Christopher Lee obituary in “The Guardian” in 2015
Sir Christopher Lee, who has died aged 93, achieved his international following through playing monsters and villains. In his 30s, he was Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s creature; in his 80s, Count Dooku in Star Wars and the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Along the way he was Rasputin, Fu Manchu several times and Scaramanga – the man with the golden gun – opposite Roger Moore as a weak 007, whom Lee did something to offset. For the last of these he was paid £40,000 – his highest fee, among hundreds of screen appearances, until the blockbusters of his later years. “The Bonds get the big money, and they save on the heavies,” he said.
Lee became an actor almost by accident. Through birth and education he seemed a more likely candidate for the diplomatic ladder, but he never reached the first rung. His father, Geoffrey, a colonel much decorated in the first world war, wrecked through gambling his marriage to Estelle, the daughter of the Italian Marquis de Sarzano, and a society beauty of the 1920s. Christopher was born in Belgravia, London. His education at Wellington college, Berkshire, ended abruptly at 17, and he had to get along on the pittance of a City clerk.
But the second world war might be said to have rescued him, making him an intelligence officer with an RAF squadron through north Africa and Italy. At the end, he was seconded for a period with a unit investigating war crimes. Though demobbed with the rank of lieutenant, he had suffered a psychological trauma in training and was never a pilot. In his later civilian life he was endlessly required to fly as a passenger, and it was barely a consolation to him having his film contracts stipulate that he travel first class.
Without previous aspirations or natural talent for acting, except a pleasing dark baritone voice that he exercised in song at home and abroad every day of his life, he was pushed towards film by one of his influential Italian relatives, Nicolò Carandini, then president of the Alitalia airline, who backed the suggestion with a chat to the Italian head of Two Cities Films, Filippo del Giudice. Lee was put on a seven-year contract by the Rank entertainment group, with the executive who signed it saying: “Why is Filippo wasting my time with a man who is too tall to be an actor?”
His height – 6ft 4in, kept upright by his lofty temperament and fondness for playing off scratch in pro-am golf tournaments – actually proved helpful in securing him the parts for which he had the most affinity: authority figures. He lent a severe and commanding presence to James I of Aragon in The Disputation (1986), the Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973), Ramses II in Moses (1995), the cardinal in L’Avaro (1990), a high priest in She (1965), the Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Ivanhoe (1958) and the Duc in The Devil Rides Out (1968).
He shared his aptness for sinister material with two friends who lived near his London home in a Chelsea square: the writer of occult thrillers Dennis Wheatley and the actor Boris Karloff. The latter once cheered him up when Lee was overloaded with horror roles, remarking, “Types are continually in work.”
Lee initially studied method acting at Rank’s “charm school”, where he was supposed to spend six months of the year in rep. But floundering at the Connaught in Worthing, and humiliated by audience laughter when he put his hand through a window supposedly made of glass, he recognised that the theatre was not his metier and never went near the stage again. Perhaps the most useful coaching Rank gave him was in swordplay: across his career he fought in more screen duels than opponents such as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks put together.Play VideoPlayCurrent Time 0:00/Duration Time0:00Loaded: 0%Progress: 0%FullscreenMuteEmbedFacebookTwitterPinterest Sir Christopher Lee, veteran horror film actor, has died at the age of 93 after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure
Terence Young gave Christopher his first – and minimal – chance before the film cameras in Corridor of Mirrors (1948). Over the next 10 years, he played secondary and anonymous characters in a miscellany of mostly low-budget British films. This had a lasting effect into his later years: he would accept virtually any role. The film that lifted him out of obscurity, and showed him to Times Square as a 50ft-tall vampire, was the Hammer production of Dracula in 1958. It cost £82,000 and earned £26m, of which Christopher’s take was £750. It was the first time he and Peter Cushing worked together, in a pairing that lasted through 22 films.
It was often said in the film business that it was not easy to make friends with Lee. But he always knew his part, and he was always in the right place, so that he was at any rate approved of by the cameramen. Furthermore, three other actors who also enjoyed sinister roles in exploitation movies kept a quartet of friendship with him: Cushing, Karloff and Vincent Price.Advertisement
Lee’s particular difference as Dracula lay in his height and powerful showing, and his terrifying presence even when no words had been written for him. But while admitting that Dracula had been his cornerstone, he eventually left the role to others, and later regretted letting himself in for so many of the vampire’s increasingly absurd adventures.
