Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee, (27 May 1922 – 7 June 2015) was an English actor, singer and author. With a career spanning nearly 70 years, Lee initially portrayed villains and became best known for his role as Count Dracula in a sequence of ‘Hammer Horror’ films. His other film roles include Francisco Scaramanga in the James Bond film ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ (1974), Saruman in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy (2001–2003) and ‘The Hobbit’ film trilogy (2012–2014), and Count Dooku in the final two films of the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy (2002 and 2005).
Lee was knighted for services to drama and charity in 2009, received the BAFTA Fellowship in 2011 and received the BFI Fellowship in 2013. He considered his best performance to be that of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah in the biopic ‘Jinnah’ (1998), and his best film to be the British horror film ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973).
Always noted as an actor for his deep strong voice, Lee was also known for his singing ability, recording various opera and musical pieces between 1986 and 1998 and the symphonic metal album ‘Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross’ in 2010 after having worked with several metal bands since 2005. The heavy metal follow-up titled ‘Charlemagne: The Omens of Death’ was released on 27 May 2013. He was honoured with the “Spirit of Metal” award in the 2010 Metal Hammer Golden God awards ceremony.
Christopher Lee was born in Belgravia, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Trollope Lee (1879–1941), and his wife, Contessa Estelle Marie. Lee’s father fought in the Boer War and in the First World War and his mother was an Edwardian beauty who was painted by Sir John Lavery as well as by Oswald Birley and Olive Snell, and sculpted by Clare Frewen Sheridan. They separated when he was four and divorced two years later. During this time, his mother took him and his sister to Wengen in Switzerland. After enrolling in Miss Fisher’s Academy in Territet, he played his first role, as Rumpelstiltskin. They then returned to London, where Lee attended Wagner’s private school in Queen’s Gate and his mother married Harcourt George St-Croix Rose, a banker and uncle of Ian Fleming. Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, thus became Lee’s step-cousin. The family moved to Fulham, living next door to the actor Eric Maturin. One night, he was introduced to Prince Yusupov and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, the assassins of Grigori Rasputin, whom Lee was to play many years later.
Lee applied for a scholarship to Eton, where his interview was to prove portentous because of the presence of the noted ghost story author M. R. James. Sixty years later, Lee played the part of James for the BBC. His step-father was not prepared to pay the higher fees that being an Oppidan Scholar meant and so he did not attend. Instead, Lee attended Wellington College, where he won scholarships in the classics, studying Ancient Greek and Latin. Aside from a “tiny part” in a school play, he didn’t act while at Wellington.
When World War II broke out, Lee volunteered to fight for the Finnish forces during the Winter War in 1939. He and other British volunteers were kept away from actual fighting, but they were issued winter gear and were posted on guard duty a safe distance from the front lines. After a fortnight, they returned home. Lee returned to work at United States Lines and found his work more satisfying, feeling that he was contributing. In early 1940, he joined Beecham’s, at first as an office clerk, then as a switchboard operator. When Beecham’s moved out of London, he joined the Home Guard. In the winter, his father fell ill with double pneumonia and died on 12 March 1941. Realising that he had no inclination to follow his father into the Army, Lee decided to join up while he still had some choice of service, and volunteered for the Royal Air Force.
Returning to London in 1946, Lee was offered his old job back at Beecham’s, with a significant raise, but he turned them down as “I couldn’t think myself back into the office frame of mind.” The Armed Forces were sending veterans with an education in the Classics to teach at universities, but Lee felt his Latin was too rusty and didn’t care for the strict curfews. The head of Two Cities Films, Filippo Del Giudice, part of the Rank Organisation, “looked me up and down… [and] concluded that I was just what the industry had been looking for.” He was sent to see Josef Somlo for a contract, who immediately announced that he was “much too tall to be an actor”. Somlo sent him to see Rank’s David Henley and Olive Dodds, who signed him on a seven-year contract.
A student at Rank’s “Charm School”, Lee and many of the others had difficulty finding work. He finally made his film début in Terence Young’s Gothic romance ‘Corridor of Mirrors’ (1947).
Also in this early period, he made an uncredited appearance in Laurence Olivier’s film version of ‘Hamlet’ (1948). A few years later, he appeared in ‘Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N.’ (1951) as a Spanish captain. He was cast when the director asked him if he could speak Spanish and fence, which he was able to do. Lee appeared uncredited in the American epic ‘Quo Vadis’ (also 1951), which was shot in Rome.
He recalled that his breakthrough came in 1952 when Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. began making films at the British National Studios. The same year, he appeared in John Huston’s Oscar-nominated ‘Moulin Rouge’. Throughout the next decade, he made nearly 30 films, playing mostly stock action characters.
Lee’s first film for Hammer was ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957), in which he played Frankenstein’s monster, with Peter Cushing as Baron Victor Frankenstein. It was the first film he and Cushing were credited together. They went on to appear in over 20 films together and became close friends. A little later, Lee co-starred with Boris Karloff in the film ‘Corridors of Blood’ (1958), but Lee’s own appearance as Frankenstein’s monster led to his first appearance as the Transylvanian vampire in the 1958 film ‘Dracula’. In 1959, Lee played in another film called ‘Uncle Was a Vampire’.
Lee returned to the role of Dracula in Hammer’s ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ in 1965. Lee’s performance is notable in that he had no lines, merely hissing his way through the film. His roles in the films ‘Dracula Has Risen from the Grave’ (1968), ‘Taste the Blood of Dracula’ (1969), and ‘Scars of Dracula’ (1970) all gave the Count very little to do. Although Lee may not have liked what Hammer was doing with the character, worldwide audiences embraced the films, which were all commercially successful and are now considered classics of the genre.
