand piano suddenly became clear. The Mounties were certainly as embarrassed as Peter was relieved.

That wasn't quite the end of the episode, for as the delighted Peter left the station he failed to look where he was going and tripped on a sheet of ice, cracking his head badly, and had to spend two days in hospital to recover.

If the young actor's jopurney across North America had been full of incident, there was still more to come on the sea journey home. It was in Halifax that he at last managed to find a ship on which he could get a berth - and that by courtesy of a deserter who failed to turn up when the ship was about to sail. The craft was an old banana boat, the SS Tilapa, which was actually equipped for the tropics and was going to make this particular Atlantic crossing in mid-winter. Peter remembers that he has never been so cold in his life as he was on that journey.

Once at sea, he was aked by the captain what his occupation was, and on learning that he was an actor could only think of one thing for him to do. Stick him up in the crows nest to act as a look out. It was a terrifying enough climb up the mast but once in the crows nest, things got worse still. What with the driving rain and spray, his perch began to fill up like a water-butt and then actually freeze. Naturally, Peter became frightened and started calling for help. At first no one took any notice, but as his cries became more frantic, a group of the sailors realized something really was wrong and rigged up a breeches-buot to rescue him. After that, says Peter, the captain seemed to sense that he was really of very little practical use, and put him in charge of the ship's cat. This he managed splendidly.

Although the ship and the convoy in which it was sailing did not encounter any enemy vessels, it was a tension-filled crossing and everyone was releived when they finally docked safely in England. Peter's releif was all the greater when he learned that the commander had pulled a huge bluff on the Germans by sailing along the normal peacetime route between Halifax and England. He reckoned that the enemy would not expect anyone to be so foolish as to use such an obvious course. It was just as well that he was right, because later information indicated that the notorious German raider, the Tirpitz, had been on the prowl in the Atlantic at that particular time!

It was January 1942 when Peter stepped onto English soil again, and after a brief rest he wondered what he might do. In fact there was only one course open to someone in his profession - join the entertainment group for the forces, ENSA, or 'Every Night Something Awful' as he recalls the troops used to call it.

This proved one of the most significant moves of his life, for he was put into a company touring with Noel Coward's Private Lives and the leading lady was a beautiful young actress named Helen Beck. This was the beloved Helen, Peter was married to shortly afterwards, and who was to light his life and encourage him to reach for greater heights as an actor. For almost two years the Cushings toured together with the play, but their happiness was marred by Helen's failing health, and then they both had to leave the group and move to London. Immediately Helen devoted herself to managing her husband's career, a task she did so selflessly and successfully right up to the time of her death.

For a time Peter was able to get parts in several major plays, including Dame Edith Evans's successful production of The Rivals. But after the war, things became much tougher and the Cushings had a struggle to make ends meet. However, a stroke of good fortune kept the wolf from the door at this time, thanks again to Peter's artistic leanings.

It was Christmas, and not having enough money to buy Helen a present, Peter decided to hand-paint a piece of silk as a scarf for her. She was naturally delighted, and when the couple were out one night, a textile manufacturer caught a glimpse of the scarf and learning that it was Peter's handiwork offered him a nine month contract to design a whole lot more. The Cushings were overjoyed - and relieved.

All this time, however, Peter was still trying to get work in the theatre. He went to see Laurence Olivier who was auditioning for the young male lead in Born Yesterday - but the part demanded an American accent. When asked if he thought he could imitate one, Peter, as honest as ever, said no. He believed there was nothing more phoney than an English actor trying to speak American. Olivier complimented Peter on his forthrightness. 'That's very honest of you,' he said, 'You've saved us a lot of time - we shall be in touch again.' Not surprisingly, Peter felt that it was just a polite brush off. But he could not have been more wrong.

A short while later he landed the role of a Frenchman at the 'Q' theatre and apparently attracted the attention of one of Laurence Olivier's assistants who was in the audience. The man urged Olivier to come and see the play, and immediately the great actor recognized Peter as the young chap who said he couldn't speak American. Olivier was impressed with his French, though, and offered him a part in his next film, Hamlet.

