Christopher Lee (1922 - 2015)
Towering icon of cinema passes away aged 93, leaving an acting legacy more formidable than his best known roles
Sir Christopher Lee, actor, horror icon and heavy metal vocalist, died at the weekend. He was 93. He had been a towering presence, in every sense, in cinema for nearly 80 years.
Lee’s first film was 1947’s Corridor of Mirrors, where he had a single line and was asked to act sitting down as he was 'too tall to be an actor'. He spent the next ten years flitting from bit part to bit part, gradually honing his technique and learning, until he finally got his big break as the pitiful and mute creature in Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein, his first pairing with Hammer’s other stalwart star, Peter Cushing.
They next met in 1958’s Dracula, perhaps the pivotal role in Lee’s career. This was far from Bela Lugosi’s stagey windbag Count. Lee’s version was convincingly posh – hardly surprising, the actor was descended from Italian nobility on his mother’s side. This Count was tall, dark and gruesome, both a bestial monster and a suave seducer.
Lee worked tirelessly (IMDB credits him with 281 acting roles). He once said 'acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.' Some of those films were awful – Jess Franco’s Eugenie probably didn’t trouble Lee’s C.V very often – and some of them were utterly marvellous (his all singing and dancing turn as Mr. Midnight in The Return of Captain Invincible is delicious), but all were illuminated by his patrician grace, his sensual purr.
Lee’s voice was a thing of beauty, a rich, commanding baritone, effortlessly rendering the garbled nonsense of some of his film scripts into natural, relatable language, imbued with wit and gravity. He may have been in some bad films but Christopher Lee never gave a bad performance in his life.
Feted to play James Bond – he was Bond author Ian Fleming’s step cousin – he eventually had to settle for his nemesis, the titular Man With The Golden Gun, Francisco Scaramanga, he of the superfluous areola and rather flashy accessories.
The actor’s favourite role was as Lord Summerisle in the The Wicker Man, often lauded as the greatest British horror film of all time and Lee certainly wouldn’t disagree. You can see why he liked it: he got to sing and dance, dress up as a woman; he got to say the immortal line 'Cut some capers, man, use your bladder,' and in the end he got to burn a policeman to death in a giant bonfire. No apologies for the spoiler there. You should have seen it.
Lee liked it so much that he even appeared in director Robin Hardy’s ill-advised semi-sequel The Wicker Tree forty years on. It was the sort of man that he was – outwardly the embodiment of icy hauteur he was oddly susceptible to emotional blackmail.
He maintained that the only reason he made so many Dracula sequels (an essay in diminishing returns) was because he was worried about the amount of people who would be out of work if he didn’t slip on the cloak one more time.
He has one unreleased film in the can, the unfortunately titled Angels in Notting Hill, in which he plays god, euphemistically referred to as 'The Boss' throughout. It’s tempting to imagine that this role was only a rehearsal for his final, more lasting one.