sir christo­pher lee

Ian Ber­ri­man pays trib­ute to Sir Christo­pher Lee, who died in June

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Contents -

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.

Af­ter Drac­ula

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.

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