Actor of aristocratic bearing who was closely identified with the role of Dracula and played Saruman in The Lord of the Rings
11 Jun 2015
Sir Christopher Lee, the actor, who has died aged 93, defined the macabre for a generation of horror film enthusiasts with his chilling portrayals of Count Dracula; in a career that spanned more than half a century Lee played the sinister vampire no fewer than nine times in productions including Dracula (1958), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973).
With his saturnine glamour and striking physique — at a gaunt 6ft 4in he was a dominating physical presence with an aristocratic bearing, dark, penetrating eyes and a distinctive sepulchral voice — Lee was an ideal candidate to play the bloodsucking Count. “Dracula is a very attractive character,” he insisted, “he’s so heroic – erotic too. Women find him irresistible. We’d all like to be him.”
After almost 20 years of playing Dracula, Lee eventually tired of the role. He moved to the United States where he enjoyed a lucrative career in both films and made-for-television mini-series such as The Far Pavilions and Shaka Zulu. While in America, Lee resisted all offers of parts in soap operas including Dallas and Dynasty.
“You find yourself appearing with 15 other guest stars,” he recalled, “and word gets round that you’re on the skids.” Instead he surprised his fans by accepting “voice roles” in various animated films, playing Uncle Drosselmeyer in Nutcracker Fantasy (1979) and King Haggard in The Last Unicorn (1980). More surprising still was his acceptance of the role of Prince Philip in the ill-fated television film Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982).
After decades in the film industry, Lee remained as eager as ever to take on new roles. At one point in his early seventies he appeared in 12 different films within 14 months. “I get restless and frustrated if I don’t work,” he explained. “I like a continual challenge.” In his eighties he gained a new audience, bringing sulphurous intensity to the role of Saruman in Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings films.
Lee’s one regret, he maintained, was his decision not to become an opera singer. “I was born with the gift of a very good voice,” he said, “and I have been asked to sing in various concerts but I’m too old now.” Late in life, however, he was persuaded to lend his rich bass tones as a narrator to various heavy metal records including those of the symphonic power metal group Rhapsody of Fire. In 2010 he released an album of his own, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross, followed two years later by Charlemagne: The Omens of Death.
Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was born on May 27 1922 in Belgravia, London, the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Trollope-Lee of the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps. Lee’s father had fought in both the Boer and Great Wars and had later married an Italian contessa, Estelle Maria Carandini, a descendant of the Borgias whose parents had founded the first Australian opera company. Among Lee’s stories of his early life he claimed that his father was descended from a band of gypsies in Hampshire and that his mother was descended from Charlemagne.
Christopher’s parents were divorced when he was four and his mother remarried. Lee grew up in his stepfather’s house, where he was waited on by a staff of five (a butler, two footmen, a chauffeur and a cook). He attended Wagner’s in Queensgate and Summerfields, and sat for a scholarship to Eton before being sent to the more affordable Wellington College where he distinguished himself as a classical scholar.
Fluent in Italian and French, in later life Lee added Spanish, German, Russian, Swedish, Danish and Greek to his repertoire. When his alcoholic stepfather was bankrupted in 1938 Christopher was forced to leave school at 17 in order to find work. For the next 12 months he worked as a city messenger, licking stamps and making tea for a wage of £1 a week.
When the Second World War broke out, Lee joined the RAF and was promoted to flight lieutenant. He won six campaign medals, was mentioned in despatches and received decorations from Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. He also worked for British Intelligence. “Serving in the Armed Forces was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he insisted. “I did not know how other people lived.”
After the war, Lee served with the Central Registry of War Crimes, work that took him to concentration camps including Dachau, but when he was demobbed at the age of 24, he remained undecided about which career to pursue. He toyed with the idea of becoming a ballet dancer, opera singer and diplomat before his cousin (at that time the Italian ambassador to the Court of St James) suggested he try acting.
Greatly against his mother’s wishes — (“Just think of all the appalling people you’ll meet!” she warned him) — Lee met the Italian head of Two Cities Films, part of the J Arthur Rank Organisation, signed a seven-year contract, and joined the Rank Company of Youth (otherwise known as the Rank Charm School) in 1946. He made his film debut with a bit part in Corridor of Mirrors (1948).
