HOW I BECAME A MONSTER
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
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.
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
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
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!
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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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