Christopher Lee: The Legacy of a Fascinating Man
On June 7th of this year, the beloved actor and musician Christopher Lee died at the age of 93. The confirmation of his death was not released to the public until June the 11th, making sure that his family got the news first. His passing is truly saddening, and quite unexpected to most people, probably because he seemed like an actor that would be around forever. Unfortunately, like most great things in this would, nothing can last forever, and at least we can tell ourselves that he lived a long and full life. His acting career started all the way back in the late 40’s, and with a booming voice like his, he primarily portrayed villainous characters in many different genres. With huge franchises like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings under his belt, he was always considered a powerhouse in the eyes of horror and fantasy enthusiasts. What some people forget or never knew is that Christopher Lee has been a prolific musician through most of his life. Not only was he trained as an opera singer, but he also became very fascinated with heavy metal, even when he was older. There was so much to this man, and it is fascinating to look back on the long legacy he left behind.
With 278 acting roles in film and TV, Christopher Lee had one of the most extensive careers among working actors. Of course, like any actor, he started out in smaller roles in films like Corridor of Mirrors, A Song for Tomorrow, and even in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, in which he went uncredited. In the late 5o’s, Lee soon made a name for himself when he worked with the British film company, Hammer Films, which specialized in filming bloody and exploitive horror films. His first big role was in 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein, playing the mangled creature created by Dr. Frankenstein. In his early years, Lee was seen covered in a heavy amount of creature make-up in a couple of the Hammer Films; not only playing Frankenstein’s monster, but also as the Mummy in the 1959 version of The Mummy. When he was not covered in make up, he was well renowned for playing Dracula in seven films, starting with Horror of Dracula. Lee was one of the first actors that stepped away from Bela Lugosi’s famous portrayal of Dracula, and instead gave the character a whole new voice and persona.
Of course, no one can talk about Christopher Lee in Hammer Films without mentioning the actor, Peter Cushing. Lee and Cushing were essentially the bread and butter of Hammer Films, as having them both on screen usually ended in with entertaining results. They first met face to face in The Curse of Frankenstein, and ever since then, they have become ingrained as one of the best pairings in horror films. Peter Cushing was well known for playing Dr. Frankenstein in the Frankenstein series, as well as Van Helsing in the Horror of Dracula; so their characters were often seen at each other throats. Despite that, they were great friends in real life, and they both starred in 22 films together. Amazingly, both actors played Sherlock Holmes at one time or another. One example is in The Hounds of the Baskervilles, where Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes, and Christopher Lee played Sir Henry Baskerville. Lee would eventually wear the deerstalker hat himself in Sherlock Homes and the Deadly Necklace, and again almost 30 years later in the TV movie Sherlock Homes and the Leading Lady. He even played Mycroft Holmes in the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, deftly showing how much of a fan he was of the Sherlock Holmes character.
The more he played Dracula in the sequels, Lee soon started to hate playing the role and he showed this hatred by barely speaking in the roles. The Dracula films got worser with every sequel, and when one of the films titled Dracula A.D. 1972 has Dracula thrown into the 70’s, you can see why Lee hated these sequels so much. This did not stop him from playing Dracula again in the 1970 film Count Dracula, which was an attempt to faithfully tell the story from Bram Stoker’s novel. When he finished the last Dracula film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, he would move on to the 1973 film, The Wicker Man. In this mystery/horror cult classic, Lee played Lord Summerisle, the leader of an island filled with unusual and suspicious pagans. What made Lee and the film itself so unnerving is how disturbingly happy the pagan people acted on the island. It perfectly captures what it would be like to be in a cult, and the film itself stops feeling like a horror film because no supernatural elements ever appear. Even Christopher Lee himself does not consider the film to be a horror film. A year later, Lee played one of the best Bond villains as Scaramanga in the 1974 film, The Man with the Golden Gun. Even though the film itself is considered one of the weaker Bond films, Lee was born to play a role like this. He was essentially the duel opposite of Roger Moore’s Bond, considering they are both suave older men who are deadly in completely different ways. Interestingly enough, Christopher Lee was step-cousin to the writer of the original James Bond novels, Ian Fleming. In fact, Fleming wanted Lee to play the villain in the first Bond movie, Dr. No.
