In a career which includes substantial roles in each of the dramatic arts, Plummer is best known to film audiences as the aristocratic widower, Captain Georg von Trapp, in the musical film The Sound of Music (1965), alongside Julie Andrews. Plummer has ventured into various television projects, including the miniseries The Thorn Birds (1983). Plummer has notably portrayed several historical figures, including Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington in Waterloo (1970), Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Mike Wallace in The Insider (1999), and Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009).
Plummer has won numerous awards and accolades for his work, including an Academy Award, two Emmy Awards, two Tony Awards, a Golden Globe Award, a SAG Award, and a BAFTA Award. With his win at age 82 in 2012 for Beginners, Plummer is the oldest person ever to win an Academy Award for acting.
Plummer was born on December 13, 1929 in Toronto, Ontario, the only child of Isabella Mary (née Abbott), who was secretary to the Dean of Sciences at McGill University, and John Orme Plummer, who sold stocks and securities. Through his mother, Plummer is a great-grandson of Canadian prime minister and former McGill law dean Sir John Abbott, and a great-great-grandson of Anglican clergyman and McGill president John Bethune. His father's uncle was patent lawyer and agent F. B. Fetherstonhaugh. Plummer's parents were divorced shortly after his birth, and he was brought up at the Abbott family home in Senneville, Quebec, outside Montreal. He is bilingual, speaking English and French fluently. Plummer is a second cousin of actor Nigel Bruce, the British actor, best known as Doctor Watson to Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes, and of Bruce's brother, Sir Michael Bruce, baronet and journalist.
He had studied to be a concert pianist, but developed a love for the theatre at an early age. He began acting while he was living on Pine Avenue in Montreal and attending Montreal High. He attended McGill, at which time he also took up acting, after watching Laurence Olivier's film Henry V (1944).
In 1946, his performance as Mr. Darcy in the production of Pride and Prejudice at Montreal High brought Christopher Plummer to the attention of Herbert Whittaker, the theatre critic of the Montreal Gazette. Whittaker, who was also amateur stage director of the Montreal Repertory Theatre, cast Plummer, aged 18, as Oedipus in Cocteau's La Machine infernale.
Plummer made his Broadway debut in January 1953 in The Starcross Story, a show that closed on opening night. His next Broadway appearance, Home is the Hero, lasted 30 performances from September to October 1954. He appeared in support of Broadway legend Katharine Cornell and film legend Tyrone Power in The Dark is Light Enough, which lasted 69 performances from February to April 1955. The play toured several cities, with Plummer serving as Power's understudy. Later that same year, he appeared in his first Broadway hit, opposite Julie Harris (who won a Tony Award) in Jean Anouilh's The Lark. After appearing in Night of the Auk, which was not a success, Plummer appeared in Elia Kazan's successful Broadway production of Archibald MacLeish's Pulitzer Prize-winning play J.B.; Plummer was nominated for his first Tony as Best Actor in Play. (J.B. also won Tonys as Best Play and for Kazan's direction.)
Plummer appeared less frequently on Broadway in the 1960s as he moved from New York to London. He appeared in the title role in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which did not succeed, but he had a great success in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun, playing conquistador Francisco Pizarro to David Carradine's Tony Award-nominated Atahuallpa. (In the 1969 film adaptation, Plummer would take the title role.) From May to June 1973, he appeared on Broadway as the title character in Cyrano, a musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac by Anthony Burgess and Michael J. Lewis. For that performance, Plummer won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. Later that year, he played Anton Chekhov in Neil Simon's adaptation of several Chekhov short stories, The Good Doctor.
In the 1980s, he appeared on Broadway in two Shakespearean tragedies, Othello, playing Iago to James Earl Jones' Moor, and the title role in Macbeth with Glenda Jackson playing his lady. His Iago brought him another Tony nomination. He appeared with Jason Robards in the 1994 revival of Harold Pinter's No Man's Land and had great success in 1997 in Barrymore, which he also toured with after a successful Broadway run. His turn as John Barrymore brought him his second Tony Award (this time as Best Actor in Play) and a Drama Desk Award as Outstanding Actor in a Play. He was nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for his 2004 King Lear and for a Tony playing Henry Drummond in the 2007 revival of Inherit the Wind.
