Des McAnuff on the ‘King Lear’ film Christopher Plummer was ‘very passionate about’ News Staff

TORONTO — Ontario-raised director Des McAnuff isn’t sure what will happen with a Canadian big-screen adaptation of “King Lear” he planned to shoot partly in Newfoundland this summer, with Christopher Plummer in the lead.

But it’s the last thing on his mind as he mourns the loss of the Toronto-born acting legend, who died Friday morning at the age of 91, he says.

“The loss of the friend is much greater than the loss of the film,” McAnuff said Friday in a phone interview as he headed to Plummer’s home in Weston, Conn., where the stage and screen star died after falling and hitting his head two and a half weeks prior.

“It’s a gargantuan loss. It’s kind of immeasurable.”

The two-time Tony Award-winning McAnuff was artistic director at the Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario when he directed Plummer in acclaimed productions of “The Tempest” in 2010 and “Caesar and Cleopatra” in 2008. 

McAnuff said he first got to know Plummer by working with his daughter, Tony Award-winning actor Amanda Plummer, and found him to be “a brilliant artist in many regards.” 

“He was a wonderful musician. The first time I heard him sit down at the piano, he was playing Sibelius, by ear,” McAnuff said. “I also have watched him sketching in rehearsal. I looked over his shoulder and there is a work of art coming to life on the sketchpad. He was a great writer as well.” 

McAnuff said being such a multifaceted artist added a rare depth and dimension to Plummer’s work, which ranged from meaty theatre roles to playing Capt. Georg von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Plummer was nominated for three Oscars and won the golden statuette for playing a father who comes out of the closet in 2010’s “Beginners.”

“While he was a wonderful classical actor, he was a kind of an eclecticist, too,” said McAnuff, noting Plummer was “a tremendous mimic.”

“He was very adept working with language, and he would really celebrate the words, and that came from his love for literature from the time he was a little boy. Beyond that, he had an appreciation of psychology. So that made him a formidable actor of the cinema.”

While Plummer “didn’t suffer fools gladly,” he also had a warmth and generosity, said McAnuff.

“He was great to be around, whether it was backstage or over dinner, or over a martini when he was still doing that,” he said. “He used to sneak martinis with me from time to time.

“He was a great raconteur, with a tremendous general knowledge and appetite for stimulation. He was just a great friend.”

Plummer’s age had no bearing on his capabilities as an actor, McAnuff said, noting he had “the curiosity of a six-year-old and the wisdom of Methuselah.”

“I think Chris is not just a celebrity or a star. In a sense I think he is our royalty. An artist of that virtuosity is just such a rare bird.”

The actor and the director lived near each other and were having dinner about 18 months ago when McAnuff “facetiously” mentioned they should do a “King Lear” film together.

Plummer, who’d previously played Lear at Stratford under the direction of Jonathan Miller, called him the next day expressing interest.

McAnuff did the screen adaptation and planned to direct. Shaftesbury CEO Christina Jennings was producing. Others attached to the project include costume designer Debra Hanson, production designer John Blackie and visual effects artist Bob Munroe.

McAnuff said they “were really excited about it” and Plummer “was a wonderful partner on editing the text.” They planned to shoot exteriors in Newfoundland this summer.

“I thought of it as a legacy production and it was something he was very passionate about doing,” he said. “He was going over his lines in the last few weeks, he was that intent on doing this.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

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