Christopher Lee, beloved creator of iconic film characters, leaves eternal legacy

By on June 13, 2015

Christopher Lee, the tall, foreboding actor whose bass voice and staunch visage dominated many genre films over the actor’s 66-year career in film.

Corridor of Mirrors (1948). Christopher Lee in his first feature film, Corridor of Mirrors (1948)

On May 22, 1922, Christopher Carandini Lee entered our domain through a portal in Belgravia, London, assisted by an Italian countess, Estelle Marie (formerly Carandini di Sarzano) and a British soldier, Lieutenant Colonoel Trollope Lee. His parents separated when he was four and divorced when he was six. Later his mother would marry Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, uncle of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels.

In 1939, Lee volunteered for the Royal Air Force and joined various squadrons and troops throughout the war. After several adventures during those years, including climbing Mount Vesuvius which erupted three days later, Lee attained the rank of flight lieutenant and returned to London in 1946. He couldn’t ‘think himself back into the office frame of mind’ after the war and after lunch with his cousin, who had become the Italian Ambassador to Britain, she suggested he become an actor. She introduced him to a film producer friend who headed part of the Rank Films Organisation, and through other introductions he gained a seven-year contract with the studio. A year later, in 1947, Lee found himself uttering a single line in the Terence Young-directed Gothic romance Corridor of Mirrors.

curseTerence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

Often shunted about due to his great height, and told he was too tall to be an actor, Lee performed in an uncredited role in Laurence Olivier’s film of Hamlet, his first film with Peter Cushing. After nondescript roles in almost 30 films, Lee would reunite with Cushing, credited this time, in the Hammer Films production of The Curse of Frankenstein, in 1957. Though his first major role, as the Creature, it was also a voiceless performance. Cushing and Lee became close friends and created over twenty film roles together, resulting in many horror classics.

Horror-of-Dracula-dracula-17205137-1543-1207

In 1958 Lee would embark on the role that would solidify his visage in the minds of cinemagoers across the globe in the Hammer Films production of Terence Fisher’s Dracula, retitled Horror of Dracula in the United States alone. Joined by his friend Peter Cushing in the role of Dr. Van Helsing, and fellow notable British actor Michael Gough, the film was a universal smash, and Lee’s place in cinema history firmly established, though he would not return to the character until 1965 with Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

mummy2Terence Fisher’s The Mummy (1959)

The tall, 6’4” actor with the strong presence and booming voice became a staple of British horror cinema. In 1959 he commanded the titular role of Terence Fisher’s The Mummy, and other great classic titles thickly permeate his resume from 1960’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, also manned by Terence Fisher, 1965’s Horror Hotel, and The Hands of Orlac, Jimmy Sangster’s Scream of Fear, Antonio Margheriti’s The Virgin of Nuremberg, two of maestro Mario Bava’s classics including Hercules and the Haunted World and The Whip and the Body, Freddie Francis’ exquisite films Dr. Terror’s Hands of Horror and The Skull, and more notable pictures before he returned to his most famous role, teaming yet again with Terence Fisher for 1965’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness.

christopher_leeTerence Fisher’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1965)

Lee spent most of the film snarling and hissing, with no lines spoken whatsoever. From this point the films were a nearly silent Dracula, with Lee stating he felt forced into the role by Hammer who would tell him they had already sold the film with him in the lead role. Though Lee reluctantly took the roles, he had very little to work with. The ‘60s and ‘70s continued this trend with Dracula Has Risen from the Grave, Taste of the Blood of Dracula, Scars of Dracula, Dracula A.D. 1972, until his final performance as the Count in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula.

Though tired of the Hammer version of the character, Lee was able to much more fully realize the Count in the 1970 Jess Franco adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel. Hailed at the time for being the most faithful adaptation of the original work, the film is also memorable for including Klaus Kinski in the role of Renfield, and for Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella’s filmic ‘documentary’ of the making of the film, Cuadecuc.

The-Wicker-Man-Christopher-LeeRobin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973)

Shortly after his departure from portraying the vampire Lee took on a singular, unique, and almost more iconic portrayal in the guide os Lord Summerisle in Robin Hardy’s epic The Wicker Man. Lee was so involved in the production and this character that he worked on the film without a fee. Lee’s booming force and strong presence as a human emits an even more terrifying monstrosity than a supernatural wall-crawling blood-drinker. Throughout his life Lee referred to his Lord Summerisle as his favorite role and The Wicker Man his best film.

Film and TelevisionChristopher Lee as Scaramanga with Roger Moore as James Bond in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

Revered throughout his career, fans newer and older were grateful when Lee took on the role of Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, and Count Dooku in the Star Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. A favorite actor of director Tim Burton, Lee appears in five of his films including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and the voice of Pastor Galswells in The Corpse Bride.

Lee had sung before with soaring tones on “The Tinker of Rye” on The Wicker Man soundtrack, among other pieces, though he made a heavier impression with his metal album Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, earning him the Spirit of Metal award in 2010, presented by Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi. After more metallic rumblings Lee released the song Jingle Hell and entered the Billboard Hot 100 chart at position #22, now claiming the title of the oldest person to enter the charts at 91 and a half years of age.

Other accolades include a 1997 appointment to Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John, a 2001 appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to Drama,” and a Knight Bachelor “for services to Drama and to Charity.” In 2009, at age 87, he was knighted by Prince Charles, and in 2011 was awarded the BAFTA Academy Fellowship by Tim Burton. In 1977, he composed an autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome.

Prince Charles knighting Christopher Lee _ Johnny Green:PAPrince Charles knighting Christopher Lee in 2009. Photo: Johnny Green/PA

Sir Christopher Lee is survived by his wife, Birgit Kroencke Lee, and his daughter, Christina Erika Lee. Foreve remembered, forever loved.

About Shade Rupe

Shade Rupe is the author of Funeral Party 1 and 2, and Dark Stars Rising, a collection of interviews with Divine, Crispin Glover, Gaspar Noe, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Tura Satana, and many more. He produced and directed the live recording of Teller of Penn & Teller’s off-Broadway show Play Dead. He was a featured guest on all three presentations of Bravo’s Scariest Movie Moments alongside Stephen King, John Landis, Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, and more. He appears often at international film festivals and is now working on an updated edition of Dark Stars Rising to include new interviews with Norman Reedus, William Friedkin, John Boorman, and more. Visit him at shaderupe.com.