This morning, Christopher Lee’s family announced that the legendary actor had passed away on Sunday at the age of 93. For many, the magisterial Lee was known for his work as a villain ranging from Dracula, to Bond nemesis Francisco Scaramanga to Lord Summerisle to Rochefort in the ‘70s revival of The Three Musketeers. Younger audiences might only know him as Saruman from The Lord of the Rings or Count Dooku from the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (Lee is quite good, regardless of the quality of those films…a statement that could be made of many of his films).
His impressive height, regal bearing and rich baritone meant that he was probably destined for the screen, but even if the man had never stepped foot in front of the camera, his fascinating and often heroic life is worth praising and remembering. Here are 12 things you should know about Lee:
1. He was almost a fighter pilot. Like many young Brits at the time, Lee was eager to be involved in the fight against the Nazis. Initially enlisting in the Finnish Resistance, Lee was frustrated that Brits were kept on the backline. Returning to England, Lee enlisted in the RAF and after thorough training was almost licensed as a pilot. As he was about to take his first solo flight, headaches and blurred vision forced the medical officers to ground him and regretfully inform him that he’d never be suited for life as a pilot. Lee was crushed.
2. This did not stop him from being a badass. Lee was still eager to contribute to the war effort and immediately enrolled in the RAF’s Intelligence division, where he was put to work planning air force missions in the North African campaign. When the campaign moved to the invasion of Italy, Lee, who had spent time recovering from six separate cases of malaria by studying up on Russia, was determined to be the foremost expert on the Eastern Front and was assigned to the Army as part of an officer swap. During this tenure, he helped plan the invasions of Italy and Sicily.
3. He hunted Nazi concentration camp workers as the war ended. When the war in Europe came to an end, Lee — who was fluent in French and German (as well as Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Russian, Greek and Mandarin Chinese!!!) — stayed in Germany to help capture fleeing Nazi war criminals and bring them to justice.
4. He was in Hamlet. Before landing the first of his iconic roles, Lee’s height and military bearing made him a natural fit for background soldiers. His third film was as a guard in Laurence Olivier’s production of Hamlet.
5. He met Rasputin’s assassins. Even before his debut on the screen or in the service, Lee’s life would have many brushes with fame. Following his parents’ divorce, his mother married the uncle of James Bond author Ian Fleming. Living in the upper-class London neighborhood of Fulham, he often rubbed elbows with celebrities. Somewhat amusingly, he was one night introduced to the two men who assassinated the real Rasputin, a character Lee would, of course, play many years later.
6. He reinvented Dracula and hated it. Prior to the reinvention of the character in 1958, Dracula was typically defined by Bela Lugosi’s performance, the stilted (though iconic) portrayal that first really brought the character to life. But by 1958, Dracula was already a subject of parody. Hammer Films, a low budget British film company, decided to take advantage of the increasing permissiveness of film and the advent of Technicolor, and reboot Dracula with more blood and more sex. The handsome and terrifying Lee was perfect for the part, and every subsequent portrayal of the dark prince owes more to Lee than Lugosi. Lee himself hated the scripts he was given, but was basically locked into a contract that kept him turning out the films. They are unapologetically trashy (though in a quaint-by-modern-standards way), but all of our sexy vampires from The Hunger to Buffy to Twilight owe Lee and Hammer a giant debt.
7. He and Peter Cushing were great friends in real life. Throughout his tenure with Hammer, Lee was most often paired with the great Peter Cushing (most known to modern audiences as Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars). Cushing was Van Helsing to his Dracula, Moriarity to his Holmes, and The Dr. to his Frankenstein. The two were (along with fellow horror icon Vincent Price) good friends until Cushing’s death in 1994. They would appear in over 20 films together.
8. He was related by marriage to James Bond author Ian Fleming. Following the end of his association with Hammer, Lee tried to steer away from horror films, though villainous roles were still where he thrived. His Comte de Rochefort is one of the many pleasures to be had in Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers films, but it was as Francisco Scaramanga that Lee next gained fame. Though The Man with the Golden Gun isn’t considered one of the best Bond films (it is one of the better Roger Moore Bond films, though), Lee’s icy performance as a kind of dark mirror of Bond would be a wonderful model for future villians in the series.
9. He considered The Wicker Man his best film. If you only know The Wicker Man as that strange Nick Cage film where he screams about bees, then you are missing out on one of the great pleasures of strange 1970s cult masterpieces. It’s easy to see why Lee considered The Wicker Man to be his best film. His Lord Summerisle is a wonderfully silky villain in an unrelentingly bizarre movie that’s half detective movie, half surreal musical and 100 percent batshit crazy, right up to its horrifying, totally logical and pitched-to-the-rafters finale.
10. He wanted to play Gandalf. A longtime Tolkien fan (and the only member of the cast of the films to have met the author), Lee claimed to have read the books every year. He had long held a desire to play the wizard Gandalf and had done so for BBC radio productions. By the time casting for the film began, he felt he was too old for the part, as it required much horseback riding and sword fighting in addition to 18 months in New Zealand. He instead took the smaller, villainous role of Saruman, Gandalf’s mentor-gone-bad. Despite Lee’s age, he still reprised the role in The Hobbit films, and did actually do most of his own light saber fighting in the Star Wars prequels.
11. He continued to record metal albums into his 90s. Along with his impressive height, chiseled features and intelligence, Lee also sported a wonderfully deep baritone that would always guarantee him voice work for television, radio and video games. He often sang in his films, and in fact spent the later years of his life recording heavy metal albums about Charlemagne. Yes, you read that correctly.
12. He was almost Magneto as well. Basically, the only major franchise Lee didn’t have some role in seems to be comic books, but he was almost there, too. During the casting for the X-Men films, he was seriously considered for the role of Magneto. As with Gandalf, Lee ceded that part to the younger Ian McKellen, who obviously did quite well with both roles.
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