A succession of “walk-on” parts ensued until, in 1951, he appeared in a speaking part as a swarthy Spanish sea captain in Captain Horatio Hornblower RN. It was one of Lee’s last films for Two Cities and when his contract ran out neither he nor the Rank Organisation were eager to renew it. Instead Lee accepted roles in a television series — made in Britain but shown first in America — Douglas Fairbanks Presents, appearing in some 40 half-hour productions.
After a series of military film roles in the mid-1950s, including a lieutenant in Innocents in Paris (1953), a submarine commander in The Cockleshell Heroes and a captain in That Lady (both 1955), Lee landed his first horror role for Hammer Films. He played the Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), a part which required him to be coated in artificial gangrene and which left him looking, in his opinion, “like a road accident”.
Described as “the first gothic horror film made by Hammer”, The Curse of Frankenstein was graphic in its depiction of large quantities of gore. The film was extremely popular and Lee, playing opposite the studio’s resident star Peter Cushing, was enormously successful as the monster. Realising that a film about Bram Stoker’s vampiric Transylvanian nobleman might prove equally successful, a Hammer executive, James Carreras, offered Lee the role of the Count in their next production, Dracula.
The film proved to be one of the seminal horror movies of the 1950s. Lee looked the part (tall and thin, as in Stoker’s novel) and imbued the character with a dynamic, feral quality that had been lacking in earlier portrayals. With his bloody fangs and bright red eyes ablaze, Lee made a frighteningly believable vampire. In contrast with Bela Lugosi’s eerie, somnambulistic count of the 1930s, Lee spoke his lines with crisp assurance and tried to portray what he described as “the essence of nobility, ferocity and sadness”.
With Cushing cast this time as the vampire hunter, Dracula (retitled Horror of Dracula in America) was a box-office success for Hammer and horror aficionados at the time labelled it “the greatest horror movie ever made”. Lee also regarded it as the best of the series of Dracula films which he made with Hammer. “It’s the only one I’ve done that’s any good,” he recalled. “It’s the only one that remotely resembles the book.”
With the success of his portrayal of the Count, Lee treated himself to a grey, second-hand Mercedes and became established as a horror star for the first time. He was swamped with offers of film roles and took leading parts in several films throughout the late 1950s.
In productions such as The Man Who Could Cheat Death, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Mummy (all 1959), Lee played characters ranging from Sir Henry Baskerville to a 2,000-year-old corpse. He later claimed that the make-up for The Mummy was so uncomfortable that he swore never to submit to special effects again. The exceptions were the essential red contact lenses for his appearances as Dracula. Lee found the lenses excruciatingly painful but, as he had worn them in the first film, continuity demanded that he wear them in all subsequent productions.
Lee continued to be in demand throughout the 1950s and 1960s, starring in more than 20 films in only six years. Although he accepted some unlikely projects (including The Terror of the Tongs and The Devil’s Daffodil, both in 1961), he was also able to make films in which he had a personal interest. He had long wanted to play the Chinese arch-villain Fu Manchu and in 1965 he was offered the title role in The Face of Fu Manchu. The film was so popular that a series of four more were filmed, including Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968) and Vengeance of Fu Manchu (1968). After roles in horror films such as Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors and The Skull (both 1965), Lee returned to his earlier incarnation in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966).
He was less happy with this second film. He had become too expensive a star for the Hammer studios, and in a cost-cutting measure his scenes were kept to a minimum and remained devoid of dialogue. Lee was reduced to making a soft hissing noise which drew laughter from audiences when the film was screened. He enjoyed more success with the lead in Rasputin, The Mad Monk (1966). Although the film was badly flawed, Lee was convincing in the title role.
After The Devil Rides Out (1968), a suspenseful adaptation of a Dennis Wheatley novel with Lee as an aristocrat in pursuit of devil-worshippers, he returned to the role of Dracula in Dracula has Risen from the Grave, on the understanding that he would have well-scripted dialogue. The film made more money than previous Hammer productions and Lee was persuaded to appear in the 1970 project, Scars of Dracula. But he had by this time become disenchanted with the role. He feared he was being typecast and that the quality of scriptwriting had deteriorated to an unacceptable level.
Nevertheless Hammer were eager to continue with Lee as their horror star and persuaded him to make two more Dracula films that year. After rapidly completing Taste the Blood of Dracula and The Magic Christian, Lee devoted himself to non-vampire roles for a period.
