Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Late Great Sir Christopher Lee

For many people Sir Christopher Lee will always be Dracula. In fact, with the possible exception of Bela Lugosi, no other actor is as identified with the role as strongly as Mr. Lee. Unlike many actors who find themselves strongly identified with a particular role, however, Sir Christopher Lee was known for having played many other characters as well. He was Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973). He was Frankenstein's Creature in Curse of Frankenstein (1957). He was Scaramanga in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). He was Saruman in Lord of the Rings. Indeed, over the years Sir Christopher Lee has appeared in so many roles that according to Guinness World Records he is the actor with the most screen appearances to his name. Sadly,  Sir Christopher Lee died June 7 2015 at the age of 93.

Sir Christopher Lee was born on May 27 1922 in Belgravia, London. He was the son of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and Contessa Estelle Maria Carandini, an Italian countess. His father had fought in both the Boer War and World War I. His mother was a descendent of the Borgias and  a legendary beauty of the Edwardian Era who had been painted by  Sir John Lavery, Oswald Birley, and Olive Snell. His parents separated when he was four years old and divorced two years later. It was at this time that his mother and young Mr. Lee moved to Wengen in Switzerland. It was while he was attending school in Territet, Switzerland that he had his first brush with acting, playing  Rumpelstiltskin.

His mother remarried after she returned to London. Her new husband and young Mr. Lee's stepfather was  Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a rich banker and Ian Fleming's maternal uncle. Sir Christopher Lee attended Wagner's private school in Queen's Gate and later Summer Fields School in Oxford. At Summer Fields he acted in school plays, often alongside another future actor, Patrick Macnee. He applied for a scholarship to Eton, but attended the more affordable Wellington College in Berkshire. There he excelled in the classics, studying both Ancient Greek and Latin.. Mr. Lee would be fluent in Italian and French, and eventually he would be able to speak  Spanish, German, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Greek as well.

While Sir Christopher Lee was reared in relative privilege, he had to go to work at age 17. His stepfather went bankrupt and his mother would separate from Mr. Lee's stepfather not long afterwards. He went to work for United States Lines as a messenger and later as an office clerk at Beecham's. With the outbreak of World War II he joined the Royal Air Force. Unfortunately his eyesight proved to be too poor for him to become a pilot. Shortly thereafter he applied to join RAF Intelligence. During World War II Sir Christopher Lee was attached to the Special Operations Executive (informally known as "the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare"), but always declined to discuss his involvement.  Following the war he worked with the Central Registry of War Crimes.

Sir Christopher Lee was demobilised when he was 24. With the war over he was undecided as to what he wanted to do. He did not want to return to Beecham's, even though they offered him his old job back. It was his cousin, Nicolò Carandini (then the Italian ambassador to Britain), who suggested that he go into acting. He met with Filippo Del Giudice, the head of Two Cities Films (part of the Rank Organisation), and signed a seven year contract with the Rank Organisation. He started training in acting at the Rank Company of Youth (also known as the "Rank Charm School") in 1946. He made his television debut that same year in an episode of Kaleidoscope. In 1948 he made his film debut in Corridor of Mirrors (1948).

Sir Christopher Lee appeared in several films in the late Forties, generally in small parts. He appeared with future co-star Peter Cushing for the first time in 1948 in Lord Laurence Olivier's Hamlet, although he played an uncredited spear carrier while Mr. Cushing played Osric. Sir Christopher Lee also appeared in the films One Night with You (1948), A Song for Tomorrow (1948), Penny and the Pownall Case (1948), Scott of the Antarctic (1948), Trottie True (1949), They Were Not Divided (1950), and Prelude to Fame (1950).

By the early Fifties Sir Christopher Lee was appearing in larger roles in films than he had earlier. He played a Spanish captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N. (1951), the military attaché Joseph in The Crimson Pirate (1952), and Georges Seurat in Moulin Rouge (1952).  From the early to mid-Fifties he appeared ins such films as Valley of Eagles (1951), Innocents in Paris (1953), Destination Milan (1954), The Mirror and Markheim (1954), The Cockleshell Heroes (1955), and The Dark Avenger (1955).  His contract with the Rank Organisation ran out and Sir Christopher Lee began appearing on various television shows, both British and American. He appeared on such TV series as Colonel March of Scotland Yard, The Vise, Tales of Hans Anderson, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. Presents, and The Errol Flynn Theatre.