Plummer made his debut at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 1956, playing the title role in Henry V, which subsequently was performed that year at the Edinburgh Festival. He played the title role in Hamlet and Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at Stratford in 1957. The following year, he played Leontes in The Winter's Tale, Bardolph, in Henry IV, Part 1, and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. In 1960, he played Philip the Bastard in King John and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. In 1962, he played the title roles in both Cyrano de Bergerac and Macbeth, returning in 1967 to play Mark Antony in Antony and Cleopatra.
In 2002, he appeared in a lauded production of King Lear, directed by Jonathan Miller. The production successfully transferred to New York City's Lincoln Center in 2004. He returned to the stage at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in August 2008 in a critically acclaimed performance as Julius Caesar in George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra directed by Tony winner Des McAnuff; this production was videotaped and shown in high-definition in Canadian cinemas on January 31, 2009 (with an encore presentation on February 23, 2009) and broadcast on April 4, 2009 on Bravo! in Canada. Plummer returned to the Stratford Festival in the summer of 2010 in The Tempest as the lead character, Prospero (also videotaped and shown in high-def in cinemas), and again in the summer of 2012 in the one-man show, A Word or Two, an autobiographical exploration of his love of literature. In 2014, Plummer presented A Word or Two again, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
In April 1961, he appeared as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He also appeared with the RSC in May 1961 in the lead role of Richard III. He made his London debut on June 11, 1961, playing King Henry II in Jean Anouilh's Becket with the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, directed by Peter Hall. The production later transferred to the Globe for a December 1961 to April 1962 run. For his performance, Plummer won the Evening Standard Award for Best Actor.
From June 1971 to January 1972, he appeared at the National Theatre, acting in repertory for the season. The plays he appeared in were Jean Giraudoux's Amphitryon 38 directed by Laurence Olivier; Georg Büchner's Danton's Death (director Jonathan Miller); Adrian Mitchell's Tyger; Luigi Pirandello's The Rules of the Game; and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night at the New Theatre in London.
Edward Everett Horton hired Plummer to appear as Gerard in the 1953 road show production of André Roussin's Nina, a role originated on Broadway by David Niven in 1951. He appeared as Jason opposite Dame Judith Anderson in Robinson Jeffers' adaptation of Medea at the Theatre Sara Bernhardt in Paris in 1955. The American National Theatre and Academy production, directed by Guthrie McClintic, was part of Le Festival International.
Also in 1955, he played Mark Antony in Julius Caesar and Ferdinand in The Tempest at the American Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Connecticut). He returned to the American Shakespeare Festival in 1981 to play the title role in Henry V.
Plummer appeared in Lovers and Madmen at the Opera House, Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C. in 1973 and in Love and Master Will at the same venue in 1975. Love and Master Will consisted of selections from the works of William Shakespeare on the subject of love, arranged by Plummer. His co-stars were Zoe Caldwell, Bibi Andersson and Leonard Nimoy. Plummer played "Edgar" in E. L. Doctorow's Drinks before Dinner with the New York Shakespeare Festival at the Public/Newman Theatre in New York City in 1978.
Plummer's film career began in 1958 when Sidney Lumet cast him as a young writer in Stage Struck. That same year, he also appeared in Nicholas Ray's film of Budd Schulberg's Wind Across the Everglades, playing the lead.
He did not appear on screen again for six years, until he played the Emperor Commodus in Anthony Mann's epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).
His next film, the Oscar-winning The Sound of Music, made cinematic history, becoming the all-time top-grossing film, eclipsing Gone With the Wind.
He was in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), then played World War Two agent Eddie Chapman in Triple Cross (1966) and had a support role as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in The Night of the Generals (1967). Plummer was cast to replace Rex Harrison for the film adaptation of Doctor Dolittle. This decision was later reversed, but Plummer was nonetheless paid $87,500 for signing the contract. At the same time, Plummer was performing in the stage play The Royal Hunt of the Sun and his whole Dolittle participation was so brief that Plummer never missed a performance.
He had the title role in Oedipus the King (1968) and The High Commissioner (1968), playing an Australian in the latter. Plummer was one of many stars in Battle of Britain (1969) and was Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969).
Plummer had the lead in a musical, Lock Up Your Daughters (1969) and was the Duke of Wellington in Waterloo (1970). The Pyx (1973) was his first Canadian film.