Peter was, of course, overjoyed. The role he was given was Osric, and by a strange twist of fate another young actor who also landed a part in the film was Christopher Lee - though the two men, who were later to forge such an excellent screen partnership, never actually met during the shooting. Peter's work on the film obviously pleased Laurence Olivier, because he was then offered a place in an Old Vic company tour of Australia. When he returned to England, however, he fell ill and had to leave the company.

It was the indomitable Helen Cushing who came up trumps when, sensing the growing importance of television, she began writing to producers about her husband. Her relief and persistance paif off in December 1951 when Peter made his first appearance in J. B. Priestley's play Eden's End. Once again that Yorkshire maestro had been instrumental in the development of a new stage in Peter's career.

For the next three years Peter was constantly busy in 'live' television as it was then - there were no pre-recordings - and moved easily and successfully from one production to the next. Apart form establishing him in th profession, Peter believes there was a distinct advantage in appearing in these plays as they were all foregone successes and had already been made famous on the stage by actors such as Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. The parts were all quite different, too, and there was no doubt that audiences became intrigued to see what part he might play next.

During this period Peter won the Best Actor Award three times and appeared in two outstanding television productions, The Creature (later filmed as The Abominable Snowman in 1957) and the controversial version of George Orwell's 1984. Peter played Winston Smith in 1984 and regards it as the only true horror story that he has appeared in. His films which are usually catagorized as 'horror' he describes as fantasy and impossible to a degree; 1984, on the other hand, he sees not only as possible, but actually beginning to happen.

1984 was transmitted 'live' twice a week - first played on Sunday and then repeated the following Thursday. Because of its grim theme about a totalitarian society, there were many protests about it being unsuitable viewing. Peter particularly remembers the outrage that followed an episode where he was threatened by a horde of rats. There were determined attempts made to stop the Thursday repeat, but Peter believes that if the protestors had known the real story about the rats they might have felt slightly differently.

The story had begun with the BBC's determined efforts to make the production as realistic as possible, and as part of this employed the last remaining rat-catcher in London to provide them with some genuine sewer rats. It was never the intention that Peter should actually have to confront the rats - they would be kept in a separate studio and made to rear up by having food dangled above them by a handler. When this picture was 'mixed' with another shot of Peter going through the motions of being attacked, the audience got the impression of a horrible fight taking place.

However, things did not quite work out this way. For after a few days in the studios, under the warm lights and with regular meals, the rats became very docile. The last thing they wanted to do was rear up and grab for food. The studio was thrown into a panic. There was only one answer - the producer had to ring up a pet shop and get hold of some tame white rats, which were then painted black and starved for a couple of days. Only then could the desired effect be achieved!

All this controversy only helped to make Peter better known - still, though, he yearned to get back into film-making. But, as he says, there seemed to be a great general resistance among the film people then to anyone working in television, because it was felt they were keeping audiences out of the cinemas. The one exception to this rule were Hammer Films, who were actually capitalizing on popular television programmes by bringing full-length versions of them to the screen. And the managing director, James Carrreras, was a particular fan of Peter's and had several times asked him to work for Hammer.

Television commitments made any venture with Hammer impossible for Peter until early in 1957. Then when a little respite was in view, it could not have come at a more opportune moment. For Peter read in the trade papers that Hammer were planning to make The Curse of Frankenstein. The story was one that was familiar to Peter and he had seen the James Whale version starring Colin Clive and Boris Karloff. He knew immediately which part he wanted to play - and he got it to the delight of all concerned.

Looking back on the extraordinary success of that film, Peter recalls that it was, in fact, only one of five pictures Hammer were making that year. No one had any idea of the spectacular success it was to enjoy, nor the enormous snowball effect it was to have.

The Curse of Frankenstein cost a mere £65,000 to produce, which is very little in film-making terms, though there can be no denying its quality and the masterful way it struck just the right chord of terror in audiences everywhere. The success of the film led to sequels, and Hammer's only worry came when Dr Christian Barnard began actually performing operations of the kind Peter was doing on the screen. Fact almost caught up with fiction, but in stead of affecting the popularity of the pictures, audiences seemed to become even more intrigued to see how Peter Cushing as Dr Frankenstein was doing transplants as opposed to Dr Barnard.

