Cult Faction was deeply saddened by the death of Sir Christopher Lee at the age of 93 on 7th June 2015. The veteran actor, passed away at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London after being hospitalised for respiratory problems and heart failure. The decision to release the news days after was based on his wife’s desire to inform family members first. The couple had been married for over 50 years.
Sir Christopher Lee was a household name for any movie fan. Lee appeared in over 250 films and TV shows, and is still remembered for his roles in many of Hammer’s classic horror films including Dracula and The Mummy. Lee was also seen in one of the finest horror films ever made, The Wicker Man. The actor made an incredible Bond Villain in The Man With The Golden Gun, starred in several Tim Burton Movies and most recently in The Lord of the Rings trilogy as Saruman. He later returned to Middle Earth with The Hobbit Trilogy.
He was born Christopher Frank Carandini Lee on the 27th of May, 1922, in Belgravia, London. His father, Jeffrey Lee, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps and had been decorated for gallantry in both the Boer and Great wars. He was also one of England’s most respected amateur sportsmen – he had certainly made a name for himself. Christopher’s mother, on the other hand, had at birth been given a name to live up to. Her full title being the Contessa Estelle Marie Carandini di Sarzano, she was a noted Edwardian beauty, painted and sculpted by many of the great artists of the age. She was also a paragon of refinement, very conscious that the Carandinis are one of the oldest families in Europe, dating themselves back to the first century AD. They were close to the Emperor Charlemagne and granted the right to bear the coat of arms of the Holy Roman Empire by the later Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. A more recent ancestor, Cardinal Consalvi, was the Pope’s Secretary Of State in Napoleonic times, and is buried in the Pantheon next to Raphael.
Sadly, Christopher’s parents split when he was very young, and his mother took him and his older sister Xandra to Switzerland. Here he was enrolled at Miss Fisher’s Academy in Wengen, where he took a near-immediate interest in acting. Starting as he meant to go on, he made his debut as the demonic lead in a school production of Rumpelstiltskin. Soon though, the family returned to London, where Christopher studied at Wagner’s private school. Now his mother met and married Harcourt Rose, a well-to-do banker and the uncle of James Bond author Ian Fleming, and this new nuclear family came to live at Elm Park Gardens, Fulham.
In 1931, the young Count was sent off to Summer Fields prep school in Oxford. And it was here that he made the acquaintance of a fellow Future Paragon of Englishness, one Patrick Macnee. The pair would appear in many school plays together, with Lee always below Macnee in the credits. Nearly sixty years later, when Christopher played Sherlock Holmes for the first time since 1962 (having in the meantime played Holmes’ brother Mycroft and Sir Henry Baskerville), Macnee would be his Watson. Lee would also appear make a couple of guest appearances in Macnee’s The Avengers.
Beside his acting abilities, Christopher was a fine student, and would win a scholarship to Wellington College. A sportsman like his father, he excelled at squash, racquets and fencing, while being more than proficient at cricket, rugby, football and hockey. In class (what with his family and upbringing), he was a natural at languages, eventually becoming fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, while “getting along” in Swedish, Russian and Greek. He was also something of a classical scholar, delving into all things Greek and Roman.
Acting was certainly high on Christopher’s list of passions, but a career in acting was altogether different. There was something shabby, even unseemly about the stage and its denizens, a stigma that would surely bring shame upon a family as noble as the Carandinis. Instead, Christopher began his work life in the City of London, as an office boy and messenger, earning a paltry ‘1 a week. Fortunately – if one can call such an event fortunate – World War 2 broke out, and Lee spent the next five years working for the RAF and British Intelligence. He reached the rank of Flight Lieutenant, and was decorated for his distinguished service, in particular the time he volunteered for active service during the Winter War in Finland from 1939-40. His ancestors would have been proud.
But not for long. After being demobbed in 1946, Christopher wasn’t sure what to do next. He only knew that he DIDN’T want to be a dogsbody for some officious little prig for ‘1 a week. Maybe he would become a diplomat, as his mother wished (though he recognised that his overt honesty would not serve him well). Then came revelation. One day he was lunching at the Italian Embassy with his cousin Niccolo Carandini, the first post-WW2 Italian Ambassador. Carandini asked about Lee’s ambitions and likes. Acting was mentioned. Ah, ACTING, said Carandini. In the family’s blood, old fellow. Lee was, of course, surprised. But did he not know that his great-grandparents had founded Australia’s first opera company? That his great-grandfather was an acclaimed actor and singer? That his grandparents and great-aunts were ALL singers in Australia?