Later in 1970 he played Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (“so commandingly good,” reported The Sunday Telegraph, “that this must surely be the end of shabby Draculas for him”) and followed it with a tiny appearance as Artemidorus in Julius Caesar in 1971. After four more Dracula films, including a modern interpretation titled Dracula AD 1972 and The Satanic Rites of Dracula the year after, Lee was increasingly unhappy with the manner in which the character was being portrayed. “It’s ridiculous,” he complained, “you can’t have Dracula in a modern office block, it completely undermines the original idea.”
Taking another break from the Count, Lee appeared in one of his favourite films, The Wicker Man (1973), playing a Scots laird who practises human sacrifice in the 20th century. He then went on to play the evil one-eyed Comte de Rochefort in both The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) before appearing in his first Bond film as the assassin Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (also 1974). Lee was finally persuaded to make one more Dracula-style film in the 1970s, Dracula Père et Fils (1976), before giving up the role for good.
Despite his physical likeness to the Count, Lee’s affinity with his baleful character stopped there. Throughout his career he had a reputation for being a long-winded raconteur whose reminiscences tended to focus on himself. In 1976, when Lee left Britain for the US, the move prompted an acquaintance to joke that “the population of Los Angeles were dusting out their bomb shelters in anticipation of a barrage of anecdotes”. According to another account, on one occasion an actress got off an aircraft looking ashen and exhausted. Questioned about her health by airport staff, she explained that she had been seated next to Lee and that he had not stopped talking about himself during the 10-hour flight.
Through the late 1970s, Lee continued to make films at a prodigious rate, appearing in 10 in two years. He accepted roles as diverse as Captain Rameses in the science fiction film Starship Invasions (1977) and that of the head gypsy in the Second World War drama The Passage (1979).
In the 1980s, Lee combined his film career with a return to television, appearing in mini-series including Charles and Diana: A Royal Love Story (1982) and The Far Pavilions (1984). In 1985 he suffered a heart attack, returned to London and underwent heart surgery. Instead of seeing this as a signal to retire, Lee was back at work within a year and had returned to the horror genre for the dreadful The Howling II (1986), subtitled Your Sister is a Werewolf in America.
Although Lee continued to work prolifically throughout his life, he never again enjoyed the same success as when playing Dracula. He made some fatuous comedies in the mid-1980s such as Rosebud Beach Hotel (1985) and Jocks (1986), and continued into the 1990s with a starring role in the spoof horror film Gremlins II — The New Batch.
He starred in the title role of Jinnah soon after the 50th anniversary of the founding of Pakistan in 1997, and was Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (2002). He returned to the same role in Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith in 2005, and was the wizard Saruman in two of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films (2001-2002), in two of his Hobbit series (2012-14) and in various video games.
With Uma Thurman, Lee was due to appear as a retired surgeon in The 11th, a film about the lead-up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, to be shot this autumn.
Reflecting near the end of his life about the role of Dracula, Lee said: “There is a lot of misunderstanding about me in that role. It had never been played properly before that. With me it was all about the power of suggestion to make the unbelievable believable.”
He published two volumes of autobiography — Tall, Dark and Gruesome (1977) reissued as Lord of Misrule (1997) — and was appointed CBE in 2001. He was knighted in 2009 and made a fellow of Bafta in 2011.
Christopher Lee is survived by his Danish wife, Birgit (née Kroencke), a painter and Dior model known as Gitte, whom he married in 1961, and by their daughter Christina.
Sir Christopher Lee, born May 27 1922, died June 7 2015
On the industry: "There are many vampires in the world today - you only have to think of the film business"
On fame: "In Britain, any degree of success is met with envy and resentment."
On James Bond: "Pierce Brosnan was by far the best and closest to the character."
On Hammer Horror: "They gave me this great opportunity, made me a well-known face all over the world for which I am profoundly grateful."
On his craft: "I think acting is a mixture of instinct, imagination and inventiveness. All you can learn as an actor is basic technique."
On Peter Cushing: "He really was the most gentle and generous of men. I have often said he died because he was too good for this world."
On the wider world: "There is decline in morals, ideals, manners, respect, truthfulness: just about everything, in fact."
