Sir Christopher Lee has been a feature of British cinema for more than fifty years, but sadly all great careers must come to an end. He died on Sunday 7th June 2015, but he left us with a lot of incredible performances.
Born in London on the 27th May 1922, Lee was the son of an English Lieutenant Colonel and an Italian Countess. There were a number of strange coincidences in Lee’s life: his birthday was one day before that of Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, and not only did Lee eventually play the villian Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun, but he was also related to Fleming by his mother’s second marriage. His most famous collaborations were with two other horror icons, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price – Price shared a birthday with Lee and Cushing’s birthday was the day before. He met the assassins of Rasputin long before he actually played Rasputin in Rasputin: the Mad Monk. He ran into J.R.R. Tolkein in a pub and gained his blessing to play Gandalf in any film adaptation of the books (eventually playing the villainous Saruman instead) and the ghost story writer M.R. James was on the interview panel when Lee applied for a scholarship to Eton – it would be sixty years before Lee would play James in a BBC adaptation of his ghost stories.
Despite being told he was too tall to be an actor, he went on to become one of the stars of the famous British horror studio, Hammer Films. He played Frankenstein’s Monster in the Hammer film The Curse of Frankenstein, with Peter Cushing as Dr Frankenstein, and the two became close friends, working together in twenty more films. His real break-out role was as Count Dracula in Hammer Films’ adaptation, in which he played Dracula as both charming and animalistic, and his nemesis Van Helsing was played by Cushing. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, he played Henry Baskerville, the nobleman beset by a demonic dog. In a desire to escape being typecast, he took on the role of Lord Summerisle in the cult British horror The Wicker Man, even working for free because the film’s budget was so small. He considers The Wicker Man his best film and Lord Summerisle his best role.
Since his popular Hammer horror years, Lee continued to play iconic characters such as Count Dooku in the Star Wars films, Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit adaptations and Mr Flay, a very creepy manservant, in the BBC adaptation of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. He was famous, like Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, for treating any film he worked on with the same respect, whether it was good or bad. Like Price, he inspired Tim Burton to cast him in a number of films, including Sleepy Hollow, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (as Willy Wonka’s estranged father), Alice in Wonderland (as the monstrous Jabberwock), Sweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street and The Corpse Bride.
Lee played a huge variety of roles, from Dracula to Death, and it is a strange coincidence that his death comes in the same year as Sir Terry Pratchett’s, when Lee provided probably the most iconic version of Terry Pratchett’s character Death in a number of adaptations of Pratchett’s ‘Discworld’ series. He once had to ask the king of Sweden for permission to marry a Countess (and got it), was a fencing champion and fought extensively in World War Two, as well as being in the Special Operations Executive and helping track down Nazi war criminals, he released two heavy metal albums and received the ‘Spirit of Metal’ award in 2010, was an accomplished opera singer, and he managed to celebrate his 93rd birthday only ten days before he died. One thing is for sure: there will not be anyone quite like him again.
To see some of Christopher Lee’s fantastic film work (or to enjoy some old favourites), try these…
The Wicker Man (DVD LOBBY 791.3) – a police officer travels to a remote Scottish island in search of the truth about a young girl’s disappearance, but discovers a cult run by the eerie Lord Summerisle. Much better than the more recent Nicholas Cage film.
The Hound of the Baskervilles (BOOK ZONE 823.91)- a ghostly dog and murder on the moors? Sherlock Holmes (Peter Cushing) is on the case…but will he be in time to save Henry Baskerville (Christopher Lee) from his ancestors’ fate? Even though the film strays very far from the book’s plot, it’s still a great gothic romp.
The Devil Rides Out (part of ‘The Best of Hammer Collection’, DVD LOBBY 791.43)- adapted by the late horror author Richard Matheson, a group of friends become the victims of a demon-worshipping cult. Lee plays the occult detective Nicholas, the Duke de Richelieu.
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy (both in the BOOK ZONE 823.91) – Peter Jackson made the genius choice to cast Lee as Saruman the White, a wizard who is pitted against Ian McKellan’s Gandalf. Make sure to see these two great actors go head to head!
Star Wars Epsiode II: Attack of the Clones (DVD LOBBY791.43) – Lee manages to bring a lot of dramatic weight to his role as Count Dooku, a Sith Lord.
Alice in Wonderland (DVD LOBBY 791.43) – Lee’s voice is the only bit of him in this Tim Burton adaptation, but he plays one of the most famous and frightening characters from Lewis Carroll’s books, the Jabberwock.
Gormenghast (BOOK ZONE 823.91) – Lee portrayed Mr Flay, the old and tradition-bound servant of Lord Sepulchrave, who is one of the few selfless characters in the series.
We couldn’t fit all of the incredible facts about Christopher Lee in this one post, so here are some more!