Jeannot Szwarc and Jo Addie remember the late Christopher Plummer
Updated: Feb 8, 2021
Christopher Plummer (R), as Wm Fawcett Robinson, confronts Christopher Reeve's Richard Collier in "Somewhere In Time," and teaches him - and us - that opera is the plural of opus.
After learning the news of Christopher Plummer's death Friday at the age of 91, I reached Jeannot Szwarc at his home in France to talk about working with Plummer on "Somewhere In Time," on Mackinac Island back in 1979.
"I loved working with him. He had such a presence, man. The minute he was there, he was totally there. He was just good and professional. And he was a real craftsman, which was refreshing. He never asked stupid questions and he understood that character immediately." -- Jeannot Szwarc on Christopher Plummer
After I posted the podcast, INSITE's Jo Addie wrote me with a lovely remembrance of Christopher Plummer, and promises an extensive tribute to him in the first issue of INSITE 2021. (And be sure to check out Jo's article on that magic summer, "Barely in Time," with dozens of photos.)
I have some very vivid memories of Mr. Plummer while I worked on "Somewhere in Time." My first night 'falling into the film,’ when I was put into my first lovely period dress, had me sent up to a room for a makeup touch-up to my upper chest and neck ... because of course, ladies did not have tan marks in 1912. Turns out, the PA brought me to the makeup man, who was setting up his stuff in the bathroom of Christopher Plummer’s dressing room in the Grand, and Mr. Plummer stood in the doorway sipping on a cocktail.
While the makeup man, Paul Sanchez, worked on me ... we were all chatting as if we were old friends!!! It was surreal. Later, when Paul finished, Plummer was sitting on the bed, looking over his script. ... As I walked away — floated away — down the hall, I heard him say to Paul, “What a pretty girl!”
We watched the Mackinac Island fireworks side by side on the fourth of July, and chatted then, too. He was definitely a private man. His lovely wife Elaine was accompanying him for the shooting, so they hung out together, and they played tennis often, when he was not needed on set. I also saw him in Stratford the opening week of his one-man show “Barrymore” (that came to Broadway, later). Afterward backstage, we chatted for a while. On stage he was dynamic, in person, he was so soft-spoken, and such a supreme gentleman.
He was invited every year to attend the SIT Weekend ... but then his career really kicked into high gear*, with many high profile roles in films, and he was onstage (mostly doing his great love, Shakespeare) when not working on films. His hobby was rehabbing homes and selling them, before it was fashionable to do that, so he was always very busy. Since he didn’t make personal appearances for publicity, I never really thought he would come to the SIT Weekend, but I always held out a little hope ... I was so happy for him, having such enormous success after age 75 and throughout his 80s. Even at 90! Incredible!
INSITE has sent flowers to his gracious wife, on behalf of the members. In Plummer’s autobiography, he credits her for saving his life from drinking himself to death.
-- Jo Addie, INSITE
*Jo may be being diplomatic here. It is true he was busy on stage and screen, but others have said Plummer refused to attend the SIT weekend because, as Jeannot discusses, he was mad that so many of his lines were cut from his gazebo scene with Christopher Reeve. It's too bad he never came back to see what an impact his work had on so many people who love this film.
Here's the not very good but certainly inexpensive automatic transcription of my interview with Jeannot.
Speaker 0 00:00:03 Are you a guest here, sir? You're Robinson. Are you a guest of the hotel? Ah, yes. Yes I am. That. I must ask you to stop a knowingness McKenna any further you do not. I shall see that you'll put out.
Speaker 1 00:00:23 Hi, everybody. Welcome back to call back yesterday. My name's John Raby. This is a podcast about somewhere in time and many other things. And this is a sad day for a lot of somewhere in time fans, because Christopher Plummer has died at the age of 91. He died on Friday and he played William faucet, Robinson, the manager of at least McKenna in somewhere in time. I just got off the phone with somewhere in time, director Genos bark.
Speaker 2 00:00:54 Oh my God. I thought he was supposed to call tomorrow.
Speaker 1 00:00:57 Oh, you were writing when it was already Saturday? Probably.
Speaker 2 00:01:00 Okay. How are you? I'm good. Does this still work? Yes, but you know what, uh, you know, you're going to ask me things that happened a very long time ago and I'm 83, almost 84. And my memory is not what it used to be.
Speaker 1 00:01:15 That's okay. People still love you and whatever, and whatever you say they will believe.