He took work wherever he could find it, including five times as Fu Manchu. When he could not find roles in Britain, he cast about in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. His ability to say his lines in their languages was a great advantage when it came to dubbing. He became the first actor to play both Sherlock Holmes and, for the director Billy Wilder in 1970, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. While shooting by Loch Ness in Scotland, Wilder remarked to him, as they walked in the twilight by the spooky stretch of dark water with bats wheeling about: “You must feel quite at home here.”
Supporting roles in action pictures – as a Nazi officer, a western gunman and a pirate – extended not only his portfolio but also the range of lead actors who were his idols. Among them was Burt Lancaster, whose example as his own stunt man Lee strove to emulate. Lancaster once warned him against journalists: “Never let them get too close.” Lee liked to give interviews, but resented the results, since they invariably harped on about Dracula despite his protestations that he had left the “prince of darkness” behind.
Given this attitude, he rather surprisingly gave me, a journalist, the job of ghostwriting his autobiography, which was published in 1977 as Tall, Dark and Gruesome. In 2003, after he had played several roles a year for 25 more years, we updated the story as Lord of Misrule.
Lee had come nearest to producing something lasting for the cinema in 1973, playing the pagan Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. With a marvellous script by Anthony Shaffer, and despite almost no money for production, it was a rare horror film that proved to have a long life. Lee was prevented by injury from taking the role of Sir Lachlan Morrison in a sequel, The Wicker Tree (2011), though he made a cameo appearance as “Old Gentleman”.
After the high-profile part in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), Lee – at the urging of Wilder – left Britain for Hollywood. America delivered some of his hopes. On the downside was the disaster film Airport 77; on the upside, a completely unexpected comic success hosting Saturday Night Live on TV, with such stars as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In among the 40 jobs he undertook in the 1970s, Lee’s sword and sorcery, murder and spook movies made way for his roles as a U-boat captain in Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), a Hell’s Angel biker in Serial (1980) and, back in Europe, the studied interpretation of the executioner Charles-Henri Sanson as a dandy, for a 1989 French TV history of the Revolution. Lee was fascinated by public executions. His move to the US allowed him the opportunity to see the electric chair firsthand, in a similarly detached mood of inquiry with which he had previously invited England’s last hangman to come to his house and talk about his own career. One of his favourite pastimes was visiting Scotland Yard’s Black Museum.
He worked on tirelessly, becoming a familiar figure in the studios of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Balkans, the Baltic and Russia; he also made films in Pakistan and New Zealand, and in 2000 he struck a touching figure as the butler Flay in the BBC TV production of Gormenghast.
The 21st century saw a major reinvigoration of his reputation – first in the Star Wars prequels, and then even more significantly as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film sequence of The Lord of the Rings. He was upset when Jackson cut his scenes in the theatrical edition of the trilogy’s final instalment, The Return of the King (2003), but their rift was healed when the scenes were restored in the extended editions on DVD. At last, in his 80s, Lee was earning six figures. He reprised the role in The Hobbit films.
Nonetheless, one of the roles for which he was most proud was a low-budget assignment: the arduous – and politically precarious – challenge of playing the title role in Jinnah (1998). Though Lee worked with all due seriousness and admiration for the founder of Pakistan (and looked remarkably like him), he had to be constantly under armed guard because of an abusive press campaign against the producers for associating the father of the nation with Dracula; the Pakistan government eventually caved in to the pressure and withdrew its funding for the film. The end product was well reviewed; Lee himself thought it his best achievement, though not everybody would agree.
Still, at home he was becoming the nation’s darling. Tim Burton fitted him into small parts in five films and was on stage to introduce him when Lee won a Bafta fellowship award for lifetime achievement in 2011. A BFI fellowship in 2013 was presented to him by Johnny Depp. In France, he was made a commander of arts and letters; he was likewise honoured in Berlin. He was made CBE in 2001 and knighted in 2009. A prolific schedule of film appearances continued and most recently he had taken the lead role in the comedy Angels in Notting Hill.
He is survived by his wife, Gitte (nee Kroencke), whom he married in 1961, and their daughter, Christina.
• Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, actor, born 27 May 1922; died 7 June 2015Topics