There are actors out there who build their entire careers around an image. For some it’s a positive, likable one…and for others it may be a bit darker. Christopher Lee was one of the latter. Not only was he one of the most prolific actors to portray onscreen villains, he also acted in some of the largest film franchises of all time. Oh yeah, and he was a spy during WWII. A goddamn real-life spy. And that’s really just the beginning of his accomplishments. May 27th marks the birthday for this incredible human and it’s the perfect time to take a look at a few of the amazing things he managed to accomplish in his 93 years of life.
“I haven’t spent my entire career playing the guy in the bad hat, although I have to say that the bad guy is frequently much more interesting than the good guy.”
When Lee was 18 he joined the Royal Air Force but ended up not being able to fly due to a condition affecting his optic nerve. Instead, he was assigned a position with the LRDG (Long Range Desert Group) which was a group that would later become the elite SAS (Special Air Service). With the LRDG, Lee fought Nazi’s in North Africa and he reportedly had several missions that took him behind enemy lines.
He prevented a mutiny amidst disgruntled troops which earned him a promotion that landed him a place in the even more elite group called the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Near the end of WWII, Lee was stationed in Europe and was responsible for tracking down and interrogating Nazi war criminals. The records on his missions are still classified to this day, and in 2011 Lee said this on the subject: “I was attached to the SAS from time to time but we are forbidden – former, present, or future – to discuss any specific operations. Let’s just say I was in Special Forces and leave it at that. People can read in to that what they like.”
At this point Lee is the ripe old age of 25 and decided to leave the horrors of war behind him and follow a different passion of his; acting. After a bit of floundering about with random bit parts here and there, Lee caught a break and scored a starring role in the 1957 Hammer horror production The Curse of Frankenstein. His height (he stood almost 6′ 5″) which had worked against him many times, now became a huge asset for him. He quickly found a home with Hammer and in 1958 he took on his most notorious role, Dracula.
In the film Horror of Dracula, Lee starred alongside another Hammer icon, Peter Cushing. Cushing played Dracula‘s nemesis Doctor Van Helsing for the first time in this movie, but certainly not the last. The relationship established in this film would define both actors’ careers for decades and create a friendship that would last longer. Lee would end up playing Dracula more than any other actor in history and that role is one that he famously grew to resent.
“I stopped appearing as Dracula in 1972 because in my opinion the presentation of the character had deteriorated to such an extent, particularly bringing him into the contemporary day and age, that it really no longer had any meaning.”
Lee said this after portraying Dracula in the film Dracula A.D. 1972, but it would not be his last time playing Dracula. They managed to squeeze a few more out of him before he threw in the cape for good. While it is evident near the end of his Dracula career that Lee had grown tired of the character, the films still have their own charms about them. You can find a retrospective I wrote about Dracula A.D. 1972 last year for it’s 45th anniversary HERE.
Now, most actors are lucky if they manage to score a role in a franchise of films. Lee had already managed one major and a few more minor working with Hammer studios, but his luck would not stop there. In 1974 he played the villain Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun (1974). He played the character of Rochefort in a series of Three Musketeers movies, and not only Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes too in a number of films including Sherlock Holmes and The Deadly Necklace (1962). In the early 2000’s his career hit the mainstream big time with two of the largest film franchises in history, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Still the villain, Lee’s roles as Saruman in the LOTR films and Count Dooku in Star Wars Episode II and III made his face (and voice) known to a whole new generation.
This man had so memorable many roles in so many iconic movies it’s really not realistic to discuss them all outside of a physical book. IMDB clocks him in as having 280 acting credits to his name. 280! That’s roughly 3 roles a year, and that doesn’t even account for, you know, a childhood or his years fighting Nazi’s. He also holds the title for acting in the most films with a sword fight. Yeah, badass. Oh, and there was that metal band.
In 2010, at the tender age of 88, Lee released a symphonic metal album titled Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross. It won the “Spirit of Metal” award at the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden Gods Awards and was followed up by another album in 2013 titled Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. Curious what a Christopher Lee fronted metal band sounds like?
For nearly 70 years Christopher Lee graced the silver screen and it’s obvious that he truly made an effort to live life to the fullest. He was once quoted as saying “One should try anything he can in his career, except folk dance and incest” and it’s clear he meant it. The many and varied characters he embodied are characters that have substance, depth and will resonate with audiences forever.
For many he wasn’t just a guy who played Dracula a few times, he IS Dracula. The kind of dedication and passion he brought to whatever project he was a part of is truly inspirational. And while he may have played the villain more often than not, his legacy is one that is nothing but positive and one that, like Dracula, will outlive us all.
“Making films has never just been a job to me, it is my life. I have some interests outside of acting – I sing and I’ve written books, for instance – but acting is what keeps me going, it’s what I do, it gives life purpose.” -Christopher Lee