Actor known for villainous or sinister roles in films from Hammer horror to James Bond and The Lord of the Rings
Thursday 11 June 2015
Sir Christopher Lee, who has died aged 93, achieved his international following through playing monsters and villains. In his 30s, he was Dracula, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s creature; in his 80s, Count Dooku in Star Wars and the evil wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings. Along the way he was Rasputin, Fu Manchu several times and Scaramanga – the man with the golden gun – opposite Roger Moore as a weak 007, whom Lee did something to offset. For the last of these he was paid £40,000 – his highest fee, among hundreds of screen appearances, until the blockbusters of his later years. “The Bonds get the big money, and they save on the heavies,” he said.
Lee became an actor almost by accident. Through birth and education he seemed a more likely candidate for the diplomatic ladder, but he never reached the first rung. His father, Geoffrey, a colonel much decorated in the first world war, wrecked through gambling his marriage to Estelle, the daughter of the Italian Marquis de Sarzano, and a society beauty of the 1920s. Christopher was born in Belgravia, London. His education at Wellington college, Berkshire, ended abruptly at 17, and he had to get along on the pittance of a City clerk.
But the second world war might be said to have rescued him, making him an intelligence officer with an RAF squadron through north Africa and Italy. At the end, he was seconded for a period with a unit investigating war crimes. Though demobbed with the rank of lieutenant, he had suffered a psychological trauma in training and was never a pilot. In his later civilian life he was endlessly required to fly as a passenger, and it was barely a consolation to him having his film contracts stipulate that he travel first class.
Without previous aspirations or natural talent for acting, except a pleasing dark baritone voice that he exercised in song at home and abroad every day of his life, he was pushed towards film by one of his influential Italian relatives, Nicolò Carandini, then president of the Alitalia airline, who backed the suggestion with a chat to the Italian head of Two Cities Films, Filippo del Giudice. Lee was put on a seven-year contract by the Rank entertainment group, with the executive who signed his contract saying: “Why is Filippo wasting my time with a man who is too tall to be an actor?”
His height – 6ft 4in, kept upright by his lofty temperament and fondness for playing off scratch in pro-am golf tournaments – actually proved helpful in securing him the parts for which he had the most affinity: authority figures. He lent a severe and commanding presence to James I of Aragon in The Disputation (1986), the Comte de Rochefort in The Three Musketeers (1973), Ramses II in Moses (1995), the cardinal in L’Avaro (1990), a high priest in She (1965), the Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Ivanhoe (1958) and the Duc in The Devil Rides Out (1968).
He shared his aptness for sinister material with two friends who lived near his London home in a Chelsea square: the writer of occult thrillers Dennis Wheatley and the actor Boris Karloff. The latter once cheered him up when Lee was overloaded with horror roles, remarking, “Types are continually in work.”
Lee initially studied method acting at Rank’s “charm school”, where he was supposed to spend six months of the year in rep. But floundering at the Connaught in Worthing, and humiliated by audience laughter when he put his hand through a window supposedly made of glass, he recognised that the theatre was not his metier and never went near the stage again. Perhaps the most useful coaching Rank gave him was in swordplay: across his career he fought in more screen duels than opponents such as Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks put together.
Terence Young gave Christopher his first – and minimal – chance before the film cameras in Corridor of Mirrors (1948). Over the next 10 years, he played secondary and anonymous characters in a miscellany of mostly low-budget British films. This had a lasting effect into his later years: he would accept virtually any role. The film that lifted him out of obscurity, and showed him to Times Square as a 50ft-tall vampire, was the Hammer production of Dracula in 1958. It cost £82,000 and earned £26m, of which Christopher’s take was £750. It was the first time he and Peter Cushing worked together, in a pairing that lasted through 22 films.
It was often said in the film business that it was not easy to make friends with Lee. But he always knew his part, and he was always in the right place, so that he was at any rate approved by the cameramen. Furthermore, three other actors who also enjoyed sinister roles in exploitation movies kept a quartet of friendship with him: Cushing, Karloff and Vincent Price.
Lee’s particular difference as Dracula was his height and powerful showing, and his terrifying presence even when no words had been written for him. But while admitting that Dracula had been his cornerstone, he eventually left the role to others, and later regretted letting himself in for so many of the vampire’s increasingly absurd adventures.