Other movies Plummer appeared in were The Man Who Would Be King (1975) (playing Rudyard Kipling), The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), The Silent Partner (1978), International Velvet (1978), Murder by Decree (1979) (playing Sherlock Holmes), Somewhere in Time (1980), Eyewitness (1981), Dragnet (1987), Shadow Dancing (1988), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Malcolm X (1992), Wolf (1994), Dolores Claiborne (1995), 12 Monkeys (1995), Syriana (2005), The New World (2005), The Lake House (2006) and Remember (2015).
One of Plummer's most critically acclaimed roles was that of television journalist Mike Wallace in Michael Mann's biographical film The Insider (1999), for which he was honoured with several critics' awards for Best Supporting Actor, though a corresponding Academy Award nomination did not materialize.
In January 2010, Plummer received his first Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of author Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station (2009). Speaking to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in an interview that aired on March 7, 2010, Plummer added, tongue-in-cheek, "Well, I said it's about time! I mean, I'm 80 years old, for God's sake. Have mercy." On Oscar night, March 7, 2010, however, he lost to Christoph Waltz.
Plummer received his second nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Beginners (2011), and was announced as the winner at the 84th Academy Awards. Plummer's win made him, at age 82, the oldest actor to win an Academy Award. When he accepted the award, he quipped "You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?".
Other recent successes include his roles as Dr. Rosen in Ron Howard's Academy Award-winning A Beautiful Mind (2001), Arthur Case in Spike Lee's film Inside Man (2006), and the philosopher Aristotle in Alexander, alongside Colin Farrell. In 2004, Plummer played John Adams Gates in National Treasure.
Plummer has also done some voice work, such as his role of Henri the pigeon in An American Tail (1986), the villainous Grand Duke of Owls in Rock-a-Doodle (1991), the antagonistic Charles Muntz in Up (2009), and the elder leader 1 in the Tim Burton-produced action/science fiction film 9 (2009). He also served as the narrator in Philip Saville's film The Gospel of John (2003).
In 1963, he was the subject of a short National Film Board of Canada documentary, 30 Minutes, Mister Plummer, directed by Anne Claire Poirier.
In 2011, he appeared in the feature-length documentary The Captains. The film, written and directed by William Shatner, sees Shatner interview Plummer at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Theatre where they talk about their young careers, long lasting friendship, and Plummer's role as Chang in Star Trek VI. The film references that Shatner, two years Plummer's junior, was the other's understudy in a production of Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. When Plummer had fallen ill, Shatner took the stage, earning his first big break.
Owing to the box office success and continued popularity of The Sound of Music (1965), Plummer remains widely known for his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp, a role he later described as "so awful and sentimental and gooey". He found all aspects of making the film, except working with Andrews, unpleasant and avoids using its name, instead calling it "that movie", "S&M", or "The Sound of Mucus". He declined to attend the 40th Anniversary cast reunion, but did provide commentary on the 2005 DVD release. Plummer relented in 2010 for the 45th anniversary, and appeared with the full cast on The Oprah Winfrey Show on October 28, 2010. In this show, it was also revealed that the cast is very close to each other even after all this time.
In 2009, Plummer said of the film and his role that he was "...a bit bored with the character. Although we worked hard enough to make him interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse. And the subject matter is not mine. I mean, it can't appeal to every person in the world." However, Plummer admits the film itself was well made and, despite his reservations, is proud to be associated with a film with such mass appeal. "The world has seen [The Sound of Music] so many times. And there's a whole new generation every year—poor kids—that have to sit through it [laughs]. But it was a very well-made movie, and it's a family movie and we haven't seen a family movie, I don't think, on that scale for ages. I don't mind that. It just happened to be not my particular cup of tea." His singing voice was mostly dubbed by Bill Lee.
Plummer made his television debut in the February 1953 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation production of Othello, starring Lorne Greene as the Moor. He appeared regularly on American television throughout the 1950s, appearing on both dramatic showcase programs like The Alcoa Hour, General Electric Theater, Kraft Television Theatre and Omnibus and episodic series. In 1956, he appeared with Jason Robards and Constance Ford in an episode entitled "A Thief There Was" of CBS's anthology series Appointment with Adventure.
