On June 7th, Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, closed the coffin lid on an illustrious life as colorful and sometimes as serious as the films he starred in. A descendant of European royalty and great-grandson of Italian opera singer Countess Estelle Marie, Lee joined the RAF at the onset of WWII with hopes of becoming a fighting air pilot. Poor eyesight found him instead in a speculatively serious position in British Intelligence. When queried about these years, Lee would often ask, “Can you keep a secret?” Naturally, the fan or interviewer would say, “Yes,” to which Lee would dryly reply, “So can I.”
Horror films were both a boon to Lee as much as being a thorn in his side. At one point in his career, he said “I don’t know why I am associated so much with horror films. I’ve only made about fifteen.” Truth be told (and aren’t actors just skillful liars?), if you counted all of his sci-fi, fantasy, and documentaries involving horror or the mysterious, it comes closer to sixty. Still, a lesser fraction to an esteemed performer whose film credits amount to 250 or so.
And that’s not counting his many musical talents, which ran from opera and symphonic metal to the delicious musical super hero spoof “The Return Of Captain Invincible,” wherein an alcoholic has-been crime fighter (Alan Arkin), is tempted by Mr. Midnight (Lee), to give up and have a drink in a number co-authored by Richard O Brien (Rocky Horror Picture Show) entitled “Name Your Poison.” I have watched that one section numerous times, and it never fails to make me smile. Lee’s voice is like a cannon, deep and powerful. You couldn’t ask for a better Basso Profundo.
Once he was off of active military duty, one of Lee’s cousins got him an internship into the Rank Organizations acting classes and production team that led him to many bit parts in well know films like Hamlet, but his 6’5″ frame often required him to sit down in a scene so as not to upstage the diminutive stars of the show or they would have him in scenes not involving the star so that his striking features would not be compared.
When the small production company Hammer Films embarked upon a series of remakes based on the classic Universal Studios monsters that Lee found himself a perfect niche almost overnight. For many, Lee is the definitive Count Dracula for horror fans of the last five decades. Despite only a few lines Lee commands the screen as much as any Barrymore. His feral sexuality to counterpoint the big busted ingenues was new and exciting and in blood dripping color but there was one more important factor… The Fangs!
Immediately, Lee tried to distance himself from the role, but it was no use. He was in demand and the studio really needed him. On several audio commentaries on DVD’s you can hear Lee robustly proclaim in all earnestness that he saved Hammer Studios from ruin. I’ll be first first to admit to what a genius he was, and how much he meant to me. Nonetheless, after a few of these special features you’ll realize that like many upper crust Brits, he can be a bit of a snob and a braggadocio.
Even Lee admits that he didn’t always make the right moves, like turning down the part of Dr. Loomis in Halloween, or omitting all of his lines from Dracula:Prince Of Darkness because of the weakness of the script. If you’ve seen the film, you know it’s really pretty good in the story department, but having Lee play Dracula without the aid of his sonorous voice was a detriment. Marcel Marceau he ain’t. But every good actor learns his strengths and weaknesses, and Sir Christopher was constantly raising the bar and challenging both himself and the audience.
Perhaps one reason he downplayed his morbid characters in terms of importance was that all of the Hammer Films and some others as well all received X certificates, which only allows adults to attend the screenings. The audience for these films in London were considered somewhat second class as well. Conversely, on the other side of the globe, the Hammer classics were being marketed to kids and teenagers. Some of them even had free plastic fangs and zombie eyes as part of the admission. This strategy actually paid off for Lee in his later years as the fans of his films (George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton) gave him choice roles in their box office bonanzas after growing up on a steady diet of his repertoire.
Lee was also athletic, and he studied fencing for appropriate Shakespearean plays. This talent was later put to good use in florid action films like The Crimson Pirate, Devil Ship Pirates and the Three and Four Musketeers series. In one of the Star Wars films, there was a possibility he would do his own fencing ,but instead they opted to play out the light saber duel with Yoda using a stunt double with Lee’s menacing mug photoshopped in.
In 1973 Lee received what is often considered his best role and performance as Lord Summer-isle, the Pagan authority figure in the classic cult film The Wicker Man. I saw him speak in the 80’s after the uncut version of the film had finally been resurrected from oblivion, and was impressed by the film and the man. I got him to sign a photo of himself dressed in drag from this brilliant mind-fuck horror mystery about sacrifice and faith. After screening once at a festival in the mid seventies a copy of the film was allegedly stolen by the religious right and buried at the crossroads.
Ultimately, Lee became to me and many of my peers, that winking uncle that enriches your life when the parents weren’t looking, but not in a bad way. In many ways, the fates had already scripted things to emerge in Christopher Lee’s life and career. He shares the same birthday with fellow villain Vincent Price, and is one day older than his long time friend and co-star Peter Cushing. In 1922, the year he was born, cinema created its very first vampire film, Nosferatu:A Symphony Of Terror, an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Now, if we could just get Peter Murphy to write a song about him, things would be just this side of perfect.
On Monday June 23, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) will honor the distinguished actor’s legacy with 8 of his finest films. All times Eastern.
6:15 AM The Mummy (1959)
8:00 AM The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
9:30 AM Horror Of Dracula (1958)
11:00 AM Dracula: Prince Of Darkness (1966)
12:45 PM Dracula Has Risen From The Grave (1969)
2:30 PM Horror Express (1972)
4:00 PM The Three Musketeers (1974)
6:00 PM The Four Musketeers (1975)