He took work wherever he could find it, including five times as Fu Manchu. When he could not find roles in Britain, he cast about in France, Italy, Spain and Germany. His ability to say his lines in their languages was a great advantage when it came to dubbing. He became the first actor to play both Sherlock Holmes and, for the director Billy Wilder in 1970, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. While shooting by Loch Ness in Scotland, Wilder remarked to him, as they walked in the twilight by the spooky stretch of dark water with bats wheeling about: “You must feel quite at home here.”
Supporting roles in action pictures – as a Nazi officer, a western gunman and a pirate – extended not only his portfolio but also the range of lead actors who were his idols. Among them was Burt Lancaster, whose example as his own stunt man Lee strove to emulate. Lancaster once warned him against journalists: “Never let them get too close.” Lee liked to give interviews, but resented the results, since they invariably harped on about Dracula despite his protestations that he had left the “prince of darkness” behind.
Given this attitude, he rather surprisingly gave me, a journalist, the job of ghostwriting his autobiography, which was published in 1977 as Tall, Dark and Gruesome. In 2003, after he had played several roles a year for 25 more years, we updated the story as Lord of Misrule.
Lee had come nearest to producing something lasting for the cinema in 1973, playing the pagan Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man. With a marvellous script by Anthony Shaffer, and despite almost no money for production, it was a rare horror film that proved to have a long life. Lee was prevented by injury from taking the role of Sir Lachlan Morrison in a sequel, The Wicker Tree (2011), though he made a cameo appearance as “Old Gentleman”.
After the high-profile part in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), Lee – at the urging of Wilder – left Britain for Hollywood. America delivered some of his hopes. On the downside was the disaster film Airport 77; on the upside, a completely unexpected comic success hosting Saturday Night Live on TV, with such stars as John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. In among the 40 jobs he undertook in the 1970s, Lee’s sword and sorcery, murder and spook movies made way for his roles as a U-boat captain in Spielberg’s 1941 (1979), a Hell’s Angel biker in Serial (1980) and, back in Europe, the studied interpretation of executioner Charles Henri Sanson as a dandy, for a 1989 French TV history of the Revolution. Lee was fascinated by public executions. His move to the US allowed him the opportunity to see the electric chair firsthand, in a similarly detached mood of inquiry with which he had previously invited England’s last hangman to come to his house and talk about his own career. One of his favourite pastimes was visiting Scotland Yard’s Black Museum.
He worked on tirelessly, becoming a familiar figure in the studios of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, the Balkans, the Baltic and Russia; he also made films in Pakistan and New Zealand, and in 2000 he struck a touching figure as the butler Flay in the BBC TV production of Gormenghast.
The 21st century saw a major reinvigoration of his reputation – first in the Star Wars prequels, and then even more significantly as Saruman in Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning film sequence of The Lord of the Rings. He was upset when Jackson cut his scenes in the theatrical edition of the trilogy’s final instalment,The Return of the King (2003), but their rift was healed when the scenes were restored in the extended editions on DVD. At last, in his 80s, Lee was earning six figures. He reprised the role in The Hobbit films.
Nonetheless, one of the roles for which he was most proud was a low-budget assignment: the arduous – and politically precarious – challenge of playing the title role in Jinnah (1998). Though Lee worked with all due seriousness and admiration for the founder of Pakistan (and looked remarkably like him), he had to be constantly under armed guard because of an abusive press campaign against the producers for associating the father of the nation with Dracula; the Pakistan government eventually caved to the pressure and withdrew its funding for the film. The end product was well reviewed; Lee himself thought it his best achievement, though not everybody would agree.
Still, at home he was becoming the nation’s darling. Tim Burton fitted him into small parts in five films and was on stage to introduce him when Lee won a Bafta fellowship award for lifetime achievement in 2011. A BFI fellowship in 2013 was presented to him by Johnny Depp. In France, he was made a commander of arts and letters; he was likewise honoured in Berlin. He was made CBE in 2001 and knighted in 2009. A prolific schedule of film appearances continued and most recently he had taken the lead role in the comedy Angels in Notting Hill.
He is survived by his wife, Gitte (nee Kroencke), whom he married in 1961, and their daughter, Christina.
• Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, actor, born 27 May 1922; died 7 June 2015