Christopher Lee crammed a dozen lives into one. His Special Forces work in the Second World War remains shrouded in mystery. We do know that, in 1944, he climbed Vesuvius three days before it erupted. A fine, operatic singer, he famously released a heavy metal album in his later 80s. A skilled fencer, he performed all his own sword fights and has been killed on screen more than any actor in cinematic history. As a child Lee briefly encountered Prince Felix Yusupov, murderer of Rasputin, a part Lee would later of course play. Ian Fleming was a cousin, Muhammed Ali a friend and once dedicated a victory to Lee. Fluent in five languages, passable in another four, people like Lee don’t really exist anymore. In truth they probably never did.
One could write a lengthy, riveting biography of this remarkable man without ever mentioning his career as an actor. But it is as an actor that Christopher Lee shall ultimately be remembered. One of the greatest ever, one of the most iconic. Most actors are lucky to have a single celebrated role. Lee has multiple; Dracula the most famous, undoubtedly, but if Lee never played Dracula once he’d still be remembered as a horror legend. If he hadn’t played Saruman people would still marvel at his late career renaissance. If he never played Scaramanga we’d still think of Lee as the ultimate bad guy. Such was the richness and breadth of a truly astounding career, the like of which shall never be seen again.
To celebrate the life of a legend, we remember some of Lee’s most famous roles. All of them seem painfully obvious but excluding any would feel a hideous oversight. Hopefully some of the less documented, equally brilliant gems will surface in the comments section. And apologies for the notable absentees: Fu Manchu, Jinnah, Flay, Rochefort, Mr Midnight, and so many others. Roles that would be the bedrock of other career retrospectives don’t even make the cut. Anyway, let’s start the ball rolling…
Sorry Bela, hard luck Gary – Christopher Lee is the only Dracula who really counts. He first played the immortal bloodsucker in the 1958 Hammer Horror film, Dracula, opposite regular cinematic nemesis and close friend Peter Cushing. Today Dracula is considered one of the iconic studio’s most successful productions. Tall, dark and chiselled, with a voice richer than melted chocolate, Lee very much brought the sexy back to everybody’s favourite undead aristocrat. He’d have Edward Cullen before his first glass of Type-B and not even blink. He played the role seven times in total, ending with The Satanic Rites Of Dracula in 1973. The quality of the Dracula outings varied considerably, but Lee soldiered on, despite often criticising the finished product. He played other monsters for Hammer, notably the Mummy and Rasputin, but Dracula shall be his lasting memorial.
Lee enjoyed a lasting affinity with Sherlock Holmes. He remains the only actor to have played both Holmes brothers and Sir Henry Baskerville (he of the Hound). Although he is relegated to Mycroft in The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes, the film itself is considered one of the greatest cinematic Sherlocks and a major inspiration for the modern television series. Directed by the legendary Billy Wilder, it is a wistful, elegiac adventure greatly mauled on the editor’s desk. Lee is an unusually active Mycroft, not sulking around Diogenes Club but joining the boys up in Scotland and, ultimately, explaining the case to his little brother. Strangely for a career steeped in villainy, Lee never played Professor Moriarty on film.
Lee’s favourite role, and for many fans undoubtedly his greatest. The Wicker Man has been described as ‘the Citizen Kane of horror films’ and is considered perhaps the greatest British horror of all. However, despite the titles, Lee is a long way from his monstrous Dracula persona. Polite and charming, Summerisle appears a benevolent ruler over the island that bears his name. Could he be involved in the recent disappearance of a little girl? Investigating policeman Edward Woodward certainly has suspicions… The climax is rightly one of the most famous in all cinema. If you decide to watch one Christopher Lee film in his memory, this is the one he would choose (although, being an utter gentleman, I’m sure he wouldn’t care if you picked another).
Inevitably, Lee played a Bond villain. Inevitably, he was brilliant. Three-nippled Scaramanga lives on a private island, uses solid gold bullets, employs a psychotic midget manservant and makes love before every kill. What’s not to love? Lee brings his evil A-game, playing the hitman as kind of ‘Dark Bond’ – equally sophisticated, suave and deadly as 007. Scaramanga craves the killing of Bond as his crowning achievement; he even keeps a life-sized waxwork of Roger Moore in a distorted Funhouse. Meeting at a kickboxing match, sat next to a recently shot ex-girlfriend, Scaramanga tells Bond all about his childhood elephant. Perfection. The film itself – The Man With The Golden Gun – one of the weakest in the series, but Lee remains one of its strongest antagonists.
Saruman the White
Lee auditioned for Gandalf but, nearly 80, was considered too old for the part. Consolation arrived in the form of Saruman, the once-noble wizard fallen under the spell of Sauron. In a series heavy on CGI, Lee provided a much-needed physical evil, a human antagonist to counterbalance Sauron’s giant angry eye. His performance was lauded and elevated an already legendary actor to icon status. Peter Jackson recalls Lee displaying an ancient scar and remarking, “Errol Flynn gave me that.” A bridge between the Golden Age of Hollywood and its modern incarnation. Unforgivably, Saruman was cut from The Return Of The King but his final scenes survive on DVD. Surely one of the film’s eight endings could have been sacrificed?
Fair to say the Star Wars prequels aren’t universally loved. But they provided Lee with his second major franchise of the 21st century. Not bad for a man deep into his eighties. A once great Jedi in the thrall of an evil overlord, Count Dooku is basically Saruman with a lightsaber and a neater beard. He even played the same basic function: to balance the CGI with some good old fashioned acting. Naturally, he schooled Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan in a climactic lightsaber duel, taking on both Jedis simultaneously. Yoda proved more of a challenge… Had George Lucas made Lee the primary antagonist of the second trilogy, the films would certainly have benefited. Foolishly, Dooku was absent from the first prequel and killed off at the beginning of the third. At least this time he exited onscreen.
Obviously we’ve omitted some classics. Lots of classics. Share your favourite role of Sir Christopher’s below…
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