It’s an incredibly sad day for genre cinema, cinema in general, and the world at large — Christopher Lee, the always reliable veteran of 281 film and television projects, has died of heart failure at the age of 93.
How does one even begin to encapsulate how important Christopher Lee has been to movies? He was perhaps the last remaining figure from the horror film icons of the 20th century, a group that included Peter Cushing, Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, and Vincent Price. In truth, Lee, like those other men, never eschewed the horror genre or his place in it; he had long been a defender and proponent of sci-fi/fantasy/horror and his appearance could add legitimacy to even the cheesiest of productions. He was and is genre royalty, and by all accounts was one of the kindest men anyone could hope to meet.
Born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, he was the son of a career military officer and a part-Italian contessa. His parents separated when he was young and his mother took his sister and him to live in Switzerland. Lee later joined the Finnish forces against the Soviet Union in 1939 and eventually joined the Royal Air Force, serving with British Intelligence during WWII.
After the war, he began his film career in 1947’s Corridor of Mirrors, a Gothic romance directed by future Bond director Terence Young, That same year he appeared briefly, uncredited, in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet. While he appeared in more than 30 films over the next decade, none of them showcased Lee very much, and it wasn’t until he agreed to appear in a non-speaking but pivotal role in a Hammer Film that his career changed drastically.
Lee starred opposite Peter Cushing, the first of their dozens of screen pairings, in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, a very loose adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel. Being a rather imposing 6’5″, Lee was cast, under lots of makeup, as the creature to Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein. Although he doesn’t appear until well into the film, he made his mark immediately, giving the small part the gravitas he brought to everything.
The following year, he made his first true mark on films as the title role in Hammer’s Dracula, known in the United States as Horror of Dracula. Though, again, he had few lines and limited screen time in the very loose adaptation, playing monster to Cushing’s heroic Dr. Van Helsing, Lee quickly became the most iconic Count Dracula in history, second only to Bela Lugosi.
Lee’s Dracula was undoubtedly sexier, giving the handsome young actor the chance to fix his seductive gave upon young, bosomy victims, as the below clip illustrates.
Lee would play the Count nine more times in his career, mostly for Hammer, but would appear with much more to say and do in other Hammer productions. Some of his best performances were in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll; The Devil Rides Out, in which he got to play one of his few heroes; and The Hound of the Baskervilles as the menaced Sir Henry Baskerville opposite Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes and Andre Morell’s Dr. Watson. Lee would eventually play Sherlock Holmes himself in 1962 and 1992, and Mycroft Holmes in 1970.
There are truly too many good performances by Christopher Lee to name. He was Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga in 1974’s The Man with the Golden Gun; Lord Summerisle in 1973’s The Wicker Man, one of his favorite roles; Rochefort in several Three Musketeers films; and he even got to play the Mummy in a film of the same name.
Lee never stopped working, right up to the end. In his later years, a new generation of fans got to know him as two incredibly iconic screen villains: Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films. Lee was famously a cousin of J.R.R. Tolkien and proudly claimed to have read the novels every year since they were published.
If all of that weren’t already testament to his greatness, he started making heavy metal music in 2006 at the age of 84. That’s when he STARTED making heavy metal music.
His voice, his visage, his very presence left an incomparable mark on film and television. There will truly never be another Christopher Lee. I will miss him greatly, as I’m sure most of you will too.
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FEATURED IMAGE: The Peter Cushing Appreciation Society UK