Six-feet-five, every inch of it patrician, and with a voice as rich and dark as espresso, Sir Christopher Lee was perfectly equipped to play a villain, which he did to great effect in some of the most successful franchises in cinema history.
He was the assassin Francisco Scaramanga in the Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, Count Dooku in the Star Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, and the wizard Saruman in Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. If that were not enough, he had begun his career as the most effective screen Dracula, playing the part nine times over two decades for the cult British horror studio Hammer. He died in hospital in London on June 7, aged 93.
So convincing was he in his first outing as the Transylvanian vampire that it seemed likely he would be typecast in the role, or at least in the horror genre. But Lee managed to avoid that trap, and eventually notched up more than 200 appearances on the big screen and more than 100 roles in TV films in a career which lasted nearly seven decades.
Nor was he even an early starter: by the time he made his first screen appearance in Corridor of Mirrors (1948), he was in his late 20s, and had seen wartime service in the Royal Air Force, as an intelligence officer attached to Special Forces, and worked for the Central Registry of War Criminals, tracking down Nazis.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born in Belgravia in central London on May 27, 1922, the son of an Army officer who had fought in the Boer War and his wife, an Italian contessa and society beauty who had been painted by Sir John Lavery. When he was four, his parents separated and Christopher and his sister went to live with their mother in Switzerland.
After a few years, they returned to London, where his mother married a banker (who was also an uncle to Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels). He attended preparatory school in west London and Summerfields, traditionally a feeder school for Eton, where one of his contemporaries was the actor Patrick Macnee.
Lee missed (by one place) a scholarship and was sent instead to Wellington College, where he excelled at Classics, and learned to fence. As well as Latin and Greek, Lee was fluent in French, German and Italian and later added passable Russian, Swedish and modern Greek to his arsenal of languages. When he was 17, his stepfather went bankrupt and Lee left school a year early, without much regret.
He at first travelled to the south of France to look for work but, realising that war was imminent, returned to London and worked for a spell as a clerk in the mail room of the shipping company United States Lines.
In late 1939, he went to Finland, where he volunteered for the forces opposing the Soviet Union in the short-lived Winter War, though in the end he saw no action. He then signed up to the RAF and served in South Africa, the Western Desert and during the campaign for the liberation of Italy, ending the war in the rank of flight-lieutenant and having been mentioned in dispatches. In his role with the War Crimes Registry he visited a number of concentration camps, including Dachau, and later claimed that horror on screen did not affect him, because “I had seen enough horror to last me a lifetime”.
Back in London aged 24, Lee cast around for something to do. He considered the diplomatic service and toyed with the notion of becoming an opera singer—an ambition that he subsequently regretted not having pursued. He had a rich bass voice and, late in life, enjoyed a surprising career as a collaborator on a number of heavy metal records. Aged 90, he released a single, Let Legend Mark Me as the King and an EP, A Very Metal Christmas and last year produced another record which featured renditions of My Way and the Toreadors’ March from Carmen.
But back then, over lunch, his cousin (who had become the Italian ambassador to Britain) suggested he try his hand at acting and, in 1946, he signed with the Rank Organisation. After training at their “charm school” and some roles in repertory theatre and television, he made his film debut in a series of bit parts. He was a spear carrier in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet and appeared in Scott of the Antarctic (both 1948) and was thrown from a chariot in Quo Vadis (1951). That year he parted company with Rank, having played the Spanish captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower, RN.
Over the next five years he appeared in more than a dozen films, including Moulin Rouge (1952), The Cockleshell Heroes (1955) and A Tale of Two Cities (1958), in minor roles and made more than 40 television appearances in Douglas Fairbanks Presents… His first encounter with Hammer Films came in 1957, when he played the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein opposite Peter Cushing, who was to become his regular opposite number in horror. He had been cast chiefly because of his height, but the studio was impressed enough to give him the titular role in the following year’s Dracula (released in the US as Horror of Dracula).