Speaker 2 00:01:24 Yeah. I know. It really eats funny. I wasn't in touch with him for a while, but it really affected me. Tell me how well, you know, when we did the film, well, first I admired in enormous the, as an actor, you know, he was not one of those guys, you know, like Roy Scheider, we said, I'm sitting it for the last steak. You know, he always was there and he gave it everything he had and he had incredible instincts. And, uh, he was very smart in terms of the character and acting. He really understood the film, I think really better than probably any other member of the cast. And we got along great. I mean, I was going through difficult times
Speaker 1 00:02:09 And I'm going to cut out a little here because Jeno detailed some personal problems he was having at home in his marriage. And he asked me to keep that private,
Speaker 2 00:02:17 Personal, difficult problems, which I kept secret, but he could tell, okay. But we got along great in terms of the field. I mean, he nailed the character immediately and he nailed his relationship with gene Seymour immediately too. And he was just a joy, you know? I mean, he was such a, he was just a great actor. And then he was a very interesting human being, you know, with great dry sense of humor. We laughed a lot,
Speaker 0 00:02:53 Smiling. Okay. Seems appropriate. Rather handsome, got mad. If you don't manage, I'll keep an eye on him. I'm sure you will. Is he the one William? Is he only, you can tell it's
Speaker 1 00:03:20 A little bit of a thankless role if you know what I mean?
Speaker 2 00:03:23 Yeah. It is. Well, to tell you the truth, there was more, uh, you know what, you know, when he's a little bit drunk and he starts making that big speech that was much longer. And, uh, it was caught a lot and that heard it because it was one of his best scenes. I was against it and I tried to fight it. But Verna and Steve storage, they, they said the scene was too long and they were not entirely wrong. The scene was too long, but anyhow, I think that kind of, yes. That's why I think, do you feel that there's something missing in that character? There was more,
Speaker 1 00:04:02 That kind of does help, but, but on the whole, it's just, uh, I don't know. He's just, you know, he's, he's the, he's the impediment. So you don't, so you don't like it, you know, but he, but he's gotta be there at the same time.
Speaker 2 00:04:13 Yeah, well, yeah, but he, he was not dislikable. He was, uh, he, I mean, that's why I was impressed by what he did. He made it saddle, you know, he didn't make it. Uh, of course he stood in the way of our wonderful romantic lovers, but he was an interesting proponent. I don't know. That's the best I can explain it.
Speaker 1 00:04:38 And that's the, and that's what he can do with, with that part, I think. And there's, there's just, I think there's just the one scene where you can tell that he actually loves Elise, but you really only see it in his eyes.
Speaker 2 00:04:51 Yes. But that's the way it was written by the way. Yeah. And that was a little bit deliberate because we didn't want to model the water's. Okay. Because it opens up a whole bunch of cans of piece. It was like that from the beginning. And I liked that because I think that if he's left was much more present, then her reaction would be totally different. And her relationship with him wouldn't be totally different. How was he cast for the role? I don't remember. I think we were talking and then he was everybody thought it was a great idea. I didn't know whether you would want to do it or not, but he did. Why? Well, because I didn't think it was a great part to tell you the truth. I thought it was an interesting part. Yeah. But it, wasn't not a flamboyant part, but you know what? He did great with it. I said, we need, from the beginning, I felt we need a really good actor because he's in love with her, but that's kind of remain secret for gene Seymour. Yeah. We need a really good actor. And then his name. I don't remember exactly how his name came up.
Speaker 2 00:05:59 I think I'm sorry. I'm eating per chip. I think he added complexity.
Speaker 1 00:06:07 What kind of chips do you eat in France?
Speaker 2 00:06:09 Oh, they've got great stuff here. They got stuff called trees. Look, the food here is fantastic. The one thing I'm doing is I'm eating very well. And I cook for myself right now. It's kind of sad because all the cafes and restaurants are closed. Yeah. And I haven't been able to, you know, at the beginning I had a great lifestyle. I'd stay here for a month or so. And then I go to England for a couple of weeks, but I hadn't been able to do that because of the COVID. I hadn't seen my wife and my youngest son in since Christmas
Speaker 0 00:06:46 Now, tomorrow night's performance. Remember, stay ahead of them. Keep the mystery, always district access control.
Speaker 2 00:07:00 He was, I mean, I loved working with him. He had such a presence, man. The minute he was there, she was totally there. I mean, he was good. He was just good and professional. And he knew his craft. He was a real craftsman, which, you know, um, was refreshing. He never asked stupid questions. He never, you know, uh, he always knew basically. I mean, the questions were basically above the scene in some of that, but he understood that their character immediately,
Speaker 1 00:07:33 Uh, as a, as a director, how did you, how did you work with them then? What, what kinds of discussions did you have about the, the role for instance, or, or how did he take direction when you gave it to him?
Speaker 2 00:07:46 Oh, great. No problem. But you know, whenever I, I used to direct, I used to always give directions. I never gave all my directions at once. I used to do it a little bit at a time and usually it's my new stuff, you know? And then the step you're dealing with an actor that has a totally, a Rooney as, you know, a concept of the scene and he's doing something totally wrong, but he never did that. But then it was just small adjustments because I always had the whole picture in my head. So when he asked me why I would explain it to him, you know, because of this happens later and stuff like that,
Speaker 1 00:08:30 The cast and crew on Mackinaw Island that summer, they were, they were tight knit. They worked together very well. I've heard that he kind of stayed aloof from that. Is that true?
