sir christopher lee
Ian Berriman pays tribute to Sir Christopher Lee, who died in June
Remembering one of the all- time genre greats.
Sir Christopher Lee met his end many times on the big screen, but death was usually little more than a temporary inconvenience. As Dracula, he was disintegrated by sunlight; impaled by wagon wheel, gravestone and fencepost; set alight by lightning strike. But the only thing which could finally finish off the Count was Lee’s own growing disdain for the role. The cause of the actor’s death was more prosaic – complications related to respiratory problems and heart failure – and horribly permanent. But in his passing he’s achieved a more meaningful immortality than his Transylvanian alter ego: a position in the pantheon of great British actors.
Lee would wince, of course, on reading a tribute that associates him with the part that thrust him into the full glare of the public spotlight. And that’s understandable. Lee lived a remarkable life, and Dracula was just one of hundreds of roles in a career spanning 67 years.
Born in 1922, Lee had a privileged upbringing – until his banker stepfather went bankrupt. His mother was an Italian Contessa from a dynasty descended from Charlemagne, first Holy Roman Emperor; but for the rules of primogeniture he would have been a Count. Young Christopher learnt to ride a horse and shoot pheasant; just failing to make the grade for an Eton scholarship, he boarded at Wellington College, Berkshire. Lee’s start in life was the perfect preparation for the patrician parts that later came his way, and ensured he was at home in elevated circles: holidaying with his friend Paul ( billionaire Jean Paul Getty); hanging out with Hugh Hefner; playing golf with the Count of Barcelona.
After school came service. Much of Lee’s war was spent in Africa. A career as a pilot stalled due to a suspect optic nerve. But adventure was not in short supply: he shot at wild boar from a galloping horse; he was pursued by a pack of angry baboons. He ran from bombs as they ripped apart a Libyan airstrip and, as part of a role building dossiers on war crimes, visited Auschwitz and Birkenau.
After demob, it was an Italian cousin who suggested Lee try acting – and helped him get a foot in the door at Rank. Future Bond director Terence Young gave him his first role, in 1948’ s Corridor Of Mirrors, and there was a decent part in Scott Of The Antarctic. Other jobs were less impressive: he was a stand- in for screen tests, and was loaned to a repertory theatre in Worthing. Then Rank
unceremoniously dropped him. “Too tall, too foreign looking,” was the explanation. Fortunately, while his towering 6’ 4” height and brooding Mediterranean looks were an obstacle to leading man roles, they made him a perfect fit for the Sinister Foreigner.
The part which changed the direction of his life came at 34, when Hammer asked Lee’s agent to find a statuesque actor to play the creature in 1957’ s The Curse Of Frankenstein. It came down to Lee or future Carry On star Bernard Bresslaw. Bresslaw wanted too much money, so Lee got the gig. He approached it thoughtfully, deciding that, “my hands must have independent life and my movements must be sudden and unbalanced”. Though buried beneath mortician’s wax, rubber and cotton wool, he still managed to inspire pity as well as fear.
He applied the same serious- mindedness to 1959’ s The Mummy, as the bandaged avenger stalking the infidels who desecrated his beloved’s tomb. In between painfully crashing through scenery, “F- ing and blinding away at the top of my voice” as he did ( since his mouth couldn’t be seen) Lee skilfully conveyed sadness and longing via his eyes. Years later he explained his approach to playing these monsters: “Beneath the grotesque exterior, each one struggles with a very humanising dilemma.”
He applied that same philosophy to the part that made him a horror icon: Dracula. Reading Bram Stoker’s novel, he decided, “here’s a man who is romantic, erotic and heroic: that’s the way I should play him”. Nowadays it’s taken as read that vampires are sexy; not so in 1958. Lee’s charismatic Count, who seemed to bring victims under his thrall more by seduction than hypnosis, soon swept away the cobwebbed image of Bela Lugosi. Again, Lee strove to inject pathos. “I thought of Dracula as rather human, with a terrible solitude of evil.” The only fly in the ointment was the red contacts: “I was constantly crashing into people and falling over things.”
An Englishman abroad
The ’ 60s saw Lee working largely on the continent, settling in Switzerland for several years for tax reasons; it helped that he was a prodigious linguist. Not all these productions were the pinnacle of professionalism. Arriving to dub 1964’ s Castle Of The Living Dead, he was informed they’d lost all the sound. And on the release of Jess Franco’s Eugenie... The Story Of Her Journey Into Perversion, he was aghast to discover he’d been cut into takes where other actors were naked; what’s more, a woman in shot behind him was starkers; they’d covered her up whenever Franco shouted “Cut!”
When he returned to Britain, it was often for the company who made his name. He played “Mad Monk” Rasputin; he was High Priest to Ursula Andress’s She Who Must Be Obeyed; The Devil Rides Out saw him on the side of the angels for once, as occult expert the Duc de Richleau. But the role Hammer were most keen for him to play was Dracula.
