English actor Christopher Lee passed away on June 7, at the age of 93. An iconic figure for fans of fantasy, horror, and science fiction, Lee was best known as the second most famous Count Dracula during the late 50s and 60s, as well as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings film series and villain Count Dooku in the Star Wars prequels. But these roles were far from the only noteworthy things about Lee, whose 70-year career spanned multiple mediums of art and several generations of audiences.
Lee was born in London in 1922. His father fought in World War I and his mother was a friend and portrait subject of Irish painter John Lavery; she had lineage that traced back to Charlemagne. Lee’s parents divorced when he was four, and his mother went on to marry Harcourt George St. Croix Rose, an uncle of Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels. Interestingly enough, Lee later went on to portray the main villain in the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun.
His life was nearly as colorful and interesting as his later film roles would be. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force during World War II, but was not allowed to fly due to having a problem with his optic nerve. So he instead became an intelligence officer for the Long Range Desert Patrol, a reconnaissance unit of the British Army. He took part in the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. After the Sicilian campaign ended, he contracted malaria for the sixth time during that year and was flown to a hospital in Carthage. When he returned, he prevented a mutiny amongst his restless squadron by talking them into resuming their duties. One year later, while spending some time on leave in Naples, he climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted.
Breakout roles and beyond
Lee’s adventures then continued into the world of film. His first breakout role came in 1957, when he played Frankenstein’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein. This was his first of many Hammer Horror films, but his first portrayal of Dracula would come one year later, in Horror of Dracula. He continued to star in vampire movies for some time, but he feared being typecast and began diversifying his work. He portrayed the eponymous character in the 1966 film Rasputin, the Mad Monk and Sir Henry Baskerville in the Sherlock Holmes adaptation The Hound of the Baskervilles. His portrayal of villains in films became something of a constant in his career, with Lee getting another noteworthy role as Lord Summerisle in 1973 horror-musical The Wicker Man.
His prominence in American film would not come until much later in life, between 2001 and 2003, when he fulfilled a decades-long dream of being involved in The Lord of the Rings; he was featured prominently in the film adaptations, and later reprised the role in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, nine years later.
He often cited The Lord of the Rings as one of his all-time favorite book series – so much that he has claimed to have read both it and The Hobbit, as well as other works by J. R. R. Tolkien, once per year since the 1950s. There was even a nice little scene in the horror film The House That Dripped Blood in which Lee is filmed reading The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. But Lee’s role in the film versions of Tolkien’s works might never have come if not for his proactive efforts to contact director Peter Jackson, in order to convince him that he was right for the role of wizard Gandalf, the character for whom he had originally read the part. Jackson noticed, but ended up casting Lee as villain Saruman.
During filming, Lee had the benefit of being the only person there to have actually met Tolkien. He did so in an Oxford pub called The Eagle and Child, and the meeting was one of pure serendipity. Lee remarked that he was “sitting there talking and drinking beer, and someone said, ‘Oh, look who walked in!’ It was Professor Tolkien, and I nearly fell off my chair. He was a benign looking man, smoking a pipe. And he was a genius; a man of incredible intellectual knowledge.” Lee proceeded to have a beer with Tolkien, and added that, despite having already taken acting roles himself, he was in awe and could barely speak during the encounter. Lee had also met The Once and Future King author T. H. White.
For Lee, Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy was the beginning of a major career revival. He played Sith lord Count Dooku in both Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in 2002 and 2005, respectively. In 2007, he had a role in the Tim Burton-directed, Johnny Depp-starring film Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He continued to collaborate with Burton, voicing a character in the 2010 film Alice in Wonderland. One year later he finally returned to Hammer Horror, in the film To the Devil a Daughter.
A career in music
But Lee’s career was not exclusively one of film. Also known for his singing ability, he recorded various opera pieces between 1986 and 1998, and from 2010 onward, became a prominent figure in the scene surrounding heavy metal – a genre of music for which he had long been fond. His first true interaction with metal musicians came from a collaboration with symphonic power metal band Rhapsody of Fire, for whom he lent his vocals on the song “The Magic of the Wizard’s Dream” from the Symphony of Enchanted Lands II album.
He also lent his voice to Cascadian black metal band Agalloch on their EP The White, on which he reprised his role of Lord Summerisle from The Wicker Man and performed spoken word on songs “The Isle of Summer,” “Summerisle Reprise,” and “Sowilo Rune.”
Lee’s new association with the heavy metal community, which has also had a penchant for Tolkien fandom, was very well received, and inspired the actor to begin a late career in the genre. So it was that in 2010, he recorded his first metal album, Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. At the age of 88 (at the time), this made Lee the oldest metal performer in history, a record that has not been outdone since. The album was critically acclaimed, and Lee earned a Spirit of Metal award, presented by Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi, at Metal Hammer’s 2010 Golden God awards. Upon receiving the award, Lee said that he was honored and that in terms of metal, he was merely “a young man right at the beginning of his career.”
Lee also became the oldest performer ever to enter the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which he did with the song “Jingle Hell,” off his 2012 EP release, A Heavy Metal Christmas.
A life of great achievements
Even putting his work in film and music aside, Lee lived a life full of great achievements. He was made a Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2009, and a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government in 2011. He earned The Bram Stoker Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1994 and a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Fellowship in 2011.
He was also a world champion fencer, and spoke seven languages: English, German, Russian, Swedish, Italian, French, and Greek. He also described himself as “conversationally fluent” in Mandarin Chinese.
Lee died just 11 days after his birthday, after being admitted for respiratory problems and heart failure. He left behind a legacy as epic as the films and music in which he starred.
Photo: Wikipedia (CC)