When the late 70’s came around, Lee stepped away from Hammer Films and from British films in general, as he waned to find new roles in the America film industry. For a while in his career, he was mostly given supporting roles in an array of different genres like comedy, action adventure, animation, fantasy and much more. This cemented him as a well-known character actor because he always seemed to grab people’s attention with his deep voice and intimidating appearance. With his booming voice and his immense height, standing at 6’5″, it is easy to see why he was casted as a villain most of the time, but he varied from threateningly sophisticated to delightfully cocky. He stepped into animation territory in The Last Unicorn, as the role of the untrustworthy King Haggard. Then in 1983, he showed off his singing voice in the musical/sci-fi /comedy The Return of Captain Invincible, playing Mr. Midnight. Even thought he sang in The Wicker Man, he showed the world his amazing vocal talent, while incorporating a bit of his opera singing as well. Check out this clip to see what a great singer he was. Christopher Lee sings ” Name your Poison”
Christopher Lee had not yet broken into the major movie market, and was not well known by mainstream viewers. He was even considered for the role of Magneto in the first X-Men film, but was replaced with Ian McKellen, another actor who was once unfamiliar to mainstream audiences. Then came arguably his most iconic role as Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings trilogy; a role that he was quite literally meant to play. The reason for this is he actually meet J.R.R. Tolkien in the flesh, when Tolkien was at the height of his popularity with his books. Ever since then, Lee had been a huge fan of The Lord of the Ring mythology, and even offered to play the role of Gandalf . Before assuming that Ian McKellen had once again snatched another role from Lee, Peter Jackson better saw Lee as the villain of the film, and Jackson’s decision payed off beautifully.
Lee’s Saruman was unforgettable, as he drew the audiences attention with his mere presence. When his last scene from The Return of The King was cut for the theatrical release, people were outraged, and Lee himself was disappointed of his scene was removed. As if one franchise was not enough, George Lucas also got Lee the play the role of Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II and III. If having Count in his name was not enough of a giveaway, Lucas was a huge fan of the Hammer horror films, considering he also casted Peter Cushing as General Tarkin in the originals Star Wars trilogy. It is a true testament to Lee as an actor that he could work around Lucas’s stilted and badly written dialogue, when even great actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor could not. Audiences may also recognize Christopher Lee in Tim Burton’s films like Sleepy Hollow as the Burgomaster, Charlie in the Chocolate Factory as Willy Wonka’s farther, and in Alice in Wonderland as the Jabberwocky.
Before his passing, he got to play Saruman again in The Hobbit trilogy, and it seemed fitting that he got to play a role that he has worked so hard for one last time. His last official role would be in the independent film, Angels in Nothing Hill. With so many roles under his belt, it can be hard to determine which film is his absolute best. Even though Lee has said some of his favorite roles were in The Wicker Man and in The Lord of the Rings films, his favorite performance was from a film a lot of audiences never got to see. The film was titled Jinnah, and it had Lee in the starring role as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan in the late 40’s. Despite being released in counties like the United Kingdom and Pakistan, it was never released in mainstream theaters, simply because it was about a Muslim leader. Not only is it a shame that Lee’s masterful performance went unseen to many people, but also because it was scrutinized for giving positive approval to the Muslim culture. The film was not about wanting to see the death of the Americans. It was the life story of a man who did not carry out terrorist ideals. People saw it as a propaganda film, when they failed so see it as a movie first. Just listen to Christopher Lee talk about the film himself.
