Sir Christopher Lee, whose death on Sunday at the age of 93 was announced today, was an actor who used the modern art of cinema to evoke ancient feelings. Standing at six foot five and with a voice like chilled silver, Lee was a druid capable of inspiring deep terror, a conjuror whose skills belonged just as much to the bards of some long forgotten land as they did to the studios of Hammer.
At the beginning of his career, Lee, who had already served in Intelligence and the Special Forces during World War II, struggled to make his height work for him. He was so tall that he was told to remain seated during his first film appearance, as a nightclub customer in 1948's Corridor of Mirrors. But by the time he got his break in Terence Fisher's 1957 horror film, The Curse of Frankenstein, in which he played the monster, and Hammer's Dracula (1958), in which he played the vampire himself, Lee had turned his height into an asset. Dracula was, of course, one of his most famous parts, and the English actor's looming, darkening presence made the film a critical and commercial success. "Lee's Count is piercingly rapt, a fierce carnal evil burning behind his flashing eyes," Jeremy Dyson wrote in the Guardian on the film's reissue.
The series made Lee famous, but it got worse and worse at is went on. In Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) he doesn't say a word as the Count. This was because he'd read the script and thought it was a pile of shit. "The lines were literally unsayable, they were not Bram Stoker," he later said. Born in 1922 in Belgravia, the epitome of posh London, the floridly named Christopher Frank Carandini Lee was the son of an English army officer and an Italian aristocrat. What is often not said about Lee's portrayal of Dracula is that, away from the operatic terror he brings to the part, there is a great deal of finely tuned pathos in his performance.
Dracula is lonely and cut off from the world. Lee understood this. He identified with Dracula, he said, because the Transylvanian count was, like him, an embarrassment to an aristocratic family. Educated at Eton and Wellington, Lee said that, even then, he was "tall, dark, and gruesome." Even when he received his BAFTA Fellowship in 2011, the sense of Lee as the improbably tall patrician standing just to the side of the world was present. Emotionally introduced by Tim Burton, who directed Lee and was in awe of him, the whole hall rose to acclaim a master of the craft. Lee was generous in his speech. He knew that actors are nothing without each other: "My fellow thespians, many of whom are involved in this," he said, pointing at his award. And yet, standing tall and stately on the stage, he was ethereal and otherworldly, a man possessed with attributes others don't have.
His height, appearance, and background contributed to this, but so did his voice. As Lord Summerisle, the pagan leader in The Wicker Man, Lee raises the dead with his voice, commands and controls a population with his magnetic power. The character is clever, charming, cultured, and terrifying, his ruthlessness lurking beneath a veneer of civilization. It was a perfect role for Lee, one he helped devise, and it was said to be his favorite. No one could have brought greater weight to the part of a feudal lord with a pagan heart. Lee's skill with patrician outsiders was exercised in a different way when he played Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970). Sherlock's brother is stuck up, stuffy, and unimaginative. Lee's spin on him is funny and nuanced.
For a later generation, Lee was perhaps best known as Saruman, the wizard with, fittingly, a bewitching and dangerously powerful voice. Lee was the only member of the Lord of the Rings cast to actually meet J. R. R. Tolkien, and when they did, the author had given him his blessing to play Gandalf. But when the films eventually came to be made, Lee was too old and, as the man in possession of perhaps the finest voice of his generation, he was the obvious choice to play Saruman. Just look at him here, talking of the "great eye, lidless, wreathed in flame."
As a teenager, Lee witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France and brought his real-world experience to The Lord of the Rings. During a scene in which a man gets stabbed in the back, the old actor stopped director Peter Jackson, who was in the middle of coaching Lee on how he should react. "Do you know what it sounds like when someone is stabbed in the back?" Lee asked. "Because I do."
This gothic grandeur was also, of course, put to more comic use. "And now ladies and gentleman, I'd like you to meet Loaf," he intones, introducing Meat Loaf on Saturday Night Live in 1978. It was, he said years later, "the single most important television show in the United States in the last twenty to thirty years." He played Death on the show, complete with scythe and hooded cloak, and said that one of his most cherished possessions was a photo of him and John Belushi, who died in 1982, four years after they appeared together. The photo bore a message from Belushi: "To Chris, you are the best in the biz, John Belushi (second best)."
A big music fan, Lee sung on opera, country, and metal albums. He made two metal albums about the emperor Charlemagne, on which he recites, in that doom-laden voice, things like, "I shall claim the iron crown of Lombardy," and "I shed the blood of Saxon men." He was, of course, a descendent of Charlemagne. When he met Tony Iommi, the Black Sabbath songwriter and guitarist told Lee that he had been "totally inspired" by many of the films he'd seen the English actor in. Lee was the "emperor of metal," Iommi said. "Which is a wonderful thought," said Lee, "because Black Sabbath are one of the greatest metal bands ever."
"Emperor of metal" is one of many fitting tributes. Sir Christopher Lee, a man of grand performances and operatic portrayals, brought something unique and ancient to our screens.
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