In 1958, he appeared in the live television drama Little Moon of Alban with Julie Harris, for which he received his first Emmy Award nomination. He also appeared with Harris in the 1958 television adaptation of Johnny Belinda and played Torvald Helmer to Harris' Nora in a 1959 television version of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House.
He also starred in the television adaptations of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story (1959), George Bernard Shaw's Captain Brassbound's Conversion (1960), Jean Anouilh's Time Remembered (playing the role of Prince Albert originated by Richard Burton on Broadway), and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1962). In 1964, his performance of the Gloomy Dane in the BBC production Hamlet at Elsinore garnered his second Emmy nomination. Another notable play in which he appeared was the 1974 adaptation of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, in which he played Quentin (a part originated on Broadway by Jason Robards) opposite Faye Dunaway's Maggie.
He appeared in almost 100 television roles, including appearances as Herod Antipas in Jesus of Nazareth, the five-time Emmy Award-winning The Thorn Birds, the Emmy-winning Nuremberg, the Emmy-winning Little Moon of Alban and the Emmy-winning The Moneychangers (for which he won his first Emmy Award as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series).
He co-starred in American Tragedy as F. Lee Bailey (for which he received a Golden Globe Award nomination), and appeared in Four Minute Mile, Miracle Planet, and a documentary by Ric Burns about Eugene O'Neill. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his performance in Our Fathers and reunited with Julie Andrews for a television production of On Golden Pond. He was the narrator for The Gospel of John. He also co-starred with Gregory Peck in The Scarlet and The Black.
He narrated the animated television series Madeline, for which he received an Emmy Award, as well as the animated television series David the Gnome.
Plummer has also written for the stage, television and the concert-hall. He and Sir Neville Marriner rearranged Shakespeare's Henry V with Sir William Walton's music as a concert piece. They recorded the work with Marriner's chamber orchestra the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. He performed it and other works with the New York Philharmonic and symphony orchestras of London, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Philadelphia, Chicago Minneapolis, Toronto, Vancouver and Halifax. With Marriner he made his Carnegie Hall debut in his own arrangements of Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
In 2000, he reprised his role from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country in the video game Star Trek: Klingon Academy. In 2011, he provided the voice of Arngeir, leader of the Greybeards, in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Plummer has won many honours in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States and Austria. He was the first winner of Canada's Genie Award, for Best Actor in Murder by Decree (1980) and has received three other Genie nominations. Plummer has won two Tony Awards (from seven nominations), and two Emmy Awards (six nominations) in the United States, and Great Britain's Evening Standard Awards.
In 1968, he was invested as Companion of the Order of Canada, at the time among Canada's highest civilian honours. In 2001, he received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement, Canada's highest honour in the performing arts. He was made an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts at New York's Juilliard School and has received honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, McGill University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Ottawa, and most recently the University of Guelph. Plummer was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1986 and into Canada's Walk of Fame in Toronto in 1998.
His awards include the following:London Evening Standard Award as Best Actor (1961), for his portrayal of King Henry II in the stage play Becket
Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical (1974), for his lead role in Cyrano
Emmy Award (1976), as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series for Arthur Hailey's The Moneychangers
Genie Award (1980), for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in Murder by Decree
Emmy Award (1994), for Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance for his work on the Family Channel's Madeline children's series
Edwin Booth Lifetime Achievement Award (1997)
Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play (1997), for his lead role in Barrymore
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award (1999) for The Insider
Boston Society of Film Critics Award (1999) for The Insider
Jason Robards Award for Excellence in Theatre (2002)
Golden Globe Award (2012) Best Supporting Actor for Beginners
Academy Award (2012) Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Beginners
Canadian Screen Award for Lifetime Achievement (2016)
Plummer has been married three times. Plummer was married to the actress Tammy Grimes for four years from 1956. The couple had a daughter, Amanda (born 1957), an acclaimed actress in her own right, but (as he mentions in his autobiography) he had no contact with her during her early and teenage years. They now maintain a friendly relationship. Plummer was married to journalist Patricia Lewis from May 4, 1962, until their divorce in 1967. He and his third wife, British dancer and actress Elaine Taylor, dated since 1968, got married on October 2, 1970 and live in a 100-year-old converted farm house in Weston, Connecticut. In 2015, Plummer sold his Connecticut estate for $11.2 million.
Plummer's memoir, In Spite of Myself, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in November 2008. Plummer is a patron of Theatre Museum Canada.