LOS ANGELES — Christopher Plummer might be frozen in some filmgoers’ memories as the noble-browed patriarch who made stern parenting and anti-Nazism sexy in The Sound of Music.
But Plummer and his career aren’t mired in the past. Slipping easily from one disparate recent role to another, he’s created Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, the haunted magnate in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and a man experiencing a late-in-life gay awakening in Beginners, which earned him an Oscar last year at age 82.
That made him the oldest acting honoree ever, and he’s not stopping. He plays a U.S. Supreme Court justice in HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, debuting Saturday (8 p.m.), a history-textured film that puts the boxer’s quest to be recognized as a conscientious objector against Vietnam War service and the high court in the ring.
“I don’t think retirement exists in our profession,” said Plummer, looking every bit the star in elegant slacks and jacket, his white hair perfectly groomed. “If you retire, something’s gone very wrong with your career is my theory. Also, why would you want to retire? It’s fun to be in this weird, old, ancient, ancient profession.”
The Canadian-born Plummer heads the HBO film as John Harlan II, who was among the justices who decided in 1971 whether Ali’s conviction for refusing to be drafted because of his Muslim-based objections should be upheld or overturned.
The dynamic Ali is represented by the legend himself through news clips woven effectively into the drama. But the emphasis is on the camaraderie and give-and-take among the justices, including Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Danny Glover as Thurgood Marshall, the sole black justice.
Stephen Frears, an Oscar nominee for The Queen, directed, and the script is by Shawn Slovo (A World Apart).
The film is based on the book of the same name by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace, with additional research by Slovo.
The British-born Frears and Slovo, a native of South Africa, had to become familiar with details of the Ali case. But the United States’ social and political churn of the period certainly was known to them.
“I don’t think anybody of our generation could not have been engaged by what was happening in America,” Slovo said. “It was always something that felt real and immediate to me.”
The story resonated with Plummer because of Ali’s anti-war stance – “As he says, ‘Why should I fight them (the Vietnamese)? No one over there has called me (the N-word),’” Plummer said, quoting Ali – and Harlan’s intellectual metamorphosis.
His law clerk, a composite character played by Benjamin Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and Broadway’s “Inherit the Wind”), persuades him to take a second look at the case after it appears settled.
“One man, because he listened to somebody else, was intelligent and vulnerable enough to change his beliefs. That’s hugely dramatic to me,” Plummer said.
The cast members, mostly stage-trained actors including Fritz Weaver as Justice Hugo Black, were a joy, Plummer said: “We did feel like a club, the old boys’ club.”
He smiles delightedly at the mention of a scene in which the august justices gather to watch sex films as part of their determination of what constitutes pornography.
“It was great fun. Huge fun,” Plummer said. “Harlan is so naive: He keeps saying of the threesome (on-screen), ‘How’s it done? How incredible!’ That was a sweet scene.”
Also a boon was the chance to work with Frears. He compared him to another famed filmmaker, John Huston, who directed Plummer, Sean Connery and Michael Caine in 1975’s “The Man Who Would Be King.”
“Both those directors are so great because they give you such confidence. They’re with you, they’re a pal. That’s what a really fine director is,” Plummer said. “Not somebody who gets busy and says, ‘Maybe we should try it this way, or this way.’ They’re trying to justify their existence.”
No need for that with Plummer, Frears said.
“When actors act as good as Christopher, there’s nothing to say,” the director said.
Although Plummer is part of a very exclusive club whose members each have won Oscar, Emmy and Tony awards, he declines to pick out his most satisfying performance.
“None of them,” he responds quickly. “I always feel I can be a hundred times better.”
Even in the case of an Oscar-winning role?
“Yes, of course, God, yes,” Plummer said. “I can go on forever talking about other people’s films. But not necessarily mine.”