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We Remember Christopher Lee 1922-2015

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

We Remember Christopher Lee 1922-2015

Christopher Lee died on screen so many times that the news of his actual demise is hard to absorb. After all the times we've seen him stabbed and shot, impaled and immolated, it's something of a shock to realise that, this time, he won't be getting up, dusting himself off and getting ready to do it all over again.

He was born in 1922, of cosmopolitan stock: his maternal grandfather was an Italian Count while his cousin was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. Like so many of his generation, he was shaped by war – he joined the RAF in 1941, serving in Italy and (according to rumour) in the SAS.

Lee claimed it was the Italian ambassador to London – his cousin – who suggested he become an actor, their mutual grandmother had been an opera singer, after all. Whether or not this is true, he was soon spotted by the studio talent scouts.

Most of his early work in pictures was undistinguished – small roles, often as 'comedy' foreigners. The bland British cinema of the 1950s liked its leading men to be stolid and reliable; Lee was far too exotic a creature for them.

He was, then, under no illusions when Hammer films got in touch. That then-tiny studio wanted him for a role: not because of any talent but because he was tall (6'5”) and cheap. So it was he played the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. It was hardly taxing but it got his face known around the studio. And, as it happened, they had another film on the stocks and needed an actor to play the title role...

Hammer's Dracula changed everything. Playing a suave, sexual vampire, Lee was a sensation. His actual role in the film is small but Lee's Dracula casts a shadow over everything. He still does: it is surely the definitive on-screen interpretation of the Count.

In truth, Dracula was not a role that Lee especially liked; although he returned for the various sequels (out of loyalty to the studio and its technicians), the character itself bored him as he never had much to do. Not that you would ever guess that from the films: Lee was too professional ever to deliver a subpar performance.

Indeed, just like his friends and colleagues Peter Cushing and Boris Karloff, Lee never lowered his standards, even when appearing in films undeserving of his talents. And not all of them were: he worked prodigiously through his career – making three, four, five films a year, even in later years – and sometimes did not seem unduly concerned with selecting the best scripts.

Sometimes though, he was sent something special. Any list of his very best performances would include his turn as Mycroft Holmes in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the swashbuckling villain Rochefort in The Three Musketeers and, maybe best of all, as the genial fanatic in The Wicker Man, Lee's own favourite of the many films he made.

In another life, perhaps he might have played James Bond (indeed, Lee claimed Cousin Ian had agitated for his casting). As it was, he played one of the series' best villains – the three-nippled  hit man Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, opposite his old chum Roger Moore.

But while most of his age group were contemplating slowing down, Lee remained as busy as ever, often working with directors who had grown up on his films: Steven Spielberg allowed him to show his seldom-displayed comedy skills in 1941, Joe Dante put him in Gremlins 2: The New Batch and he formed a usual relationship with Tim Burton, starting with Sleepy Hollow.

Most of all, though, there was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, playing the bad wizard Saruman for Peter Jackson. It was a role that made Lee as famous to younger viewers as Dracula had made him to their grandparents.

And now he is no more. He was an actor who has been an active part of the cinema-going lives of three (at least) generations: no wonder he is being so mourned.

Few actors truly deserve to be called 'legendary'. Sir Christopher Lee was one of them.