“I don’t want to sound gloomy, but at some point of your lives, every one of you will notice that you have in your life one person, one friend whom you love and care for very much. That person is so close to you that you are able to share some things only with him. For example, you can call that friend, and from the very first maniacal laugh or some other joke you will know who is at the other end of that line. We used to do that with him so often. And then when that person is gone, there will be nothing like that in your life ever again.”
That was how Christopher Lee described his long-time friend and frequent co-star Peter Cushing when he died in 1994.
The two shared the screen dozens of times, most notably in the Hammer Studios cycle of horror films. The words can also describe the man himself. Hammer had picked up on the popular movie monster when the Universal cycle had pretty much run out its string. Following in the footsteps of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney (both Sr. and Jr.), Lee was part of a next generation of horror film icons. Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee would become the horror giants who would pick up where the Universal greats left off. It started with Curse Of Frankenstein, but it was Dracula for whom he will always be remembered. Not surprisingly, Lee never cared for the term “horror film”. He would borrow a French description often used by Boris Karloff and referred to these films as “the theatre of the fantastique”
Of course, he made his first real impact in the role of Dracula. That role would follow him for the rest of his long and prolific life. The amazing thing is that he never saw himself as a horror star. He continued to play Dracula and the others so that the crew at Hammer could continue to make a living. It’s how he characterized his feelings about it often in interviews and to me personally in the 1990’s.
Unfortunately, I can’t really remember the year, but I got to spend a weekend with Lee in the 1990’s helping out at a horror convention. He was an amazing gentleman and was always more interested in the person he was talking to than his own career. He would parry every question about his own life with one about yourself. These weren’t merely surface questions; rather, he wanted to know the details of your experiences. He had a remarkable memory for them and would bring them up again in a later conversation, usually with follow-up questions. It’s a unique experience that I have never forgotten.
Just as he was peaking as a Hammer favorite, he joined the James Bond franchise as the titular Man With The Golden Gun. It remains one of the most powerful Bond villains in the long history of that franchise. He was well-suited for the part, as he was Ian Fleming’s cousin. He admits to having many conversations with the writer about his creation. He would appear on television shows over the years ranging from Charlie’s Angels to The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. One of the best was an appearance on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, where he played an actor who was running from a satanic cult. It’s one of the best episodes of that show and my all-time favorite. The episode has been rarely seen as the hour-long episodes haven’t been released on home video and seldom on syndicated television. It was my honor to send a copy to Forry Ackerman, who had somehow missed the episode and asked if I would share it with him after I had brought it up. Sharing a Christopher Lee performance that someone had not yet seen is one of life’s greatest pleasures. That episode was called The Sign Of Satan, and I highly suggest you find it if you have not seen it.
Christopher Lee had made his mark for a generation of horror and film fans. He managed to make himself known and quite relevant to even more fans when he took on the role of Count Dooku, an obvious homage to Dracula in the prequel Star Wars Trilogy. He was, of course, following in the footsteps of his old friend Peter Cushing, who appeared in the first Star Wars film years earlier. If that wasn’t enough, he would become the infamous Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. He was frighteningly wonderful in that trilogy and would return for the recent Hobbit trilogy in the same role. He became invaluable on the set of these films with his vast knowledge of Tolkien’s works. He would read the Lord Of The Rings books every year without fail for decades. He had tremendous respect for that material, and it showed in his performance. One thing Christopher Lee had in abundance was passion. We were all lucky to have witnessed it. It doesn’t matter if you were a Hammer fan, Star Wars crazy, or Tolkien admirer. Christopher Lee brought those worlds to life like no one else could. He would also deliver memorable cameos in Hugo and Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. Who can forget his role in The Wicker Man?
He was born in London in 1922. His full name was Christopher Frank Carandini Lee. He served in the RAF during World War II. There he worked for military intelligence. Who knows what secrets he has taken to his grave? He was somewhat active in British politics, willing to stand up as a conservative, something not always very popular in his profession. He passed at the age of 93. He leaves behind almost 300 acting credits, and that doesn’t include his stage work. Ten of those credits were playing Dracula, the most of any actor for major feature films. If you add his box office totals, there isn’t an actor that comes close. He was the last of a generation of iconic actors. He was a heavy metal music fan, releasing some interesting efforts in that field in recent years and appeared in Paul McCartney’s Band On The Run album as one of the convicts depicted on the cover.
Here are a few of his films we’ve had the honor of reviewing here at Upcomingdiscs:
The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring
The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers
The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith
Star Wars Episode II: Attack Of The Clones
Space 1999: The Complete First Season
However you remember him, remember him you will. I will treasure the couple of days I spent with him. While it was doubtful he remembered those days, he treated you like he would. The Crown Prince of Terror is gone now, but his films will remain for an eternity. Not even Dracula could have hoped for that kind of immortality. “Though sometimes beaten, back he came again and again; then at the end he came again, for he alone could triumph.”
06/15/2015 @ 10:17 am
Fantastic tribute, Gino.
Christopher Lee will surely (and sorely) be missed.
06/15/2015 @ 6:17 pm
Thank you Gino. You got it right. Your tribute shines a loving glow of remembrance on a life that touched so many others. Watching him perform will always put a smile on my face.