When Peter Cushing was a child, his mother dressed him as a girl. He had long blonde hair, tied with a bow, and enviable selection of dresses. His mother had always wanted a daughter, and was deeply disappointed that her second and last child was a boy.
One day Peter went missing, having wandered off in his frock to paddle in some puddles. Fortunately, he was found by a local policeman. When his father called the police station to ask if by any chance they had found a missing boy, the desk sergeant replied there was no boy, just a little girl. It turned out, this little girl was Cushing, and it was the last time he was ever dressed as a girl.
His also mother meted out a strange punishment to her children. Whenever they were naughty, she would pretend to be dead. This caused the young Peter great distress, while his brother, being more robust, suggested kicking their mother to make sure she was dead.
While his mother was a brief but emotionally strong influence on his life, it was another woman, the actress Violet Helene Beck, who was the greatest, most beneficial and enduring passion in his life.
Peter met Helen when they were both struggling actors. It was love-at-first sight, and they married in 1943. Helen recognized that Peter was the better actor, and gave up her acting to support her husband in his career. Success was a long time in coming, taking Peter until middle age for him to make his mark: first in the BBC dramatization of George Orwell’s 1984, and then as Baron Victor in The Curse of Frankenstein.
Cushing became an international star appearing as Van Helsing in Dracula, Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles, as Doctor Who in Dr. Who and the Daleks, and later as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars.
When Helen died in 1971, Cushing was bereft, and almost out-of-his-mind. It took him thirteen years to get over her death. He survived this time by working continuously, and being consoled by a letter Helen left him, and his belief that they would (somehow) meet again.
I was in the Peter Cushing Fan Club when I was a child. To me Cushing represented that old fashioned gentlemanly style of horror, in the tradition of Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and even Basil Rathbone. Cushing had an intelligence and a warmth of personality that made the whole experience of being terrified tremendous fun.
The new Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi once said (in an old Radio Times Q&A, I seem to recall) that he was also in the Peter Cushing Fan Club, and copied Cushing’s style of signature as his own. Understandable really, as who wouldn’t want to be such a distinguished and thoroughly decent human being?
In 1990, Peter Cushing (then retired) gave an interview to the Human Factor, where he talked about his love for his wife, his belief in an afterlife, his suicide attempt, his cancer, and the key moments from his childhood and his long and successful acting career. As an atheist, I don’t follow Cushing’s views of an afterlife, but his interview is still moving, poignant, and enjoyable—like watching the sun slowly set on a childhood summer.
Bonus: Peter Cushing’s last appearance on Terry Wogan’s chat show, 1988.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Peter Cushing’s death wish