Today brings the sad news that Sir Christopher Lee, a cinematic icon and the man behind many a legendary screen villain (among other things), has passed away some two weeks after he celebrated his 93rd birthday.
Lee was hospitalized recently for respiratory problems and heart failure, before he passed away at Westminster Hospital in London on Sunday, June 7th, 2015. Gitte Kroencke, who has been married to Lee since 1961, decided to (understandably) postpone releasing the news to the general public, so that she might contact the other members of Lee’s family directly first.
Lee was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee on May 27th, 1922 in Belgravia, London, to Liteutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee (a member of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps) and his wife Contessa Estelle Marie. Lee started doing stage acting even when he was a child; he later served during WWII as a member of the Royal Air Force and Special Forces – spending a year in an infamous Finland winter campaign. Lee never spoke fully about his activities during the second World War, but it’s said that he may have served as a spy for the Allies.
Standing at 6 foot 5 inches tall and with a deep, elegant, voice befitting his stature, Lee cast a long shadow on the big screen when he started acting during the late 1940s, beginning with his film debut in the Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors. He was incredibly prolific over the course of a screen acting career that spanned nearly seventy years, though it was his many, many villain turns that cemented Lee’s place in movie history. On the subject of playing antagonists, Lee once said:
“ ‘Good’ people … being persistently noble can become rather uninteresting. There is a dark side in all of us. And for us ‘bad’ people, the bad side dominates. I think there is a great sadness in villains, and I have tried to put that across. We cannot stop ourselves doing what we are doing.”
Lee really began to establish his legacy as a villain actor when he appeared in Hammer horror films during the late 1950s and ’60s, starting with his performance as ‘The Creature’ in The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957. He went on to play Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958) and the namesake of The Mummy (1959), before going on to reprise as Dracula onscreen several more times (until Lee at last decided to ‘retire’ as the iconic vampire), including in the films Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1969), Count Dracula and Scars of Dracula (both released in 1970).
During the 1950s and ’60s, Lee continued to appear in other movies that fall in either the supernatural horror and/or macabre mystery genre. That includes literary adaptations The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960); non-Dracula vampire films like Uncle Was a Vampire (1959) and Crypt of the Vampire (1964); and Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966), where Lee headlined as Grigori Rasputin. (Interesting bit of trivia: Lee was a child when he met real-life Rasputin’s assassins, Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.)
The actor’s fondness for playing unscrupulous and otherwise foreboding characters didn’t wane over the years either, as he also went on to portray the famous baddie Fu Manchu several times onscreen, starting with The Face of Fu Manchu in 1965. Lee also costarred in the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man; played the devious Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers: Milady’s Revenge (1974); and he portrayed the James Bond antagonist Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974. (Another bit of trivia about Lee’s fascinating life: he became step-cousin to James Bond creator Ian Fleming as a kid, after Lee’s birth parents divorced and his mother married Fleming’s uncle, Harcourt George St-Croix Rose.)
He ceased to pull back on his workload during the last quarter of the 20th century too, frequently appearing in multiple films (or TV movies) every year, adding Hollywood titles such as Steven Spielberg’s WWII comedy 1941, 1980s cult classic fantasy The Last Unicorn, and horror-comedy sequel Gremlins 2: The New Batch to his belt. During the ’90s, Lee appeared in such noteworthy TV programs as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (where he played – what else – a villain), as well as historical literature adventure series Ivanhoe and The New Adventures of Robin Hood. He also made a cameo in Tim Burton’s Hammer horror film homage Sleepy Hollow in 1999, before Lee’s career famously gained a second wind in the 2000s.
A whole new generation ‘discovered’ Lee in the 21st century, thanks to his performance as Saruman the White in Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth film trilogies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Lee also famously portrayed Force-using antagonist Count Dooku in the second and third installments of George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel movie trilogy. He also collaborated several more times with Burton, making appearances in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Dark Shadows (2012) while also lending his voice to Corpse Bride (2005) and providing the vocals for The Jabberwocky in Alice in Wonderland (2010).
On the subject of acting, Lee offer the following insight to The Guardian in 2013:
“Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.”
That passion and dedication to his craft shone throughout Lee’s acting career, earning him countless fans who appreciated his work and were always excited when he made an appearance onscreen. Lee was just as fascinating and dignified a person in real-life as so many of the intimidating villain types he portrayed on the big screen, ensuring that film buffs (and people in general) won’t be forgetting him anytime soon. Nor, for that matter, will his impact on cinema fade for years to come.
And now, as a final salute to the awesomeness of Sir Christopher Lee, we present his symphonic metal version of “The Blood of the Saxon Men” from his album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross (recorded in 2010):
R.I.P. Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee: May 27th, 1922 – June 7th, 2015.