‘Drac­ula’ ac­tor Christo­pher Lee

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Den­nis McLel­lan obits@la­times.com Den­nis McLel­lan is a for­mer Times staff writer.

The Bri­tish star, who spent decades hon­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for dark roles, has died at 93.

With ter­ror and evil as his defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics, Christo­pher Lee spent decades chis­el­ing out a dark rep­u­ta­tion by the time he ap­peared on “Satur­day Night Live.”

Still, the 1978 ap­pear­ance proved to be a turn­ing point in the vet­eran hor­ror ac­tor’s ca­reer.

“That was the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing I ever did in my ca­reer,” Lee said in an in­ter­view with the Star-Ledger of Ne­wark, N.J., in 2000. “Sud­denly peo­ple re­al­ized — this ac­tor, we’ve seen him play­ing some mys­te­ri­ous char­ac­ters over the years, but he can be funny too.”

Among those in the au­di­ence was Steven Spiel­berg, who cast the English ac­tor in the movie “1941,” push­ing Lee in a new di­rec­tion and open­ing up a boun­ti­ful sec­ond chap­ter for an ac­tor who be­came a hor­ror movie icon in the 1950s with his mem­o­rable por­tray­als of Count Drac­ula.

Lee, who went on to ap­pear in the block­buster “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings” films, died in Lon­don of undis­closed causes, the Royal Bor­ough of Kens­ing­ton and Chelsea re­ported Thurs­day. He was 93. In a ca­reer that spanned more than 60 years, be­gin­ning with bit parts in Eng­land in the late 1940s, Lee was known by the mid-1960s as “one of the screen’s fore­most pur­vey­ors of evil and ter­ror,” hav­ing played roles such as Franken­stein’s mon­ster, the Mummy and Rasputin the Mad Monk.

Direc­tor Tim Bur­ton, who cast Lee in sev­eral films, once de­scribed him as “one of the last real icons, a fig­ure out of an­other age, not just an­other movie age. To my gen­er­a­tion, he was Drac­ula and all of them.”

Lee was still a rel­a­tively un­known char­ac­ter ac­tor in Bri­tain when he played his first hor­ror role for Ham­mer Film Pro­duc­tions: the grue­some crea­ture in “The Curse of Franken­stein,” a 1957 film star­ring Peter Cush­ing, who would be­come Lee’s fre­quent co-star.

A year later, the tow­er­ing 6-foot-4 ac­tor with a voice that has been de­scribed as a “solemn, aris­to­cratic bari­tone” gained in­ter­na­tional fame as the blood-suck­ing vam­pire in Ham­mer Films’ “Hor­ror of Drac­ula.”

Billed as “THE TER­RI­FY­ING LOVER WHO DIED … YET LIVED!” the film pre­sented Drac­ula as a sex sym­bol, a noc­tur­nal preda­tor who awak­ened his fe­male vic­tims’ sex­ual de­sires.

“With his eyes ablaze and eye­teeth bared, his aris­to­cratic nos­trils flar­ing, and his cloak clutched tight about him like the wings of a gi­ant bat trapped in mid­flight, Lee made Drac­ula his own as no ac­tor had be­fore him,” De­nis Meikle wrote in his book “A His­tory of Hor­rors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Ham­mer.”

Lee once cred­ited three films “for bring­ing me to the fore” as an ac­tor, all of them re­makes of clas­sic films: “A Tale of Two Cities” (1958), in which he played the vil­lain­ous mar­quis; “The Curse of Franken­stein” and “Hor­ror of Drac­ula.”

But “Hor­ror of Drac­ula,” ti­tled “Drac­ula” in Bri­tain, was “the one that made the dif­fer­ence.”

“It brought me a name, a fan club and a sec­ond­hand car [a Mercedes-Benz], for all of which I was grate­ful,” he wrote in “Tall, Dark and Grue­some,” his 1977 au­tobi- og­ra­phy. “It also, if I may be for­given for say­ing so, brought me the bless­ing of Lu­cifer, the third and fi­nal nail in my cof­fin.

“Count Drac­ula might es­cape, but not the ac­tors who play him.”

Lee went on to co-star with Boris Karloff in “Cor­ri­dors of Blood” in 1958 and to star in films such as “The Mummy,” “The Face of Fu Manchu,” “Cas­tle of the Living Dead,” “Crypt of the Vam­pire” and “I, Mon­ster.”

He also played the 1962 ti­tle role in “Sher­lock Holmes and the Deadly Neck­lace.”

