Christopher Lee… what can you say about this legendary figure? Let’s start out with a few facts. First, he was born in London in 1922 and kicked off his acting career in film and television in 1948. That made him one of the longest working actors in Hollywood history. During that time, he appeared in 244 films which earned his a Guinness World Record for most screen credits. He also has two others for being the tallest leading man (6 feet 5 inches) and he appeared in the highest amount of movies with sword fights (17).
For those of you who don’t know, he passed away last week at the age of 93. He had an amazing career that spanned decades. Though some say Kevin Bacon has the most connections with his famous six degrees game, it’s been proven Christopher Lee is a little more connected. Makes sense right? He starred in hundreds of horror flicks and became a cult classic villain icon because of these roles. Most know him as Saruman from Lord of the Rings, but let’s dive deeper into the career of one of the most legendary actors.
After slugging his way for ten years through TV and small film roles which includes a little known role as the Monster in a fifties Frankenstein remake, he landed his most famous part; Dracula. The 1958 British version Horror of Dracula has been called the very best. Lee’s portrayal of the classic count is cunning, witty, and even charming. He packs so much fear and intensity into the role that he is no doubt one of the first people we remember when we think of Dracula. In fact, he would go on to play the character nine more times in a series of films. By the end, he was so tired and dissatisfied with the scripts, he refused to say the lines and simply grunted and groaned in the last one.
This turned him into a go to horror actor that type cast him as villains and monsters. Through the 1960’s he played anything from Sherlock Holmes, Rasputin, Dr. Fu Manchu, and the villain in the Three Musketeers movies. It wasn’t until the mid 1970’s until he was taken seriously as a dramatic actor. His cult classic horror film The Wicker Man stands as a darker and more twisted and realistic look at the genre. He is also best remembered for his 1974 Bond villain Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun. In fact, he was distantly related to James Bond creator Ian Flemming. He finished out the decade by hosting Saturday Night Live with musical guest Meatloaf. It is by far the strangest and most fascinating episode no one seems to talk about in the forty years of that show.
And while Lee tried to shake up his image in the eighties and nineties, his career lagged and he found himself in few hits. He became a caricature of himself, appearing in anything from Police Academy to Gremlins 2. He did voice work in kid cartoon movies like The Last Unicorn. It wasn’t until he would meet gothic horror enthusiast Tim Burton that his career would see a resurge. Being a fan, Burton cast Lee in a small role in Sleepy Hollow (1999). Their partnership proved to be strong, resulting in several films together including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, Alice in Wonderland, and Dark Shadows.
Of course, we all know his big role came in the form as another villain, Saruman in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Lee is the only cast member to actually meet Tolkien who also a lifelong fan of his work. Lee took a part in a crappy TV movie just to prove to the producers he could play a wizard when he heard they were making a live adaption of the books. He got the role and has since become a signature symbol for the series. His other big role came through another series, Star Wars. He appears as Count Dooku in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but by this time he was in his mid eighties. The back flips during the Yoda light saber fight obviously isn’t him, but the illusion that he can kick some serious ass is for sure there.
Christopher Lee never won a major award or was nominated for an Oscar or Golden Globe. His last film role was Saruman in The Hobbit which is sort of a fitting end of a long career playing villains. Many know him for classic horror and for his portrayal of Dracula and Bond fans claim he is one of the all time great bad guys. Heavy Metal enthusiasts even got their piece of the action when at age ninety he started a heavy metal band and released an album. British gentleman, hardcore rocker, and incredible actor some say has always been a vampire all along. Think what you will, this man has certainly made a large dent in film history and will be sadly missed. If you watch a film, there’s a good chance he was in it.