(This article originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in June of 2015 on the site GeekPr0n.com. Gone but not forgotten.)
Today marks what would have been Christopher Lee’s ninety-eighth birthday. It’s been almost five years since his passing and it is still hard to accept. Christopher Lee gave us numerous reasons to assume he would never leave us. Lee portrayed creatures resurrected from the grave, all-powerful wizards, omnificent demons, timeless vampires, and anthropomorphic personifications of death itself. These are associations that lend an air of permanence to a man. Couple this with a 70 year career in front of the camera, an unwillingness to slow down, and a masterful stage presence even in his 90’s. Can we be blamed for taking his presence as a given?
Lee was the last of the grand masters of horror. As the babe of the group, he had outlived his contemporaries, co-stars, and friends including Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, John Carradine, and Bela Lugosi. Like the others on that list, Lee brought class, grace, and dignity to the roles he took on. Perhaps this is why Lee’s credits more often than not included an honorific. On camera Lee has been referred to as Count, Doctor, Lord, Major, Baron, Commander, Captain, Prince, Pastor, Constable, King, and Professor among many others.
Christopher Lee is one of the world’s most prolific actors having appeared in over 280 movie roles. Words cannot do justice to his film career. The only appropriate tribute is to go back and enjoy his work. What follows is a sampling of some of Lee’s more interesting roles. Some will be very familiar. A few may come as a surprise. Seek out some of the films mentioned and bask in Lee’s performance. Share them with others. That is the means by which Christopher Lee obtains his deserved immortality.
- Spear Carrier – Hamlet (1948)
Although he was not credited in the film, one of Christopher Lee’s first onscreen performances was as a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet. Criterion Collection reviewer Matthew Dessem believes that to be Christopher Lee in the background of the shot above. An auspicious, if small, start for the young actor.
- The Creature – The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
The Curse of Frankenstein is significant as Christopher Lee’s first role for British production company, Hammer Films. Hammer Films is best known for its series of “Hammer Horror” films of which Lee became a significant part. The Curse of Frankenstein also marks the first time Lee co-starred with Peter Cushing, who plays Victor Frankenstein. Lee and Cushing would appear in over twenty pictures together and became close friends.
- Count Dracula – Horror of Dracula (1958) and a host of others
In 1931 Bela Lugosi took on the role of Count Dracula in the Universal Pictures production of Dracula. Lugosi made the role his own and to this day is most closely associated with the character. However, if ever a contender could dethrone Lugosi, it was Christopher Lee. Christopher Lee’s 1958 performance as Dracula for Hammer Films was extremely popular and lead to Lee portraying the Count in six more Hammer Horror films and a couple films produced by other studios.
- Kharis – The Mummy (1959)
Hammer Horror’s very successful business model hinged, at least initially, on producing gothic remakes of the horror films released by Universal Pictures in the previous decades. Through no fault of his own, Lee could not escape being compared to Boris Karloff for his roles in The Curse of Frankenstein, The Face of Fu Manchu, and The Mummy. Far from resenting the comparison, Lee greatly admired Karloff and in later years the two became neighbours and friends. In a letter to Karloff’s widow upon the senior actor’s death, Lee expressed a desire to follow Karloff’s example as both an entertainer and a person.
- Fu Manchu – The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and four sequels
Fu Manchu has fallen from public favour due to the characters association with the “Yellow Peril” paranoia and a general consensus that the character is insulting to Asians and Asian-Americans. It is a bit of a shame because, if you strip away the Asian stereotypes, the character is a foreboding and interesting super villain. Lee’s portrayal of the evil criminal genius was instilled with the dark menace that made Lee such a popular fiend.
- Grigori Rasputin – Rasputin the Mad Monk (1966)
Christopher Lee portrayed Rasputin, the mystic-healer and family friend to the last Tsar of Russia in this semi-biographic film from Hammer Films. Given the legendary charisma and hypnotic eyes of Rasputin, casting Lee must have seemed like the obvious choice.
