On Sunday, June 7, Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, CBE, CStJ, passed from this mortal coil at the grand old age of 93. We will remember him best as an otherwordly being—a vampire, a wizard, a villain, a pagan Lord—but his legacy is grounded in a sincere, lifelong adoration for his craft, and for the stage itself. Lee first distinguished himself as a military man during the Second World War; after volunteering for the Finnish army and the British home guard, he found his niche as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force and later as a member of the Special Forces. He worked alongside the Gurkas of the Indian regiments, climbed Mount Vesuvius three days before it erupted, hunted down Nazi war criminals, and generally racked up an impressively colorful personal history before he ever set foot in a theatre. When he returned from active duty, he cast about for fulfilling work, eventually returning to his childhood love—acting.
In 1947, he made his film debut (Corridor of Mirrors) and spent the next decade appearing in over thirty films as a background actor. When Hammer came knocking in 1957 and cast him in the role of Frankenstein's monster, it signaled a shift in his career; once he was offered the role of Dracula, a legend was born. He went on to act in many, many horror flicks over the ensuing twenty year span, including cult horror masterpiece The Wickerman—which Lee regarded as the best film he'd ever made—in 1973. After that, Lee took a break from playing the monster, going on to play a Bond villain (as Francisco Scaramanga in 1974's The Man With the Golden Gun), appear in many Tim Burton films, and bring countless other characters to life on film and on television. His career got a shot in the arm when he was cast as the tempestuous wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Count Dooku in several Star Wars films, and his resurgent popularity dovetailed with his first public statements in support of one of his favorite genres of music—heavy metal.
Long regarded as an accomplished singer with multiple classical and opera performances under his belt, Lee's deep, resonant basso profundo voice has appeared in a number of films and musical works (including during his brilliant turn as Lord Summerisle in The Wickerman, which saw him tackle Paul Giovanni's folk tune "The Tinker of Rye") as well as on an opera album of his own, titled Revelation.
As one might expect from an already renowned actor and opera singer, when he made his entry into the world of metal, he strolled right into the thick of it and thoroughly classed up the joint. By 2005, Lee had already turned his formidable pipes towards a heavier agenda with characteristic zeal. He first appeared as a guest vocalist on "Magic of the Wizard's Dream," a single from Italian power metal institution Rhapsody of Fire, then went on to serve as a narrator for several of their next few albums. He's also worked with Manowar—the most over-the-top heavy metal band in existence,—and Inner Terrestrials, with whom he performed a metal version of the Toreador Song from the opera Carmen in 2006. He was knighted several years later for his services to drama and charity.
He's released multiple albums of his own, all skewed towards the bombastic, symphonic strain of heavy metal for which Lee showed such unabashed enthusiasm. He's also released two full-on metal albums based around a bloodthirsty historical figure—namely, his storied ancestor Charlemagne, King of the Holy Roman Empire, whose name graces both 2010's Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and 2013's Charlemagne: The Omens of Death. The latter (which, bear in mind, came out when Lee was 91 years old) featured Black Sabbath guitar god Tony Iommi, with whom he'd hit it off after Iommi confided that Lee's performance as Dracula had inspired him to pursue a darker path with his music. Iommi was also the presenter who bestowed Metal Hammer's Spirit of Metal award upon Lee at a 2010 ceremony, and one likes to imagine the two of them hanging out swapping riffs and entertainment business war stories (or actual war stories, in Lee's case).
Lee wasn't solely interested in skewering Saxons. He also paid tribute to his literary idols, as seen on his 2014 EP Metal Knight (which was themed around Don Quixote), as well as embracing his more jovial inclinations with the A Heavy Metal Christmas series. Several songs from his three Christmas-themed metal EPs hit the UK Billboard charts, starting with "Jingle Hell" in 2012 (which hit number 22), marking him as the oldest living artist to enter the charts.
His forays into metal—"symphonic metal," as he is careful to emphasize—have generally been met with incredulity from mainstream media, but as you can see, he refused to allow reporters to trivialize or exoticize his chosen genre. He's given dozens of interviews relating to his Heavy Metal Christmas EPs and his solo work, and in each one, his measured, earnest responses make reporters look absurd for questioning him.
Of course Lord Saruman digs Rhapsody; of course Lord Summerisle loves Manowar, and of bloody course Dracula himself is drawn to the darker side of the musical spectrum. Going from appreciating opera and rousing classical music to being interested in and digging symphonic metal is a very small leap indeed, and it's certain that Lee's involvement left metal with a particular sheen of respectability. He was our champion, and we loved him dearly for it.
May he enter Valhalla with a smile upon his face and a sword in his hand.