Christopher Plummer on Muhammad Ali and Getting a Police Horse Drunk

The great Christopher Plummer on his film ‘Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,’ premiering Oct. 5 on HBO.

Christopher Plummer, the octogenarian star of stage and screen, is showing no signs of slowing down. He garnered his first Oscar nomination at age 80, and at 82, became the oldest Oscar winner in history for his dazzling turn as an elderly gay father in Beginners.

In Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, he plays John Marshall Harlan II, the Supreme Court justice who overheard the case of Muhammad Ali. Back in 1967, three years after winning the world heavyweight boxing title, Ali refused to be drafted to fight in the Vietnam War and was arrested on draft-evasion charges. He didn’t box for four years at the height of his career, until his appeal reached the Supreme Court, and was overturned in 1971. The film, directed by Stephen Frears, chronicles the legal battle to exonerate Ali, and also stars Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Danny Glover as Justice Thurgood Marshall. And Plummer is, as expected, excellent.

What attracted you to the film?

It was a terrifically interesting subject, which a lot of people don’t remember. The incident that did happen in the ‘60s—we all knew about it in England, where I was at the time, because the Vietnam War was on everybody’s mind. I didn’t realize, like everybody else at the time, that Muhammad Ali was really way ahead of his time. Here he was, having been treated in a bad way in this country, saying, “I have nothing against them. They never called me n-gger.” And it’s true. Anyone who was at all thinking thought it was an absolutely hopeless war. Muhammad realized the insanity of the Vietnam War and anticipated the unnecessary wars that followed.

Do you see parallels, as far as “unnecessary wars” are concerned, between then and now?

War is making money or it’s religious, isn’t? Either one or the other! But lately, we’ve gotten ourselves into a terrible mess with wars. It’s all mind-boggling to me. Muhammad, who certainly wasn’t a coward by any means, took the bull by the horns and said, “Sorry, guys.” I found John Harlan to be a very sympathetic, brave character who was living with all these diseases, and coping with a wife who was a victim of dementia, and yet he never complained. He was also very open and willing to listen to anyone, including his clerk, who persuaded him to change his vote.

What were you up to in the 1960s? I’ve read some fantastic tales of you, Peter O’Toole, and the gang.

The ‘60s was a terrible folly time as well as a dreamtime from London. All the top fashion designers and musicians were English, and it was the beginning of rock with The Beatles, so it was the swinging place to be. We behaved as we should in a swinging city. We swung a lot. It was like the last days of Pompeii. We were sure we weren’t going to make it into the ‘70s, so let’s really live it up while we can. I look back on it with absolute shock. Some of the films that we made, there was so much money lying around. Films took months to make because everybody was on the sauce all the time!

Any examples of movies you were on where you were thinking, “This set is crazy… is this movie ever going to get finished?”

Oh, it happened all the time but we didn’t give a damn because it was so pleasant. Our lunches were 2-3 hours of eating and drinking wine, and then we’d stumble back to the set half-cocked. I look at some films from the ‘60s and they are so slow—of course they were, we were all bombed! I didn’t do the drugs—I just stuck to friendly old booze. If you wanted to fall in love with yourself: drugs. But booze is more gregarious, and really loosened the tongue.

Any epic drinking tales?

My favorite times were with Peter O’Toole, and also Jason Robards—that was in New York in the ‘50s. Jason and I went out one night and a cop was on horseback in the Theater District, and this cop used to pop into the Palace Bar & Grill, which is what the pub was called, have a drink, and then get back to his horse to make his final rounds before the theaters closed. One night, Jason said, “Well, you’re not coming in here unless you bring your horse in.” So, they brought the cop’s horse in and we had a hell of a time getting it into this narrow, long room, and we ordered a bunch of Jack Daniel’s, gave the horse a big shot of Jack Daniel’s, and suddenly the cop realized, “Wait… I have to get this horse back on the street!” So we tried to get the horse out but there was no way to turn it around, so we had to take it out to the back, turn it around, and bring it out. It took forever. And the horse was pissed out of his skull! We found out a couple of years later that the cop had been promoted to captain, and we were positive that the horse was in a home for alcoholics. But that sort of stuff doesn’t happen anymore… everyone is so afraid, and careful.

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This film also deals with race. The 1960s was a terrible time to be black in America, and while we’ve come a long way, there’s still a great deal to be done.

We’ve come a long way but not far enough. Right now, there are people who hate Obama not just because they disagree with him, but also because he’s black. I know it. The race issue still exists on a very high level, and it’s disgusting. 

On a lighter note, your character in the film has an interesting eating habit: he eats two hard-boiled eggs a day. Do you have any strange eating rituals?

No, nothing like that! But when I work, I eat like fury because your emotions are swirling, and then I put on an awful lot of weight, but when I go home, I go back on a diet. I have a wife who’s a superb Cordon Bleu chef, and she’s so talented. A well-balanced diet is her thing.

Do you think that’s the key to why you’re in such good shape these days?

Yeah. When I met her in the late-’60s, she said, “You stop the hard stuff or I’m out of here.” She saved my life. I wasn’t a down-and-out drunk, but I was on my way to being really out of shape. She shamed me! She said, “Go and look at yourself in the mirror!” And I did and went, “Oh my God.” For someone who was vain, it was like suicide. So, I worked out. She was responsible for all that.

Now, the film also deals with the plight of a legendary boxer. Have you ever been in a big fistfight?

Me? No. I have been thrown out of bars and I’ve tried to defend myself outside in the alley, but I’ve always been too sloshed to be any good at fighting, and I usually end up on the floor. But George C. Scott, who I was very fond of and admired tremendously, was a good ol’ drinker, too. And you know how sinister he was! He’d just look at you and scare the hell out of you. But strangely enough, he was the one that started the fight but he’d always end up on the floor. He always lost! Me too. I’m like that.

I grew up with The Sound of Music, but watching The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it was really funny to see you as the patriarch of one of the worst families ever.

[Laughs] The Sound of Music feels like it was in the Middle Ages. That was 1965, and God almighty, I think I’ve done over 120 pictures. I was the only nice member of the family though in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. They were all such shits! And I was a saint. But God, everybody wants to talk about The Sound of Music. I never understand! The subject is inexhaustible, it seems!

Besides your wife’s excellent cooking, what’s been the key for you to stay so prolific and sharp as an actor? You’re the oldest Oscar winner, and only seem to be getting better with age.

[Laughs] I’m not fading! Good god, no. As long as I keep working, it keeps me young. I hope that I’m still acting in my 90s—if anybody will hire me!