Lee resisted manfully: eight years passed before resurrection in Dracula: Prince Of Darkness ( 1966). Lee claimed he despised Dracula’s dialogue so much that he refused to speak a word of it – though writer Jimmy
“His career should have been winding down, but his Hammer typecasting had a silver lining”
Sangster insisted that he never wrote any. Either way, this most articulate of actors was reduced to spitting and snarling.
Five more outings followed; with each, Lee’s frustration increased. The third, Dracula Has Risen From The Grave, came about after Lee found the film had been pre- sold to the US with him attached. When the actor demurred, Hammer’s James Carreras resorted to emotional blackmail, phoning Lee to say, “I’m begging you to make these films, because if you don’t, think of the people you will put out of work: the technicians, the actors and actresses.” Understandably, resentment grew.
Lee also wanted to honour Stoker by staying faithful to his work. Appalled by a speech in Dracula AD 1972 that suggested Dracula was Satan, he vetoed it. On both that film and The Satanic Rites Of Dracula he inserted lines paraphrasing passages from the novel. The bonkers plot of the latter, in which the Count plans to wipe out humanity with bubonic plague, was the final straw. Afterwards, he baldly declared: “I will not play that character anymore. I no longer wish to do it.” Dracula was, finally, dead.
Two of Lee’s most memorable roles swiftly followed. In 1973’ s The Wicker Man, Lee played Lord Summerisle, leader of a pagan society at whose hands Edward Woodward’s policeman meets a sticky end… Urbane and articulate, possessed of a wry sense of humour, and driven by sincerely held beliefs, Summerisle was, as director Robin Hardy put it, “a different kind of villain”. The role was specially tailored for him by writer Anthony Shaffer, a friend who’d promised to write the disgruntled Lee “an intelligent horror film”. “Lord Summerisle,” Lee later explained, “in his way of talking and sense of humour… is really an amalgam of Anthony Shaffer, Robin Hardy and Christopher Lee.”
Then came triple- nippled assassin Scaramanga in 1974’ s The Man With The Golden Gun. A Bond part could have come sooner: 007 creator Ian Fleming was Lee’s step- cousin, and in 1962 pressed producers to cast him as Dr No. Perhaps it was for the best that they didn’t, since Lee enjoyed that director Guy Hamilton encouraged him to approach the killer like “a boy with a toy”, bringing out a lighter side. “He got the Dracula out of me,” Lee said. Not that he left the Count behind entirely... filming in Thailand, Lee and Roger Moore entered a cave; on seeing bats in flight, Lee jokingly cried, “Back Stanislaw! Not now!”
The one thing which had eluded Lee was Hollywood success, so in 1977 he upped sticks to try his luck in LA. The resulting roles were not of the first order: he died again in disaster movie Airport ’ 77; played the leader of a gang of gay Hell’s Angels; and was the Duke of Edinburgh in a Charles and Di TV movie. He did work for Spielberg… but on comedy flop 1941. LA life didn’t agree with Lee either, and the mid-’ 80s found him back home in Blighty.
Leaving on a high
As Lee’s life entered its third act, his career should have been winding down, but his Hammer typecasting had a silver lining, as a generation of directors had grown up loving those performances. Joe Dante cast Lee as a mad professor in 1990’ s Gremlins 2; Tim Burton followed suit with 1999’ s Sleepy Hollow. Then, in 2000, two giant roles followed. Playing Sith Lord Count Dooku in Attack Of The Clones brought Lee his first, bewildering experience of green- screen work – and treated us to the sight of the 78- year- old actor whirling and twirling as he duelled with a somersaulting CGI Yoda.
Landing a Lord Of The Rings role was a particular joy for Lee, who read the book every year and had long dreamed of playing Gandalf; though now too old, he was happy with the consolation prize of sorcerer Saruman – especially as Peter Jackson’s attention to detail matched his own. These two parts introduced Lee to a new audience who’d never seen him staked. Finally, the long shadow cast by Dracula was fading away.
Christopher Lee was the last of a generation of horror greats; his passing brings the curtain down on an era. He’ll probably be remembered rather differently to his friend Peter Cushing. Whereas Cushing accepted his lot with equanimity, Lee’s desire to stretch himself could create the impression that he was prickly or pompous. And while Cushing was every Hammer fan’s fantasy grandfather, someone you might share a buttered scone with in a Whitstable tea shop, Lee, with his erudite interests and establishment connections, was out of reach; an object of awe.
Friends and colleagues saw other sides to him. Stories abound of on- set larking about: filming Frankenstein, he and Cushing performed impromptu musical numbers and sang snatches of opera. He was still at it in Middle- earth, showing off the knife- throwing skills acquired as a boy; Dominic Monaghan fondly recalls how Lee “threw a Bic pen into a tree in front of me.” Sir Christopher Lee demanded respect – and won it. But if we’d had more opportunities to see beyond that imposing, sometimes austere public image, we’d have grown to love him a little more too. Christopher Lee, 27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015
Happy times with his friend and frequent co- star Peter Cushing. As the sinister Duc de Richleau in The Devil Rides Out. Really getting into the pagan thing in The Wicker Man.
An assassin that’s second to none… Saruman was a dream role for Lee. In his most iconic role – complete with red contact lenses.