RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES bids a sad farewell to a true British cinema legend, Sir Christopher Lee
It says a lot for Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Count Dracula that he remains inextricably linked with the role, even by many of those who have never seen a Hammer horror film, despite him having last played the part (at least officially) as long ago as 1973. Lee’s Dracula redefined the character for an entire generation and beyond. And yet, this was just a small part of a career which must stand as one of the most impressive in cinema, both in longevity and variety.
Born in Belgravia, London on 27 May 1922, Lee was the son of a British Lieutenant General and an Italian Contessa. A colourful education took in Switzerland, a prep school in Oxford (along with Patrick MacNee) and Wellington College, before he became an office clerk.
After the outbreak of World War II, Lee briefly volunteered with the Finnish army, before enlisting in the RAF. An eye problem curtailed his fledgling flying career, so he applied to RAF Intelligence, eventually becoming involved in the North African campaign. His war career alone deserves an article in itself, but suffice to say here that he found himself close to death on more than one occasion.
After leaving the forces in 1946, Lee was having lunch with his cousin (an Italian ambassador), who casually suggested that the restless war veteran might try being an actor. Lee liked the idea, even if a representative of The Rank Organisation declared him (at 6-foot-5) to be far too tall. Nevertheless, Rank signed him to a contract, and he debuted with one line in Corridor Of Mirrors (1947). Perhaps more portentous was an uncredited cameo in Hamlet (1948), in which future friend and colleague Peter Cushing played Osric.
A variety of tiny to medium supporting roles followed over the next few years, working with greats like Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Buster Keaton and John Huston before fate intervened and turned Lee into an international star overnight. The actor’s height, considered a hindrance at Rank, was a positive boon for the role of the creature in Hammer’s The Curse Of Frankenstein (released 1957), cementing both Lee and Peter Cushing’s association with the studio and the British horror boom to follow. It also started a lifelong friendship with much humour: On his first day, Lee was reportedly complaining that he had no dialogue. “You should count yourself lucky”, said Cushing, allegedly. “I’ve read the script.”
Following the film’s success, an adaptation of Dracula must have seemed a no-brainer, and its appearance in 1958 saw Lee as a vampire count who could not only pass as a perfect Victorian gentleman, but believably charm the hell out of the ladies, perhaps a bit too believably for the censors. Cushing and Lee were now a box-office busting pair, and The Mummy and The Hound Of The Baskervilles (both 1959) soon followed.
Other UK producers (notably Amicus) wanted some of the action, not to mention film makers in continental Europe, and Lee’s language skills saw him hopping from country to country throughout the next decade. It’s truly astonishing just how prolific he was in this period, so prolific in fact that he would sometimes protest that he had no recollection of making certain films, claiming to have been under the impression that he was making something else when he would turn up in a cameo in some godforsaken quickie, or worse, narrating a soft-core item like Eugenie (1970).
Additionally, although some fine films continued to come, Lee was increasingly disillusioned with the horror field. He played Dracula a total of seven times for Hammer alone, but felt increasingly emotionally blackmailed into doing so by the company that had made him world famous.
It must have been a relief for Lee to find himself on the side of good for The Devil Rides Out (1968), and its author Dennis Wheatley was so pleased with the adaptation that he offered Lee his entire back catalogue of occult thrillers to adapt. Sadly, To The Devil A Daughter (1976) would not be a success, disowned by Wheatley and marking the end of Lee’s association with Hammer.
The Wicker Man (1973) might be seen as a more pleasing epitaph to Lee’s genre career, and he (along with several others from the film’s cast and crew) would tirelessly champion the revival, phoenix-like of a film which its own studio had done its best to bury. The blu-ray release of the “final cut” in 2013 must have been a source of considerable satisfaction, for Lee declared it his finest role, as well as his best film.
After that triumphant performance, Lee generally sought to distance himself from the genre, wary of being permanently typecast. He was off to a flying start as a classic Bond villain (Scaramanga) in The Man With The Golden Gun (1974), as well as the dastardly Rochefort in the Musketeers series (starting in 1973), but he decided to leave for the USA to further reinvent his screen career. Once there, Lee famously turned down the role of Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978), although he later said he regretted it.
An appearance as a guest on Saturday Night Live alerted the audience to his untapped comedic skills, and a new generation of film makers who had grown up watching Lee were all too eager to work with him, with Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Tim Burton (to name a few) all calling on his services.
Lee underwent major heart surgery shortly before reuniting with his friend Cushing for the documentary Flesh And Blood: The Hammer Heritage Of Horror (1994). In a Radio Times interview at the time, Lee quipped that he had told doctors that his friend (Cushing) could do the surgery for free, but he couldn’t guarantee what he would look like afterwards.
Cushing and Lee had formed another, lesser known bond, as fellow fans of the cartoons of Warner Brothers and MGM. Lee’s impression of Sylvester the Cat was guaranteed to crack-up Cushing, and the two were once ejected from a cartoon cinema for laughing too loudly. At the recording of the documentary narration, the two were joking in the studio, impersonating Yosemite Sam and Jimmy Durante respectively, despite Cushing’s frail state (he passed away before the final episode was transmitted).
A return to the UK and appearance in the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (2000) perhaps sowed the seeds of Lee’s connection with a new generation of film fans, and his appearance as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy (2001-03) reminded world audiences why they loved him in the first place, whilst his role in the “new” Star Wars trilogy consolidated his standing. A knighthood was awarded in 2009, and he continued to work right up to the end of his life.
Sir Christopher passed away at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on the morning of June 7th, suffering respiratory problems and heart failure. British cinema has lost one of its greatest, most beloved performers. On a personal note, I have lost the man who popped up on our TV one August night in 1979, fully fanged and clad in his black cloak, and immediately convinced me that a life spent with cinema (horror or otherwise) might be a lot of fun.
Thank you, Sir Christopher, and rest in peace.
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