Lugosi, Karloff, Price, Cushing, Lee: To any “Monster Kid” over the age of 35, these actors were the real screen heroes…especially when playing villains. They were the names I looked for when, as an eleven year old, I feverishly scanned the TV listings to see what horror flicks were playing on the tube that week. Of course Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, representing the first generation of horror film icons, have long since exited the stage; Vincent Price and Peter Cushing passed away in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Only one is left to us now: Christopher Lee, the veteran British actor whose incredible career spans six decades and virtually every genre of film. The consummate screen heavy, Lee is most famous for his portrayal of a roster of classic monsters and villains, including the Frankenstein Monster, Kharis the Mummy, Fu Manchu and, of course, Dracula. In recent years he added two more roles to this impressive list, that of Count Dooku in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga and the evil wizard Saruman in the hugely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, of English-Italian heritage, was born May 27, 1922 to an upper-middle class family in the Belgravia section of London. Although his great-grandparents were professional singers who were instrumental in establishing Australia’s first opera company, a life in show business would seem an unusual choice for him. A background and upbringing such as his typically resulted in more mundane career paths: banking, business, or government service. But like so many men of his generation any decisions about the future were postponed by the Second World War. After a brief stint as a clerk at a London s hipping firm, Lee joined the Royal Air Force in 1941. His language skills earned him a billet in RAF Intelligence, where he was apparently involved in a number of clandestine operations. To this day Lee politely refuses to discuss these secret missions, offering only purposefully vague impressions of his experiences. “Having seen the worst that human beings can do to each other, the results of torture, mutilation and seeing someone blown to pieces with a bomb, you develop a kind of shell,” Lee recalled. “But you had to… Otherwise we would never have won.” The world of secret intelligence work was something he shared in common with his step-cousin, Ian Fleming, then a rising young officer in the Royal Navy.
With the war’s end Lee considered entering the Foreign Service to become a diplomat. Instead he tried his hand at acting. He signed with the Rank Organization in 1947 and began honing his craft in a series of bit parts and walk-ons. For nearly 10 years he toiled in obscurity, perhaps considered a bit too sinister looking for leading roles and often passed over for smaller parts because of his height. (At 6′ 5″, directors didn’t want him towering over the male star.) His professional fortunes took a fateful turn when he signed with Hammer Films to appear as “The Creature” in Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Not only would it signal the start of his long association with Hammer, Britain’s “House of Horror”, but also the beginning of a close friendship with Peter Cushing, at the time a top TV performer in England, who, with CURSE, would be catapulted to the ranks of horror stardom in his own right. Gothic horror films had fallen out of favor when the Universal Monster Cycle finally ran out of gas in 1945, but CURSE, the first Frankenstein flick in living, blood-red color, revitalized the genre and was a smash hit at the box-office. While much of its success is owed to Cushing’s dynamic turn as the obsessed, amoral mad scientist, Lee’s performance as the creature was also key. Comparisons to Karloff’s indelible Monster of the 1930s, already a pop culture icon, were inevitable; had Lee not been up to the task the picture would’ve suffered. In nightmarish makeup (Lee has compared it to the face of a road accident victim), with no speaking lines, he achieved what Karloff was able to do, albeit in a different style: Lee’s Creature is both frightening and pitiable at the same time. A flair for pantomime served him well, imbuing the character with subtle but important physical idiosyncrasies. This skill with body language would prove even more important in playing both Count Dracula (Horror of Dracula, 1958) and Kharis (The Mummy, 1959), also opposite Peter Cushing. The sense of pathos and sympathy Lee brings to the mummy character, merely by using his eyes (the rest of him is completely covered in bandages), is especially noteworthy.
The success of Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy comprised a turning point. Hammer wanted Lee for more films as the studio continued to mine the horror genre, which often meant co-starring with his friend Cushing. Much more than Lugosi and Karloff before them, the movie going public began to see the two actors as a team; indeed, the pair would go on to appear in 22 films together, most of them (but not always) for Hammer. Having become a recognizable name and box-office draw, it was at this time that Lee was able to ditch the monster makeup and segue into playing the aloof, authoritarian figures at which he excelled. Nor was he content to stay in Britain and just cash in. In the early 1960s he took a number of roles in European productions, particularly in Italy and Germany, though these, too, were mostly in the horror or thriller vein. Fluent in French and German, passable in four other languages (including Italian and Russian), Lee was able to work easily and comfortably all over Europe. Some of these films, such as Mario Bava’s Whip and the Body (1963), are as good if not superior to anything he ever did for Hammer. But regardless of his work on the Continent – and to his ultimate chagrin – Lee’s signature role became that of Count Dracula, which he played seven times in Hammer productions and once for Spanish director Jess Franco. To most horror fans born after 1960, Lee simply IS Dracula despite Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal in the 1931 original. In contrast to Lugosi’s affected, stage-oriented interpretation, Lee’s Count is regal but sadistically cruel, composed yet capable of savage bursts of violence. Unfortunately the Hammer Draculas suffered a steady decline in quality as the series continued. Lee grew dissatisfied. The character was increasingly relegated to the sidelines, more or less a supporting player with very little (or no) dialog. By the time the series had transported the undead Transylvanian to the modern, swinging London of the hippy era, Lee had had enough. Like many actors of his generation he was also turned off by the influx of gore and nudity allowed by the new permissiveness in cinema.
The 1970’s saw Lee appear in substantially more non-horror roles as he endeavored to move away from the limitations of the genre. Of note are his turns as the deadly swordsman Rochefort in Richard Lester’s Musketeer films (utilizing his considerable fencing skills), and as Scaramanga, the title villain of the James Bond adventure The Man with the Golden Gun. (Ironically, Lee had been proposed for the role of Doctor No in the very first 007 film by his cousin, James Bond creator Ian Fleming, but was passed over.) In the middle of the decade Lee moved to the United States, where he continued to pursue film work in addition to TV roles. Perhaps the most unusual results of this jaunt across the Pond were a stint as guest host of Saturday Night Live and roles in the disaster flick Airport 77 and the comedy Serial (in which he plays a gay biker!). During this time he turned down the role of Dr. Loomis in John Carpenter’s classic shocker Halloween (1978), which went instead to fellow Brit Donald Pleasence. Eventually Lee returned to his native England, continuing to work as a respected character actor in film and television productions all over the world. To date he’s appeared in 217 films, which is believed to be the record for any actor still living. Of course, when one is in that many movies it’s a given that quite a number of them will be turkeys. (Lee free ly admits that he took some gigs just to pay the bills or because location shooting offered the chance to travel.) Such longevity in the business also means that he’s worked with a fascinatingly diverse array of directors. In addition to the aforementioned Fisher, Bava, and Franco, these include John Huston, Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Antonio Margheriti, Joe Dante, Stephen Spielberg, Tim Burton and many, many others. In 2001 octogenarian Lee retuned to the big screen in spectacular fashion with an important role in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. His appearance in the following year’s even more successful sequel, The Two Towers, means that for today’s generation of young moviegoers he will forever be Saruman the White. (Dracula who?) 2002 also saw him play the turncoat Jedi Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, a role he’ll reprise in 2005’s Episode III. And although his scenes were cut from the theatrical release of the Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, they will be restored to the Director’s Cut DVD scheduled for release this November.
An avid golfer, Lee remains married to his wife of 43 years, Birgit, with whom he has a daughter. In 2001 he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, in recognition for his contributions to the British film industry.