He most certainly did NOT know this. So, the stage life wasn’t so far beneath him after all. Via Carandini, meetings were arranged and, before long, Christopher had a 7-year contract with the Rank Organisation (though it only lasted for two). Life as an actor was difficult. At 6’ 5″, Lee towered over the average leading man, and was constantly told he was too tall for parts. He did get a few small roles, though, and made some fine initial connections. His feature debut, 1948’s Corridor Of Mirrors, was also the debut of director Terence Young, who’d go on to make the first few Bond films, while his third film, Song Of Tomorrow, was the debut of another directing Terence, this time Fisher, later the helmsman of Hammer classics like Curse Of Frankenstein, The Mummy and Horror Of Dracula – Lee’s breakthrough movies.
1948 brought Lee’s first roles. It also brought his first crushing embarrassment. While filming on one sound-stage, he discovered that a friend was working on a neighbouring stage, as an extra in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet (this was probably Macnee, who was an extra on the film, as was Lee’s famous co-star of later years, Peter Cushing – though Lee did not meet him here). The friend invited Lee over to watch the legendary Olivier at work. If he kept his mouth shut, they could dress him up as a soldier and he’d get an excellent view. So, over came Lee, soon togged up as a spear-carrier. He watched, and learned. And then it all went bad. As the play-within-the-play was acted out, and the horrible truth revealed, Claudius shouted out “Give me some lights!” And, sidestage, for some reason utterly unable to control his tongue, Lee loudly echoed him. “LIGHTS!” he called out. Then, realising what he’d done – he, a nothing, to Olivier, an EVERYTHING – he turned and ran. And he got away with it.
For the next 10 years, Lee took every role he could. There were period dramas like Gregory Peck’s Captain Horatio Hornblower and John Huston’s Moulin Rouge: there were romps, with Alistair Sim in Innocents In Paris, and Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate: and, of course, there were post-WW2 feel-good action flicks like Cockleshell Heroes and The Battle Of The River Plate. Lee played them all. He was a slave dealer, a Sudanese rebel, a bobby, a ghost, a submarine commander, the captain of a Spanish galleon. Gradually, the one-word roles became one-line roles. Then he was a real actor.
He was also, at one point, almost a singer. In the early Fifties, while working in Stockholm as an announcer for Swedish radio (in English), he once attended a party where, accompanied by a piano, he began belting out some of his beloved opera. Suddenly a more powerful voice joined in – it was the legendary singer Jussi Bjorling. Lee stopped, in awe, but Bjorling told him he was doing fine and the pair continued in tandem. Bjorling told Lee to attend the Swedish Opera the next day, to audition. He did, and was accepted. Sadly, he couldn’t afford the training. Instead, for several years, he attended amateur societies – under an assumed name.
And then, in 1957, came the breakthrough, when Lee was already 35. And ironically, considering how long he had to wait for decent dialogue, it came in the form of a non-speaking role. Not that he didn’t make noises. As Peter Cushing’s terrible creation in Curse Of Frankenstein, he squeaked and grunted pitiably. Without Karloff’s big square head and silly neck-bolts, he was an all-too-human amalgam, clearly childlike and unable to comprehend Frankenstein’s cowardly betrayal and his own awful fate.
As the Creature, Lee was fabulous. But, so heinously deformed, he was hardly a well-known face. That changed instantly, when he played Dracula to Cushing’s Van Helsing in Fisher’s Horror Of Dracula – the first Hammer Drac-flick. Again, Lee was tremendous as the immortal Count. He was compelling, charismatic, dead sexy, monumentally still then a blur of crazy, remorseless action. Lee later wrote that he identified with Dracula’s “stillness, punctuated by bouts of manic energy” his power complex – and by no means least the fact that he was an embarrassing member of a great and noble family”.
Lee, alongside Cushing, would play Dracula for Hammer right up until 1974 (and would reprise the role on many other occasions for the more tawdry likes of Jesus Franco). He stopped only because the role no longer interested him, Dracula had become no more than a killing machine, spouting inanely apocalyptic one-liners. He did enjoy the ride though. He later recalled one moment when, as deadly dawn broke, he had to pick up a girl and hurl her into a grave. Filled with adrenalin, he seized her up, threw her in and, unbalanced by his own powerful momentum, fell in on top of her. On rising from the grave, he heard Cushing’s clipped and ultra-civilised voice say “We are not making THAT kind of film, dear fellow”. There was also the problem of the lenses. Everyone thought Lee looked amazing with red lenses so he wore them. But, covering his whole eye and being far from the delicate items of today, they blinded him completely. He says he lost count of the number of times he surged past the camera and, out of shot, straight into a wall.
The Horror Of Dracula made him a star. “It was the one that made the difference”, Lee said later. “It brought me a name, a fan club and a second-hand car, for all of which I was grateful”.