Speaker 2 00:08:40 Yeah, he was, he was private. It was not a looseness. It was just that he liked his privacy. He was a private person. He didn't like to make, send the, you know, go to big parties and do shit like that.
Speaker 1 00:08:52 That make it difficult for the cast and crew think, well, it didn't,
Speaker 2 00:08:56 I accepted it. Okay. I didn't think he was a snob or anything like that. I understood. He was just private and he was, he liked to be alone. Also. He was older than the rest of the class. Uh, but I accepted it. It didn't bother me. I didn't know that it brought that other people talk like that.
Speaker 1 00:09:20 And, and did you see that the New York times headline for his obituary was, uh, Christopher Plummer, star of the sound of music dies at, at, at, you know, I, I think it must have made him roll over in his grave if he had been buried.
Speaker 2 00:09:39 Yeah. But I read that he came up piece. We talked about that by the way he heard that we, yeah, I told him, I said, Chris, it's a huge hit worldwide. I don't know. There was something about it. He didn't like, maybe he thought it was too. Uh, well, you know, there's something very phony about the movie. There's no doubt about it, but I liked it. The magic worked for me, but I was aware that a lot of it was phony
Speaker 1 00:10:04 And it's
Speaker 2 00:10:06 Small, you know? So the way they portray that period, it was much, much darker man. And much, much more intense with the Nazis and all that.
Speaker 1 00:10:18 No, you don't steal the Nazis carburetor or whatever and
Speaker 2 00:10:21 Oh no. Wait, so Nazis, uh, peace Nazis. Yeah.
Speaker 1 00:10:25 Yeah. And yeah. It's yeah, I don't, I actually don't think it's a very good movie.
Speaker 2 00:10:30 He knows something. I saw the movie late. It was huge shit. And I kind of succumb to the magic. It is not a very good movie and it is very saccharin, you know, but in a strange way it works. And I think a lot of the credit of why it works is Juliet
Speaker 1 00:10:50 Man. She was, you know, three years in a row. She was the star of the number one box office hit in the United States with a sound of music and Mary Poppins and then Hawaii, which is a movie most people are forgotten about. Yeah. So, so you said that Chris came to Christopher plumber came to, uh, have, have some peace about it.
Speaker 2 00:11:08 Well, I read in some of these, a bits in an interview, he said that finally, he came to terms with it. He didn't hate it as much. Yeah. When I talked to him during the retreat, he really hated the picture. I mean, he didn't even want to talk about it, but he was honest. He said to her, look, I always regretted doing it.
Speaker 1 00:11:29 Uh, is there anything more about Christopher plumber or can I leave you to your delicious chips and France?
Speaker 2 00:11:35 No, look already. It is look, he was a great actor and I thought he was a very interesting N N N valuables human being. I don't know if valuable is the right word. I know he liked his privacy, but that never bothered me because I'm a little bit like that too. I mean, I, I'm almost like a hermit here now that I can go to England, you know, but he was, I tell you, he was a real actor, you know? No bullshit. I mean, he had the craft, he had the gift and I think he had the passion for the nichey, you know, even in whatever he did, he did it entirely. He committed. He didn't hold back.
Speaker 0 00:12:20 You have any notion. How many is I have been with Ms. McKenna since March of 1903, 1903. That's correct. She was 16 at the time they asked you why didn't she stay? You're not total radiant. It totally took seconds for me to realize exactly what she had to be. Mrs. Robinson, do you actually believe that I have nurtured had cared for, have molded taught, developed, have for all these years mainly to grow my wife, what? That star only someone with limited awareness of your age could possibly conceive that my top passion for this woman, there's no law than physical or you incapable of understanding that she has it within herself to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest actress of her generation, I owe you an apology. I understand you now you have nothing but the best motives in mind for her. But so do I, of course, you'll continue to act. She will continue to grow and she will become everything you want her to be. You let her say yes with me at her side. God you'd really think you own her. Don't you call it. Yes. I know who you are ever. Since you came here, I have known from the stop you came to destroy, right? You're out of your mind.
Speaker 2 00:14:48 Alrighty. Thank you.
Speaker 1 00:14:52 I am well, and I really appreciate your talking with me. Thanks so much.
Speaker 2 00:14:57 Okay. Take care. I'll be in touch
Speaker 1 00:15:04 Somewhere in time. Directors Genos bark on the line with me from France callback yesterday is produced, written, recorded and directed by me. John Raby. Our theme music is performed by the van Dyke parks and our logo was made by Michael Yulin caught additional support from Bermudez projects in Los Angeles. Join me soon for the next episode of call back yesterday.
Speaker 2 00:15:25 Thanks for listening. <inaudible>.