But he re­mained closely iden­ti­fied with Drac­ula, a char­ac­ter he reprised in 1966 with “Drac­ula: Prince of Dark­ness” and in a string of other films, in­clud­ing “Taste the Blood of Drac­ula” (1970) and “The Sa­tanic Rites of Drac­ula” (1973).

“They had re­ally dis­in­te­grated by then,” Lee said in the 2000 Star-Ledger in­ter­view. “I did the last four un­der protest.”

He cred­ited direc­tor Billy Wilder with open­ing the door to other roles when Wilder cast him as Sher­lock Holmes’ brother, My­croft, in the 1970 film “The Pri­vate Life of Sher­lock Holmes.”

Lee played the leader of a pa­gan com­mu­nity in his most fre­quently cited fa­vorite film, “The Wicker Man,” an off­beat 1973 thriller set on a re­mote Scot­tish is­land.

A role as a one-eyed vil­lain in direc­tor Richard Lester’s “The Three Mus­ke­teers” (1973) led to his be­ing cast as the ruth­less as­sas­sin Fran­cisco Scara­manga in the 1974 James Bond movie “The Man With the Golden Gun.”

Lee, who spent 10 years living in Los An­ge­les in the 1970s and early ’80s, ap­peared in “Air­port ’77” and played a gay biker in “Se­rial,” a 1980 New Age com­edy set in Marin County.

Lee’s le­gion of fans in­cluded di­rec­tors who cast him in their films, in­clud­ing Spiel­berg, Joe Dante (“Grem­lins II”), and Bur­ton (“Sleepy Hol­low,” “Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory,” “Alice in Won­der­land” — as the voice of the Jab­ber­wock — and “Dark Shad­ows.”)

In a me­dia book in­ter­view for “Sleepy Hol­low,” Bur­ton said that “Christo­pher is hyp­notic. He just looks at you with his eyes and you are com­pelled.”

“Sleepy Hol­low” star Johnny Depp said: “Christo­pher is truly a force to be reck­oned with. Do­ing a scene with him and hav­ing him peer­ing down at you, scream­ing into your face, all you can think of is ‘My God, that’s Drac­ula!’ ”

The son of a lieu­tenant colonel in the 60th King’s Royal Ri­fle Corps and an Ital­ian countess, he was born Christo­pher Frank Caran­dini Lee in Lon­don on May 27, 1922.

His par­ents sep­a­rated when he was 4 and di­vorced two years later. His mother later mar­ried a banker who went bank­rupt when Lee was a teenager.

At 10, he be­came a boarder at Sum­mer Fields prep school in Ox­ford, where he acted in school pro­duc­tions with Pa­trick Macnee, who later gained fame as the star of the Bri­tish TV se­ries “The Avengers.”

A clas­si­cal scholar in Greek and Latin at Welling­ton Col­lege, Lee worked as a ship­ping com­pany of­fice boy and mes­sen­ger in Lon­don be­fore serv­ing in the Royal Air Force and spend­ing time as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer dur­ing World War II.

Af­ter the war, he fol­lowed the sug­ges­tion of his mother’s sec­ond cousin — the Ital­ian am­bas­sador to Bri­tain — that he be­come an ac­tor. He quickly found him­self among a group of am­a­teurs un­der con­tract with the Rank Or­ga­ni­za­tion, which pro­vided act­ing train­ing in the film com­pany’s so­called Charm School.

Lee made his film de­but in 1948 with a one-line part in “Cor­ri­dor of Mir­rors.”

Over the decades, he amassed more than 275 film and TV cred­its. Af­ter be­ing knighted by Prince Charles at a cer­e­mony in Buck­ing­ham Palace in 2009, Lee told Bri­tain’s the Tele­graph that a “whole new ca­reer opened” for him in the new cen­tury when he ap­peared as the wiz­ard Saru­man in direc­tor Peter Jack­son’s “The Lord of the Rings” and as Count Dooku in Ge­orge Lu­cas’ “Star Wars” films.

In 1961, Lee mar­ried Dan­ish model Bir­git “Gitte” Kroencke, with whom he had a daugh­ter, Christina.

New Line Cinema

‘THE LORD OF THE RINGS’ Though Christo­pher Lee played such roles as Saru­man, above, and was Fran­cisco Scara­manga in “The Man With the Golden Gun,” he achieved last­ing fame play­ing Drac­ula in the Ham­mer Films se­ries.

Mick Hut­son Red­ferns

LONG CA­REER Lee of­ten said “Wicker Man” was a fa­vorite film.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.