A couple more classics quickly followed. Lee had his tongue memorably ripped out as Kharis, the fearsome Mummy, then made a superb Henry Baskerville opposite Cushing’s Holmes. There was very little money in these parts, so Lee had to keep working in order to live (or APPEAR to live) like a Carandini. He began to make gothic horror movies in Europe, particularly Italy. There was also a truly bizarre period, as the Fifties turned into the swinging Sixties, when he played denizens of Soho’s funky underworld. He appeared with Jayne Mansfield in Too Hot To Handle, then as a lecherous dance hall owner, leering at the gyrating young ladies in Adam Faith’s Beat Girl.
The Sixties brought some interesting roles, and some more classics. He played a pervy ghost for horror meister Mario Bava in The Body And The Whip. He was grave robber Resurrection Joe, alongside Boris Karloff in The Doctor From Seven Dials (for a while, he actually lived next door to Karloff in London). He was the undying Ayesha’s right-hand man in the epic She. There was The Gorgon, and that segmented late-night favourite Dr Terror’s House Of Horrors.
In the meantime, another of Lee’s famous characters was born. In 1961, he’d played Chung King, the vicious and cruel head of a Chinese gang in Hong Kong, in The Terror Of The Tongs. Now the character blossomed into someone far mightier, far meaner. Lee introduced this new crime lord in 1965, in The Face Of Fu Manchu, along with naughty daughter Tsai Chin and good-guy nemesis Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard. Another series was spawned.
And there was more, so much more. Lee’s second Drac-flick for Hammer – Dracula: Prince Of Darkness, where Lee is reborn thanks to a servant bleeding some poor sod over his master’s ashes – proved to be the best. Then all his charisma and erotic potential was brought to bear in one of his finest roles, as Rasputin: The Mad Monk. Not that he was always a meanie. In the superb black magic thriller, The Devil Rides Out, Lee was excellent when protecting a couple of young lovers from Satan’s-butt-kissing hypnotist Charles Gray.
As the Seventies rolled in, Christopher dealt mostly in sequels and rip-offs, often taking the rise out of his most memorable onscreen creations. Then, suddenly, there was another burst of greatness. In the all-star Three Musketeers and its follow-up, he was truly vile and sinister as Rochefort. For his pains, he was stabbed in the knee and broke several ribs. Nothing new for Christopher, who usually performed his own stunts. During The Mummy, he’d broken three ribs, torn all the muscles in his shoulder, dislocated his collarbone and nearly drowned – twice. He is, unsurprisingly, an honorary member of three stuntmen’s unions.
Next came the glorious Wicker Man, written by Sleuth-author Anthony Schaffer. This remains Lee’s favourite role, as Lord Summerisle, pagan top dog on an island in the Hebrides, who tricks and then ritually sacrifices the very Christian and sexually repressed policeman Edward Woodward. The Wicker Man is truly one of the greatest horror films ever made – though it was not released in the US for several years, as distributors felt no one would understand the thick Scottish accents.
Then there was Scaramanga. Back in 1962, Lee had come very close to an international fame that was not cult-based when Ian Fleming wanted him to play Dr No, the villain in the first Bond film. All the signs were good. He was Fleming’s cousin by marriage, the pair were great friends and golfing partners, Lee’s sister Xandra had worked with Fleming at the Admiralty during WW2 AND the movie was directed by another close acquaintance, Terence Young. Yet somehow the role went to Joseph Wiseman and Lee had to content himself with playing that other fiendish Asian, Fu Manchu (Lee’s Fu Manchu, as it turned out, was just as Fleming had wanted Dr No to be).
But 1974 brought a second chance with The Man With The Golden Gun. Lee was wonderful as the million-dollars-a-hit super-assassin Francisco Scaramanga, he of keen aim and three nipples. What was best about the performance, though, was that Lee stayed true to his aim of making his villains unconventional. So Scaramanga, the anti-Bond, behaves like a thrilled child when confronting his hero/nemesis Roger Moore.
The mid-Seventies brought the end of Lee’s association with Hammer. The Satanic Rites of Dracula was his final vamp-pic for them, and he bowed out entirely with To the Devil a Daughter, co-starring a very young Nastassja Kinski and, like The Devil Rides Out, written by Dennis Wheatley. He needed to try something new. His production company, Charlemagne (named after that old family connection), had not done well with its debut, Nothing but the Night. And Lee was having trouble escaping horror roles, even having to play Lucifer in the comedy Poor Devil, with Sammy Davis Jr as his hapless assistant.
So, he moved to California, along with his wife and daughter. Back in 1961, Lee had married the Danish painter Gitte Kroencke, a beautiful woman who’d also modelled for Chanel and Dior. Their daughter was named Christina.
In the States, Lee’s first role was in the disaster flick Airport ’77. It wasn’t a horror part; indeed he spent much of his time next to Jack Lemmon. But, all the same, he ended up floating past the windows of the submerged aircraft and scaring the pants off everybody. Despite turning down the Donald Pleasance role in Halloween, he seemed preternaturally entwined with horridness. In Return from Witch Mountain, alongside Bette Davis, he frightened Disney’s kiddie audience. In The Passage, as a gypsy, he horrified everyone by getting burned alive by mega-Nazi Malcolm McDowell. Could Spielberg save him? No. Appearing in 1941 didn’t help anybody.
