by Jason Koenigsberg
One of the most legendary actors of all time has left us. Christopher Lee, who’s career spanned over seven decades and multiple generations passed away at age 93. He has consistently been acting on screen ever since the end of World War II and had two films in production at the time of his death.
His tall, striking screen presence captured audience’s attention the first time he played Count Dracula in The Horror of Dracula (1958). He would go on to play the blood-lusting vampire numerous times throughout the 60’s and 70’s in the British Hammer Horror Pictures. He would be the most iconic actor to play Dracula since Bela Lugosi originated the role on screen in 1931. That alone is no easy task and would be enough for most actors to hang their hat on as their legacy.
However, Christopher Lee is not most actors, he is one of the most versatile and talented villainous character actors and leading men of all time. He had starring roles for Hammer Studios in films based on Frankenstein and The Mummy as well, often playing a sinister heavy going up against fellow British actor Peter Cushing, whom ironically was his best friend in real life.
Christopher Lee and his work in the Hammer Horror films helped Britain to create a horror tradition beyond remakes of the classic Universal monster movies from the 1930’s and created a unique brand of horror that lasted for decades.
One of his greatest performances would come in 1973’s The Wicker Man as Lord Summerisle, where he acts as a sort of governor of a strange Pagan community that lures innocent people onto their island to be sacrificed for a good harvest. The controversial ending, along with its deep themes of Christianity versus more archaic polytheistic beliefs helped make The Wicker Man a cult classic and Christopher Lee always said he was proud of that small film and his role in it.
His work as one of the greatest screen actors to play villains would further be solidified as Scaramunga, the title character going up against Roger Moore as James Bond in The Man With the Golden Gun (1975). Lee was a second cousin of Ian Fleming and always wanted to play a colorful villain in a 007 picture. He would go down in history as one of the most iconic of the entire Bond series.
As the 1970’s wore down Christopher Lee sought to break away from being typecast as the villain. He was only partially successful at this. He was still usually the bad guy, but instead of always being in horror movies and thrillers her started to bring his gifts of playing the villain in comedies. From a Nazi Captain in Spielberg’s World War II farce 1941 (1979), to an evil doctor in Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) to the comically vile Mr. Sender in the John Landis directed Tom Arnold vehicle The Stupids (1996), Lee was always a welcome presence and helped elevate every picture he was in.
Unlike most actors of his generation, when the 21st century began, Christopher Lee (in his 80’s mind you) was able to get some of the best and most memorable roles of his career. He graced the screen as Saruman the malevolent White Wizard in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. A role that was near and dear to his heart since he was a huge fan of the books and was the only cast member to actually know J. R. R. Tolkien. He once stated that “dreams do come true” since he always hoped that if they ever did make the Lord of the Rings into movies that he would be blessed to star in them. In the end the audience was blessed to see him on screen as the White Wizard.
At the same time as the Lord of the Rings movies were taking the world by storm, Christopher Lee would play Count Dooku in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith (2005). Bringing him an entire new fan base, many of which were not even born when he played Dracula in the Hammer pictures.
During the 2000’s Lee had a fruitful partnership with Tim Burton who directed him in several of his pictures starting with Sleepy Hollow (1999) as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Dark Shadows (2012).
His last great role would come as a bookstore owner in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). Leave it to Scorsese to finally give Christopher Lee a satisfying role where he is not the villain in any way. Its his most subtle and sincere performance and he graces the screen bringing an elegance and class to an already outstanding movie.
There will never be another career in cinema like Christopher Lee. He was fortunate that his longevity worked to his benefit and brought him the biggest and best roles rejuvenating his career and redefining his legacy. We are all blessed that he lived and acted long enough to share his talent in a myriad of pictures. From Count Dracula to Count Dooku there will never be another Christopher Lee.
Below is a montage of great scenes with Christopher Lee from the Lord of the Rings and Star Wars films. I love his lightsaber duel with Yoda.