- Lord Summerisle – The Wicker Man (1973)
The Wicker Man was a personal favourite of Lee’s. He played Lord Summerisle, who leads the islanders of a remote Scottish island to forsake Christian beliefs. The islanders instead turn to pagan rituals in the hopes of appeasing Celtic gods. Not surprisingly, the devout Christian sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of a young girl is very disturbed by this turn of events.
- Rochefort – The Three Musketeers (1973) and two sequels
Lee, who was a trained fencer, portrayed Count de Rochefort in three films. The eyepatch wearing adversary of the musketeers was actually killed off in the second film (The Four Musketeers, 1974) when he found himself impaled on a sword during a duel. In the third film, however, Rochefort himself dismisses that minor detail.
- Francisco Scarmanga – The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
Going up against Roger Moore’s Bond, Lee portrayed skilled assassin, sharp-shooter, and third nipple owner, Scarmanga. Having portrayed so many villains, it was inevitable that Lee would eventually play the lead villain in a James Bond film. Based on the next entry, however, it might have been more appropriate for Lee to play the secret agent.
- Secret Agent – Special Operations Executive (circa 1939 – 1946)
No, that is not a movie role. Christopher Lee was a member of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British military organization during World War II. The SOE was formed to conduct espionage and sabotage. Lee admitted his association with the SOE but refrained from talking about it saying that they were “forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations.” Add to that the rather chilling story of how Lee explained to Peter Jackson the sound a man makes when he is stabbed in the back, and you have the start of a good spy novel.
- Doctor Catheter – Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Believe it or not, this is one of my favourite Christopher Lee roles. Gremlins 2 is basically a live action cartoon with Joe Dante poking fun at as many horror and science fiction tropes as he can think of. I enjoy Lee in the role of the corporate funded mad scientist because he seems to be legitimately having fun with it. Lee was always afraid of typecasting and was known to speak up when a film did not meet his standards. It is therefore nice to see that he could poke fun at himself.
- Heavy Metal Vocalist – Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross (2010), Charlemagne: The Omens of Death (2013), and multiple heavy metal Christmas EPs
Given Lee’s powerful baritone, I guess it is not surprising that he would be a capable singer. That heavy metal was his genre of choice might be a little more surprising. The fact that he released his first album at age 88 and followed it up with a sequel at age 91 is mind blowing. Lee is credited with being the oldest living performer to ever enter the Billboard music charts and the oldest performer in the history of heavy metal.
- Death – Soul Music (1997), Wyrd Sisters (1997), The Colour of Magic (2008)
The same year the DiscWorld lost its creator, Terry Pratchett, it’s personification of death was also silenced. Pratchett had described Death’s voice as hollow and arriving in your brain without actually passing through your ears. When it came time to voice Death in two animated programs and a live action mini-series, Christopher Lee was an obvious choice.
- Count Dooku – Star Wars (2002, 2005)
Ok. So maybe episodes II and III are not exactly our favourites. Being part of the franchise in any capacity is still pretty cool. When you are responsible for instigating the Clone Wars and played a key role in the creation of Darth Vader, you’ve got some serious street cred. Although a double was used for long shots requiring vigorous footwork, Lee reportedly performed most of the character’s swordplay (lightsaber-play?) himself. Remember, this was when he was in his eighties.
- Saruman – Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001 – 2003) and The Hobbit trilogy (2012 – 2014)
Many would say that Dracula was the role Lee was born to play. I would guess that Lee would name Saruman as the character most in line with his personal interests. Lee was an avid Tolkien fan who reportedly re-read The Lord of the Rings every year. He is also the only cast member from Peter Jackson’s movies to have actually met J. R. R. Tolkien. When he learned that Jackson was directing film adaptations of the novels, Lee sent Jackson a photo of himself dressed as a wizard with the note: “This is what I look like as a wizard, don’t forget this when you cast the movie.”
In Memoriam, Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee (May 27, 1922 – June 7, 2015)