It made him an international star. Lee’s saturnine aristocratic glamour, and his emphasis on the implicit eroticism of the Count, thrilled audiences and—though it now seems tame enough—proved controversial at the time. It was also closer to Bram Stoker’s original novel than previous adaptations.
The part, however, was to prove something of a millstone. Keen to capitalise on their success, Hammer shoved Lee into a series of low-budget movies, memorably as The Mummy and in The Hound of the Baskervilles (both 1959) and as Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966). As a child, Lee claimed, he had once been introduced to Prince Yusupov, one of Rasputin’s assassins.
His subsequent outings as Dracula, in increasingly poor films, involved limited screen time. In the first sequel, Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965), he did little more than hiss, while the later films did no more than shoe-horn Lee into pedestrian plots. “Every actor has to make terrible films from time to time,” he later concluded. “The trick is never to be terrible in them.”
Despite some other notable horror films for Hammer, including the Dennis Wheatley adaptations The Devil Rides Out (1967) and To The Devil a Daughter (1976), Lee decided that he needed to change direction to avoid typecasting. At first his pictures away from Hammer were still genre shockers—as Fu Manchu in a series, as Jekyll and Hyde in I, Monster (1971) and, as Dracula again, in two German films. In perhaps his best film, The Wicker Man (1973) he was, by turns, charming and sinister as a Scottish laird who initiates a pagan human sacrifice on a remote Scottish island.
After that, he did his utmost to avoid horror, though villainy was more difficult to cast off. He appeared as the one-eyed Comte de Rochefort in Richard Lester’s film of The Three Musketeers and its sequels, and as Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). Lee had been considered for the part of Doctor No in an earlier Bond film but been unavailable; as Scaramanga, despite the impediment of a third nipple, he was “charming, elegant, amusing, lethal… I played him like the dark side of Bond.”
In 1976, Lee headed to Hollywood, where he appeared in an apparently endless string of television miniseries—though he turned down invitations to join the casts of long-running soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty—and mainstream films of indifferent quality. The least bad, or at least the most memorable, were probably Airport ’77, then Return from Witch Mountain, and the martial arts film Circle of Iron (both 1978).
During the 1980s, he was as industrious as ever, not even slowing down after a heart attack in 1985 that required surgery. Despite the output, unfortunately, he made practically nothing worth watching—Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1986) was a particular low point.
But in the 1990s, Lee had an unexpected second wind, lending his voice to a number of animated movies and playing against type in films such as Gremlins 2 (1990) and Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994). The film he thought his best performance was Jinnah (1998), a biopic of the founder of Pakistan, though he was highly effective in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow the following year. Burton, a long-standing fan, also cast him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as Willy Wonka’s dentist father, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland (as the Jabberwocky) and as a grizzled fisherman in Dark Shadows.
In his eighties, he suddenly reached an entirely new, and biggest, audience by taking the role of Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lee, who had actually met J.R.R. Tolkein and was a great fan of Lord of the Rings, had wanted to play Gandalf for years, but accepted that he was too old for the part. He appeared in all three parts of The Lord of the Rings and then in two of The Hobbit trilogy. The year after making The Fellowship of the Ring he took on the role of Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002), reprising the part in Revenge of the Sith (2005).
He cashed in on his status as Grand Old Man with chat show appearances—he had an inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, though they all featured himself to advantage. One persistent tale was of an actress who emerged from a long-haul flight looking so washed out that staff rushed to see whether she needed medical attention. She had spent the previous 10 hours listening to Lee talking about himself. He never stopped working. As well as his flirtations with heavy metal, he also lent his voice to numerous video games. At the time of his death, he had been signed to appear in a film about the 9/11 bombings, to be shot this autumn.
Lee was appointed CBE in 2001 and knighted in 2009; in 2011, he received a Bafta fellowship. He married, in 1961, Brigitte (“Gitte”) Kroenecke, a Danish painter and former model, with whom he had a daughter, Christina. They both survive him.