It is not uncommon for film actors to show some sort of musical persona, and Christopher Lee is no exception. The musical genre Lee was prolifically trained in was opera, and he was inspired by one of his favorite operas, The Barber of Seville. Since his grandfather, Girolamo Carandini, was also a renowned opera singer, it only made sense that his parents would want his to carry on the tradition. Lee was trained in Sweden to sing opera, and he was taught by the great Jussi Björling, a tenor famous for singing in many European countries. While he undoubtably learned a lot from Björling, Lee was also trying to start his career in acting, and he could not financially balance the two professions, so he had to leave Sweden. Lee was able to show off his operatic talent in the 1970 artistically inspired film, Umbracle. The film was mainly made to demonstrate Lee’s operatic singing, and the only other cast member starring along side him was Jeannine Mestre. While he never sang as much opera when he got older, his affection for the art form has remained all his life. Also, he would apparently sing to warm up this throat before doing a scene in a film. Lee also tried is very best to see every single opera he could possibly find.
The reason that Lee has not sung in opera for a long time is partially because he was getting into heavy metal. Ever since he listened to the band Black Sabbath, the heavy metal art-form had always intrigued him. When guitarist Toni Iommi of Black Sabbath talked with Lee, he proudly admitted that the band was inspired by the Hammer horror films; so the inspiration comes full circle. Lee proved that you are never too old to do something new by contributing in his first metal album, at the age of 83. It was not until 2005 when he collaborated with the symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire, on the song The Magic of the Wizard Dream. Ever since, Lee had made a name for himself in independent heavy metal. Lee even made his very own album Revelation, showcasing Lee’s orchestral talent, as well as a bit of heavy metal. He continued to participate in metal albums like The Frozen Tears of Angels, The Cold Embrace of Fear, and Battle Hymns MMXI. Interestingly enough, he sung his own version of Christmas music, with a heavy metal influence in A Heavy Metal Christmas and A Heavy Metal Christmas Too. Even though Lee never got tattoos, or even banged his head a lot on stage, his contribution to heavy metal is impressive. He was bestowed the Spirit of Metal award, at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God award show. While he always considered himself an actor first, his music persona in nothing to sneeze at.
The Legacy He Left Behind
While it is always saddening to hear that a beloved actor or actress had passed away, it does give people the chance to reflect on their roles and persona, considering the actor will never be able to give one last performance. When looking over Christopher Lee’s career, one cannot help but notice that he took very big risks with the roles and professions he devoted himself to. It took courage to portray a Muslim leader considering the controversy that would follow it, even in a post 9/11 age. It also took courage to want to reinvent himself as a heavy metal singer in his old age. He showed how actors don’t need to follow a set of rules that Hollywood throws at you, but instead to just go with your gut, as scary as that may sound. He was respected by many people for his dedicated commitment to film and music, and it is shown by the slew of awards he has won though out his lifetime. He may have no Oscars, but he makes up for it by wining lifetime achievement awards, including the BAFTA award, the U.S. Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror award, the U.K. Empire award, and even the Bram Stroker award.
The other aspect of Christopher Lee that is worth noting is how he never saw his old age as a drawback. The simple fact that he released rock albums at his old age shows that he does not mind breaking conventions. Older actors and actresses always struggled to get roles in major Hollywood films, but Lee made his old age a lasting characteristic that audiences would admire and respect about him. He also never lost his enthusiasm for being in films, by always trying to give the best role he possibly could. It is disappointing to watch once-prominent actors like Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis to give lackluster performances in their older age; almost like they don’t care about the films they are in. Despite being upset with how the Dracula sequels turned out, Lee always tried to make lemons into lemonade with every film he made. Even if a film was garbage, he was one of those actors that could make a bad film just a little bit less unbearable, just with his appearance. Lee never came off as a grumpy old man, as he always showed admiration to his fans, and showed why everyone should live life to the fullest. It is funny how the actors that are synonymous with villain roles are really some of the most kindest people in real life.
We will miss you, Sir Christopher Lee.
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Christopher Lee Awards. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000489/awards
zimperliches videos (2009, September 7) Christopher Lee sings “Name Your Poison”[ Video file] Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ9se8i4ujs
smitrof (2007, June 27) Christopher Lee talks about his favorite role [ Video file] Retrieved from www. youtube.com/watch?v=CE_1ofnBFos
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