It was in 1957 that Sir Christopher Lee appeared in a role that would forever change his career. He starred as the Creature in Hammer Films' Curse of Frankenstein (1957). The film proved to be a phenomenal hit on both sides of the Atlantic, so much so that Hammer Films decided to follow it up with an adaptation of Dracula. Christopher Lee was cast as the vampiric count and played him as he never had been played before: a noble, self assured entity oozing with sexuality. If anything Dracula proved to be an even bigger hit than Curse of Frankenstein. The two films would lead Hammer to begin an entire cycle of horror movies that would last well into the Seventies and inspire imitations from such studios as American International and Tigon British Film Productions. Sir Christopher Lee would go onto play Dracula six more times for Hammer Films.

Following Sir Christopher Lee's appearance in Dracula, he also played other roles for Hammer Films in the late Fifties. He appeared as Sir Henry in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959),  the title character Kharis in The Mummy (1959), Pierre Gerrard in The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), and Paul Allen in The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). Mr. Lee also continued to appear in films not produced by Hammer as well. He played the corrupt Marquis St. Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities (1958). He also appeared in the films Battle of the V-1 (1958), Corridors of Blood (1958), The Treasure of San Teresa (1959), Beat Girl (1960), and The Hands of Orlac (1960).

The Sixties would see Sir Christopher Lee appear in several more Dracula films, as well as other movies for Hammer Films. He played a heavily fictionalised version of historical figure Grigori Rasputin in Rasputin: The Mad Monk (1966. In The Devil Rides Out (1968) he did a rare turn playing a hero, the Duc de Richleau, who comes face to face with diabolists. Beyond Hammer Films he played Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace (1962), as well as Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). He also played the title character in a series of Fu Manchu films produced by  Harry Alan Towers. Mr. Lee played Dracula in a film not produced by Hammer Films, Jess Franco's Count Dracula (1970). Throughout the Sixties he appeared on such films as Taste of Fear (1961), Hercules in the Haunted World (1961), The Devil's Agent (1962), La vergine di Norimberg (1963), The Gorgon (1964), Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965).  She (1965), The Skull (1965), The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism (1967), Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968), The Oblong Box (1969), The Magic Christian (1969), Scream and Scream Again (1970),  and Julius Caesar (1970).  Mr. Lee also appeared on television in such shows as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, and The Avengers.

The Seventies saw Sir Christopher Lee play Dracula for Hammer for one last time in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). His most notable role during the decade was most likely that of Lord Summerisle in the classic horror movie The Wicker Man (1973). Sir Christopher Lee counted it as the best film he ever made. He played the villain Scaramanga in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), and Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974). He also played opposite Peter Cushing in the cult classic The Creeping Flesh (1973), a film often mistakenly attributed to Hammer but actually produced by Tigon Pictures. In the Seventies Sir Christopher Lee also appeared in such films as The House That Dripped Blood (1971), Hannie Caulder (1971),  Horror Express (1972), Diagnosis: Murder (1975), To the Devil a Daughter (1976), Airport '77 (1977), Return from Witch Mountain (1978), Circle of Iron (1978), 1941 (1979), and Serial (1980). He also appeared on television in the shows Space: 1999How the West Was Won, Saturday Night Live, and Charlie's Angels.

The Eighties saw Sir Christopher Lee play Blind Pew in a television movie adaptation of Treasure Island, as well as Stuart in a television mini-series adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. He also appeared in such mini-series and TV shows as The Far Pavilions, Faerie Tale Theatre, and Shaka Zulu. Mr. Lee reprised his role as Rochefort in The Return of the Musketeers (1989). He also appeared in such films as Safari 3000 (1982), House of the Long Shadows (1983), The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), The Rosebud Beach Hotel (1984), Howling II: ... Your Sister Is a Werewolf (1985), Dark Mission: Flowers of Evil (1988), Murder Story (1989), and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).

