The disparate worlds of classic horror movie fans, fantasy geeks, Bond movie nerds, and heavy metal aficionados are in collective mourning today at the news that beloved screen icon Christopher Lee has died at the grand old age of 93.
With his imposing height and deep, booming voice, Lee made his name portraying Count Dracula in a series of increasingly silly Hammer films, and if that was his only legacy, it would suffice. He brought a sexiness to the iconic role that had been missing in both Max Schrenck’s and Bela Lugosi’s performances.
In his first outing as the Transylvanian count – Horror of Dracula – he shared the screen with Peter Cushing (the two had already acted together in another Hammer classic, The Curse of Frankenstein and remained close friends until Cushing’s death in 1994). In all, Lee played Dracula ten times before finally hanging up the fangs and cape.
Other notable roles included Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun (one of the best Bond villains in one of the worst Bond movies); Rasputin; and three different forays into the world of Sherlock Holmes- as Sir Henry in The Hound of the Baskervilles; Holmes himself; and his brother Mycroft.
And then there was Lord Summerisle, the ruler of an isolated Scottish island still in thrall to paganism in the cult classic The Wicker Man, one of Lee’s favourite films (the role was written specifically for him by Anthony Shaffer).
In his career there was a lot of junk, to be sure, but I don’t think he ever gave a junk performance. As a young man he was told he was too tall to act (he was 6’5″) – he took offence and rose to the challenge.
His personal life is the stuff of legend. His mother was an Italian countess; his father a decorated soldier. Ian Fleming was a step-cousin. During World War II Lee served in the RAF and then the intelligence service, and afterwards hunted down Nazi war criminals. Whenever anyone questioned him about working as a spy, he would ask “Can you keep a secret?” People would of course respond yes. “So can I,” was his reply.
But he did recount one spy story. During filming of Lord of the Rings, Lee told Peter Jackson that he had actually heard the sound a man makes when he is stabbed in the back. He also knew J.R.R. Tolkien personally and made it a tradition to reread the books every year.
Playing Saruman in the Lord of the Rings saga and Count Dooku in Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones helped introduce Lee to younger audiences, as did his association with Tim Burton.
He never retired. His last completed film, Angels in Notting Hill will be released later this year.
Oh, and of course, then there was his heavy metal – or “symphonic metal” as he termed it.