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Christopher Lee’s long shadow

Remembering the 60-year career of an actor with a baleful dignity

Nicholas Barber | June 12th 2015

Sir Christopher Lee, whose death at the age of 93 was announced on Thursday, used to grumble to interviewers that people wouldn’t stop associating him with Count Dracula, whereas, in his view, he had made a better job of many other roles. His own favourite performance was as Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, in “Jinnah” (1998). It’s a complaint you have to take with a pinch of salt. After all, Lee played the Prince of Darkness in seven Hammer films between 1958 and 1973, plus one German production, so it’s not unreasonable of us to picture him with blood dripping down his chin and a bosomy starlet hanging from his arm.

On the other hand, it is fair to say that Lee’s Transylvanian excursions represent a tiny fraction of his accomplishments. His acting career lasted nearly 60 years, and it encompassed roughly 250 films. More importantly, it was a career that saw him tick off an unparalleled number of popular-culture icons. Even if he had never once slipped in Dracula’s fake fangs, he would still be a legend of horror, fantasy and science-fiction cinema. He was Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and Sherlock Holmes—not to mention Mycroft Holmes and Sir Henry Baskerville. He was Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun”, Lord Summerisle in “The Wicker Man” and Rochefort in “The Three Musketeers”. If a pulp-fiction character was larger than life, or rather grander than life, Lee made that character his own.

What he brought to these roles was a baleful dignity, whether or not the films deserved it. There was never any winking or smirking in his performances. With that ramrod posture, that aquiline bone structure, that booming baritone and that hypnotic glare, he made it clear that whatever he was doing was no laughing matter. He was always on the verge of a withering sneer. He seemed to be looking down on you—and, at 6ft 5, he was. It didn’t matter if he was sporting the vast stick-on beard of Rasputin the Mad Monk, or the vaster stick-on beard of Saruman the White. It didn’t matter if he was skipping around in drag as Lord Summerisle, or if he was a three-nippled hitman in “The Man With the Golden Gun”. Lee gave such imperious authority to his characters that he might as well have been saying, “I’m taking this seriously, so you’d better take it seriously, too. Or else.”

It helped that, even when he was offscreen, Lee seemed so formidably classy. Here was a man who could speak five languages, who served as an RAF intelligence officer during the second world war, and who was happily married to a Danish model and painter, Birgit Kroencke. He was also a step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming, and quite apart from co-starring in a Bond film, he had a 007-like mix of the archetypally British and the exotically European: born in Belgravia, his father was a Boer War lieutenant, his mother was an Italian contessa, and he attended school for a while in Switzerland. Suffice to say, they don’t make ‘em like that any more.

His towering presence and aristocratic aura didn’t diminish when he reached retirement age and beyond, so he was able to add numerous geek-friendly roles to his CV during an astonishing career revival in later life: Flay in BBC2’s “Gormenghast”, Death in Sky 1’s “The Colour of Magic”, and various parts for Tim Burton, including Willy Wonka’s father in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. He also played Saruman in “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit”, and Count Dooku in the “Star Wars” prequels. The upshot was that, for a while, Lee was the common factor shared by the world’s biggest blockbusters. If you looked at the statistics in a certain light, he was the most bankable movie star alive in 2005, which wasn’t bad going for an 83-year-old.

Still, it’s no coincidence that the name Count Dooku has a familiar ring to it, and there’s no denying that Dooku and Saruman are both imposing villains with supernatural powers, so you could argue that Lee never quite escaped the shadow of Dracula. To my mind, though, his screen persona was so monumental that he was the one who was casting shadows. Maybe people will always associate Lee with Dracula. But it’s more accurate to say that they’ll always associate Dracula with Sir Christopher Lee. 

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