In the Nineties Sir Christopher Lee made several appearances on television. He played Flay in the 2000 mini-series Gormenghast. He played Sherlock Holmes for the last time in the TV movies Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady (1991) and Incident at Victoria Falls (1992) (TV). He played Lucas de Beaumanoir in the mini-series Ivanhoe. He appeared in the Tomorrow People serial "The Rameses Connection" and was the voice of Death in the animated series based on Terry Pratchett's Soul Music. He also had recurring roles on the shows Street Gear and The New Adventures of Robin Hood. He guest starred on Tales of Mystery and Imagination and Young Indiana Jones, and played Tiresias in the TV mini-series The Odyssey. In 1998 he appeared in what he considered to be his best performance in the film Jinnah (1998), playing Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern day Pakistan. He provided the voice of Monsieur Renard in Beauty and the Beast. He also appeared in such films as Kabuto (1991), Funny Man (1994), Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994), A Feast at Midnight (1994), The Stupids (1996), Sleepy Hollow (1999). He also released the album Christopher Lee Sings Devils, Rogues & Other Villains in 1998.

The Naughts saw Sir Christopher Lee appear in one of his best known roles, that of Saruman in Lord of the Rings. He would reprise the role in The Hobbit movies in the Teens. He played Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) and voiced the character in the film Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008). He provided the voice of Pastor Galswells in Corpse Bride (2005). He also appeared in the films Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Greyfriars Bobby (2005), The Golden Compass (2007), Triage (2009), and The Heavy (2010).  He provided the voice of the Jabberwocky  in Alice in Wonderland (2010). In 2006 Mr. Lee released the album Revelation, followed by the symphonic metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross in 2010.

In the Teens Sir Christopher Lee reprised his role as Saruman in the movies based on The Hobbit. He played Monsieur Labisse in Hugo (2011) and Cardinal D'Ambroise in Season of the Witch (2011). He appeared in the films The Wicker Tree (2011), Dark Shadows (2012), Night Train to Lisbon (2013), The Girl from Nagasaki (2013), and Angels in Notting Hill (2014).  He released one last album, Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, in 2013.

Sir Christopher Lee received a knighthood in 2009 for services to drama and charity. In 1997 he was named a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John. In 2011 he was awarded the  BAFTA Academy Fellowship.

To put it simply, Sir Christopher Lee was an incredible man. As an actor he was nothing but prolific, to the point that he holds the record for the most screen credits of any actor in film and television history. His career spanned nearly seventy years. In fact, he was set to appear next year in the film The 11th, which is currently in pre-production. Over the years he appeared frequently in both television and movies, and from 1948 to 2014 it is doubtful that a year went by that Sir Christopher Lee did not appear in at least one film or TV show (usually more). On top of his appearances on screen Sir Christopher Lee also found time to record music albums, provide narration and voices for symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire's albums, provide voices for video games, and even voice transcripts for audiobooks. It is quite possible that Sir Christopher Lee was the busiest actor of all time.

Of course, what makes Sir Christopher Lee all the more remarkable is that he was not only prolific, but he was also an incredible actor. He once said, “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” Mr. Lee had the knack of being very, very good in some very, very bad movies. Even when a particular movie in which he appeared was not quite up to par, Sir Christopher Lee always delivered an excellent performance. Fortunately, many of Sir Christopher Lee's movies are not only good, but they are classics.

Indeed, as stated earlier, except for Bela Lugosi perhaps no other actor is as identified with the character of Dracula. It is not a simple case that Sir Christopher Lee played the role several times, but that he played it well. With Dracula (1958) he made a very strong impression, playing the vampire as charming, refined, alluring, powerful, and intimidating all at the same time. For many Mr. Lee will always remain the best Dracula. With his extreme height and his deep voice Mr. Lee would find himself playing a number of sophisticated villains over the years, from the Marquis St. Evremonde in A Tale of Two Cities to Fu Manchu to Saruman, but he could play much more than villains. In The Devil Rides Out he played the hero, the Duc de Richleau, who only shared sophistication and charm in common with Count Dracula (in fact, one can assume the Duc de Richleau would stake Dracula if they ever met). With The Wicker Man Sir Christopher Lee played a more complex role, that of Lord Summerisle, who is perhaps neither hero nor villain, but simply the head of a community seeking to insure its survival. 

Of course, Sir Christopher Lee was much more than a great actor. He was a distinguished veteran of World War II who served his country with honour. He was a refined, educated, enlightened man who could speak a number of different languages with ease. What is more, he was truly a rarity in show business in having been married 53 years to the same woman.  Above all else he was a true gentleman. He was known for his professionalism and his respect for both his fellow actors and even his fans. It is nearly impossible to find anyone with a bad thing to say about Sir Christopher Lee. In the end Sir Christopher Lee was simply an amazing talent and a truly great man.

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