Christopher Plummer admits that there have been a few times in his career when he truly hated an audience. During performances at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (which spawned the production of "Othello," currently at the Warner Theatre, in which he plays Iago), he recalled, people would often come equipped with a text, which they would proceed to read during the performance.
"It's perfectly all right, I suppose, except that the moment you stop speaking, they look up, and when you start speaking they look down again. Very annoying.
"Once I got very angry with someone who was sitting in the front row. He was very conspicuous because he was also wearing this white suit. He looked fairly well-to-do, and I was very angry with him because he looked like a man who should know better. And I picked a moment at the end of a soliloquy -- it was at the end of an act in 'King John' -- and I flicked his book into the air with my sword. And I got a tremendous round of applause and the man left the theater immediately, to our great relief.
"But at the end he had left the sweetest and most apologetic note, apologizing for the fact that he didn't realize we could see him, apologizing for disturbing us, said he didn't know the play. I felt awful. I tried to search him out and write back, because I'd done a very violent act, and I found out he was in jail! He'd been in some diamond swindle, which sounded fascinating, and they'd thrown him into some prison without bail.
"So I gave up following these little incidents. I didn't want to know about people's lives, they sounded much more dramatic than what we were doing on stage. I was quite envious."
Christopher Plummer, it would seem, has little cause for envy. During his 35-year career he has earned a reputation as a major classical actor who is equally in demand in film. Having played such parts as Hamlet, Macbeth, Henry V, Mercutio, Oedipus, Cyrano and Richard III, as well as von Trapp in "The Sound of Music," he can be said to have sought and met the challenges of the acting profession. Furthermore, he has made his peace with that strange occupation, keeping one foot firmly planted in the nether world of imagination and theater, and the other in the "real" one.
"You certainly must throw yourself into another aspect of life, or interest, in order to save your sanity. And if you do that, it's really the most delightful profession to be in. Because the world itself, looking at it today, is not particularly fascinating. At least we have that escape to go to, and earn good money at it. We travel all over the world, we're treated like bloody royalty wherever we go, whether we deserve it or not. We see the world and get paid for it, and have fun."
He is of medium height, dressed in a sports shirt and slacks, loafers without socks, a gold chain around his neck. He has longish dark hair and a mustache he grew to make Iago look somewhat discontented and bitter, as well as militaristic. He is handsome, but his features appear stronger in photographs or on stage. His voice is low, resonant, like the purr of an engine idling.
At 51 he has full control of technique ("I know how to breathe, at last") and can use his body as the full agent of the mind. His Iago is a many-layered villain, fascinating and frightening, moving some audiences to hiss even while they gasp at his perfidy.
"It's wonderful when they hiss," he says. "That's part of what it's all about."
His interpretation of Iago was influenced somewhat by his reading of articles by Shakespearean scholar Wilson Knight, who posed the theory "of the ecstasy and purity of evil," Plummer says.
"He explains the Nietzschean philosophy on the growth of all the great villains into a kind of heroic stature and purity. He compares, for example, Hitler to Christ, Hitler achieving the same kind of purity through evil that Christ did through good. They could be reversed. Hitler could have been a Christ if he'd gone the other way, and Christ, indeed one is still not sure about Christ, could have gone the other way, too.
"There is a theory that you haven't really lived until you have killed, that you are not fully grown, fully pure, until you have killed . . . The same theory can apply to Iago, because in the end he comes on absolutely secure, reveling in his own purity through evil. The end is written rather flimsily by Mr. Shakespeare -- he has not given Iago many lines in the last scenes, so you have to supply a kind of radiance, which I try desperately to do. A sort of ecstasy through evil. He's done it, and he knows whether it's worth it or not, he's arrived. He's accomplished what he set out to do . . .
"He's also a thing. I like to think of him as a . . . spider. I certainly think he is the darker side of all our natures . . . If you suddenly took all Iago away, and gave his speeches to the various people he's speaking to, you'd find they are giving a soliloquy of the darker side of their own nature. Fascinating."
Plummer, a Canadian, went on the stage at 17 after a childhood in which he was taken often to concerts and plays. His mother, who was divorced from his father, was "artistic," and for a time headed the Canadian Handicrafts Guild.
"My family were very well-read people. My grandmother used to love reading aloud after dinner. This was before television had destroyed the mind . . . My whole upbringing was verse, poetry, books -- words. I studied the piano and imagined myself as a concert pianist. But my attraction to words was greater. It didn't require all that lonely torturous work, and I preferred it because it was giving of yourself and sharing yourself with others.
His father he never knew well. "Is he still alive?" he was asked.
"I don't know," he answered impassively.
"All these little personal questions. This article must be for women. This could all be a lie -- it's not, but no one would ever know anyway."
He has a daughter by his first marriage to Tammy Grimes. He saw little of her while she was growing up, he has said, since she was here and he was most often in Europe. The daughter, Amanda Plummer, is currently one of the sensations of Broadway, making her debut in a revival of "A Taste of Honey." He says he's proud of her, but maintains a "discreet distance." If her play is still running in January, they will both be playing on Broadway.
The actor he most respects is Ralph Richardson, not just for his artistry but for his "extreme interest in life." Richardson is the only role model he has among "the knights," "because I've known them all."
"He's the only person I absolutely adore and admire in life because he has so many resources; he's not just an actor, which I try not to be. He has his own publishing firm, and he's a motorcycle fanatic . . . he still rides his motorcycle at the age of 78. He has his own wonderful romantic madness about his performing when he's in top form that is extraordinary. He's someone who's come to terms with so many aspects of the actor's life, whereas most of the old actors I've met, and one tries to avoid being like them, become quite selfish, and lonely, having not thrown themselves early enough into the rest of life. One understands why, but it is possible to do both. I watch that carefully . . ."
His other life is focused on a consuming interest in real estate. With his wife, Elaine Taylor, he buys and restores old houses and then sells them. "My wife is extraordinarily good at decorating. I'm the one who says, 'Take that wall out' or 'Heighten that ceiling.' I choose all the floors. And I'm fascinated by landscaping, that's my new interest."
Over the years -- Plummer met his wife when they both had parts in "Lock Up Your Daughters," a film Peter Coe directed in 1961 -- they have done eight houses in Europe and this country, moving most recently into a home in Connecticut.
"I've never done one from scratch," he said. "But I'm determined to do that before I get too old and settled. It keeps you young, this work. We usually live a four- or five-year span in each house; the excitement of doing another one is always there."