But Lee kept trying, and the good parts slowly came his way again. In 1983’s The House of Long Shadows, he was reunited with Peter Cushing, as well as horror heroes Vincent Price and John Carradine. There were a couple of excellent miniseries in The Far Pavilions and Shaka Zulu. He was the psychotic Dr Catheter in Gremlins 2 and a fearsome but eventually lovely Latin teacher in A Feast at Midnight.
And, incredibly, as he approached the age of 80, it kept getting better. Fear-fan Tim Burton cast him in Sleepy Hollow and he made a super Flay in the BBC’s hugely expensive Gormenghast (why, oh why didn’t they get Terry Gilliam to direct it?). And there was a very, very important moment that many will have missed. Due to reputation, circumstance, whatever, Lee was always forced to lend his mighty gravitas to fictional, “not serious” characters. In 1998, after fifty years in the business, he was finally cast in a “real” role, as Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern-day Pakistan. He was, naturally, magnificent, despite being surrounded constantly by bodyguards. It wasn’t that the locals despised the notion of an Englishman playing their national hero; rather they hated Lee’s association with the Drac-man.
Come 2002, and Christopher Lee starred in two of the biggest productions ever – Attack Of The Clones and The Fellowship Of The Ring (he’s actually the only person associated with Lord Of The Rings that met JRR Tolkien, having, with some mates, visited the old man’s local pub in Oxford back in the Fifties, and had Tolkien chat away to them). In Attack of the Clones he was former Jedi knight Count Dooku, leading political separatists in a sly plot to assassinate Natalie Portman’s Padme Amidala. Then, in The Fellowship of the Ring, he made a startlingly good Saruman, engaging in a magical duel with Ian McKellen’s Gandalf, crushing him, taunting him and thoroughly revelling in his victory. Part Two, The Two Towers, would see him at it again, this time drawing together a massive Uruk-hai army and, alongside his frightful sidekick Grima Wormtongue, attempting to destroy both Man and Middle Earth on behalf of the dark lord Sauron. Classic stuff.
There would be trouble, though, with the trilogy’s third instalment, when director Peter Jackson cut his original opening, thus leaving Lee’s performance on the cutting-room floor (or rather solely on the extended DVD version). Lee was far too proud and professional to be anything other than massively disgruntled – though his contract prevented him from being publicly blistering. Indeed it was a slightly disappointing time, with Christopher also not winning the part of Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise after Richard Harris’s sad demise. That would have made an unbelievable hat-trick of super-successes.
But even then he wasn’t simply interested in blockbusters. Ever curious and professional, he’d seek to distract himself with Graduation Day, a Kevin Smith-style US rom-com where a youngster about to be married is plagued by the reappearance of his first big crush. Then he’d pop up alongside Jean Reno in the Luc Besson-penned follow-up to the bloody French thriller Crimson Rivers. And the work-rate would not let up as he moved on to the fantastical likes of The Last Unicorn and May Day, formerly The Riding of the Laddie. The latter would see him as a town magus in Scotland, married to Vanessa Redgrave. Along comes Sean Astin (Lee’s co-star in The Lord Of The Rings) and Leann Rimes, born-again American Christians, who go a-knocking door-to-door, only for deep-rooted strangeness to rear its head – much as it did so movingly in Lee’s own The Wicker Man.
What a crazy career Christopher Lee had. Though best-known as Evil Incarnate, he had done everything. As well as his career in film, Lee also released a series of heavy metal albums, including Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. In the Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats, he’s down as the international star with the most screen credits. Profoundly cosmopolitan, he filmed in Russian, Italian, French, Spanish and German, and he’s worked with such luminaries as John Huston, Joseph Losey, Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, Michael Powell, Spielberg, Bava, Burton and Jodorowsky. He was damn funny too. The Saturday Night Live he hosted back in 1978 remains the third most popular show in SNL history. On top of this, he was made a CBE in 2001, he appeared on the cover of one of the biggest-selling LPs ever, Wings’ Band on the Run, and he’s the Official Centre of the Hollywood Universe. Yes, according to the Oracle of Kevin Bacon, Christopher can be linked to anyone in a mere 2.59 steps, less than Charlton Heston and even Bacon himself.
Christopher Lee still has one film yet to be released, the fantasy film Angels in Notting Hill, where he plays a godly figure who looks after the universe. He was also set to star in 9/11 drama The 11th opposite Uma Thurman but it’s believed that the film hadn’t yet started production.
In an interview in 2013, Lee spoke about his love of acting. “Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life,” he said. “I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, and it gives life purpose.”
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