Peter has brought great depth of character to the screen Frankenstein, not only by taking special instructions in how to handle surgical instruments, but also by evolving his own idea of just what kind of person the scientist might be. He sees Frankenstein as rather like Dr Robert Knox, the Scottish anatomist. Not a villain, but someone trying to make people understand that it is the spirit and the soul that are important, not the body. Peter says he can understand that the religious and medical authorities of the time must have found such a viewpoint in total opposition to all they believed, and therefore hounded the doctor out of Edinburgh, just the way the villagers are always driving Frankenstein away in the films.

It was in The Curse of Frankenstein that Peter played opposite Christopher Lee, and the two actors have subsequently appeared twenty-five times together, becoming very good friends. They were, in fact, teamed up again immediately afterwards in the remake of the Dracula story, with Christopher playing the vampire count and Peter his adversary, Van Helsing. A third picture, The Mummy, made in 1959, again starred the two men, and firmly established Hammer as the leading film-makers in this particular field.

With the continuing success of such films, the only real problem that has emerged - particularly in the Frankenstein and Dracula stories - has been finding new variations on the themes. As Peter explains, the audiences expect certain constants in the stories - a man creating a living creature that goes beserk, and another who must have human blood to survive - and in their efforts to be novel the scriptwriters have found that ideas are wearing a bit thin. Nonetheless, Peter is happy to go on making films in this genre for as long as producers and audiences wish him to. It is work that he enjoys and it is not without its occasional moments of light relief.

He remembers with great delight an incident while he was filming The Gorgon with Christopher Lee. For once, Peter was playing a sinister character, Dr Namaroff, and had developed a special nervous cough which he used as a mannerism when he was caught in a difficult situation. After one shot, while the two men were sitting waiting for their next call, Christopher asked Peter what the cough was for. Peter explained. Christopher was silent for a moment and then smiled, 'Right, then, I shall now call you Baron Nastycough!'

Apart from his work for Hammer Films, Peter has also been very successful in the anthology pictures made by Amicus, such as Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1964) - in which he fulfilled a long-standing ambition of playing a sequence in a train and Torture Garden (1967) - where he was so convincing in the fight sequence of his segment called The Man Who Collected Poe that his fellow actor Jack Palance was fully convinced he had injured him.

One of his favourite parts, though, remains that of the old man, Arthur Grimsdyke, in Tales from the Crypt (1971). Peter was first offered another part in the film, but it did not appeal to him. When the producer asked him if he liked any other role in the script, he said he was attracted to the part of Grimsdyke. But whereas the old man was supposed to be silent throughout the story, he felt words were neccessary.

It was just prior to this that Helen Cushing had died and Peter found great personal comfort by talking to her photograph when he was alone. He felt that he could use this element of his life with conviction in playing Grimsdyke. Subsequently it has given him much satisfaction to received a large number of letters from people complimenting him on making the part so sympathetic. In France he was even given an award for the portrayal. Peter's life has been greatly overshadowed by the death of his wife who did so much to bring him out of obscurity in the profession that he loves. For this reason he likes to keep busy and eagerly awaits the day when he will be reunited with her.

As a man who has appeared in a number of 'horror' or 'terror' pictures, Peter has firm ideas as to what makes them popular. He receives many letters from people who say that it is the triumph of good prevailing over evil tht attracts them. He also believes they are an escape value in a world surrounded by the menace of catastrophe - a vicarious form of outlet amidst pressures which tend to squeeze people into tight corners.

July 1976

The article ends with a reference to the material in the book, and an emphasis of Peter's enjoyment of the association with the Horror genre.
I trust it will give you some fresh insight into the man that was Peter Cushing, particularly if you have never read his autobiography. His influence on Hammer is undeniable, his face recognisable to millions, and his death a fleeting moment which seemed to pass much of the world by when it finally happened in 1994.

this article is © 1977 Peter Cushing. And is presented slightly cut.
No attempt has been made to infringe copyright.

Page posted Sunday 21 November 1999
reformatted and reposted 24 August 2006

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House of Horror: The Unofficial Hammer Films Site © Site © RJE Simpson 1999 - 2006
Site launched Sunday 8th August 1999