Lee starred in two further Dracula films for Hammer in the early 70’s, both of which attempted to bring the character into the modern-day era. These were not commercially successful: ‘Dracula A.D. 1972’ in 1972 and ‘The Satanic Rites of Dracula’ in 1973, which marked his last appearance as Dracula.
Lee’s other work for Hammer included ‘The Mummy’ (1959). He portrayed Rasputin in ‘Rasputin, the Mad Monk’ and Sir Henry Baskerville in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ (1959). Lee later played Holmes himself in 62’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace’, and returned to Holmes films with Billy Wilder’s British-made ‘The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes’ (1970), in which he plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft. He played a leading role in the German film ‘The Puzzle of the Red Orchid’ (1962), speaking German, which he had learned during his education in Switzerland.
The company made two films from Wheatley’s novels, both starring Lee. The first, ‘The Devil Rides Out’ (1967), is generally considered to be one of Hammer’s crowning achievements. However, the second film, ‘To the Devil a Daughter’ (1976), was fraught with production difficulties and was disowned by its author. Although financially successful, it was Hammer’s last horror film and marked the end of Lee’s long association with the studio that brought him fame.
Like Cushing, Lee also appeared in horror films for other companies during the 20-year period from 1957 to 1977. Other films in which Lee performed include the series of Fu Manchu films made between 1965 and 1969, in which he starred as the villain in heavy oriental make-up; ‘I, Monster’ (1971); ‘The Creeping Flesh’ (1972); and his personal favourite, ‘The Wicker Man’ (1973). Lee appeared as the on-screen narrator in Jess Franco’s ‘Eugenie’ (1970) as a favour to producer Harry Alan Towers.
In addition to making films in the United Kingdom, Lee made films in mainland Europe: he appeared in two German films, ‘Count Dracula’, where he again played the vampire count, and T’he Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism’. Other films in Europe he made include ‘Castle of the Living Dead’ and ‘Horror Express’. In 1972, Lee was a producer of the horror film ‘Nothing But the Night’, in which he also starred. In 1973, he appeared as the Comte de Rochefort in Richard Lester’s ‘The Three Musketeers’. He also appeared in the 1974 film ‘The Four Musketeers’ which was actually shot at the same time. Although “killed” in the latter film he reprised the role in ‘The Return of the Musketeers’ in 1989. In 1974, Lee finally got to play a James Bond villain when he was cast as the deadly assassin Francisco Scaramanga in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’.
Lee appeared on the cover of the 1973 Wings album Band on the Run, along with others including chat show host Michael Parkinson, film actor James Coburn, world boxing champion John Conteh and broadcaster Clement Freud.
His first American film was the disaster film ‘Airport ’77’. In 1978, he surprised many people with his willingness to go along with a joke by appearing as guest host on NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’. As a result of his appearance on SNL, Steven Spielberg, who was in the audience, cast him in 1941. In 1982, he appeared in ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’. In 1985, he appeared alongside Reb Brown and Sybil Danning in ‘Howling II: Stirba – Werewolf Bitch’. Lee made his latest appearances to date as Sherlock Holmes in 91’s ‘Incident at Victoria Falls’ and 92’s ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Leading Lady’.
The last project which united Lee and Peter Cushing in person was a documentary, ‘Flesh and Blood: The Hammer Heritage of Horror’ (1994), which they jointly narrated. It was the last time they saw each other as Cushing died two months later.
In 1994, Lee played the character of the Russian commandant in ‘Police Academy: Mission to Moscow’. In 1998, he starred in the role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, founder of modern Pakistan, in the film ‘Jinnah’. In 2002, while talking about his favourite role in film at a press conference at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, he declared that his role in Jinnah was by far his best performance.
Lee played Saruman in the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ film trilogy. Lee had met J.R.R. Tolkien once and made a habit of reading the novels at least once a year. In addition, he performed for the album ‘The Lord of the Rings: Songs and Poems’ by J.R.R. Tolkien in 2003. The Lord of the Rings marked the beginning of a major career revival that continued in ‘Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones’ (2002) and ‘Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith’ (2005), in which he played the villainous Count Dooku.
In late November 2009, he starred in Stephen Poliakoff’s British period drama Glorious 39 with Julie Christie, Bill Nighy, Romola Garai and David Tennant, Academy Award-nominated director Danis Tanović’s war film Triage with Colin Farrell and Paz Vega, and Duncan Ward’s comedy Boogie Woogie alongside Amanda Seyfried, Gillian Anderson, Stellan Skarsgård and Joanna Lumley.
He narrated a lot of documentaries and videogames, and also sing and recorded music albuns.
In 1997, he was appointed a Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John. On 16 June 2001, as part of that year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours, Lee was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire “for services to Drama”. He was made a Knight Bachelor “For services to Drama and to Charity” on 13 June as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2009. He was knighted by Prince Charles, but because of his age he was excused the usual requirement to kneel and received the knighthood whilst standing. Lee was named 2005’s ‘most marketable star in the world’ in a USA Today newspaper poll, after three of the films he appeared in grossed US$640 million. In 2011, Lee was awarded the ‘BAFTA Academy Fellowship’ by Tim Burton. He was awarded the Bram Stoker Gold Medal by the Trinity College Philosophical Society, of which Stoker was President, and a copy of Collected Ghost Stories of MR James by Trinity College’s School of English. The government of France made him a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters in 2011.
Lee died at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on 7 June 2015 after being admitted for respiratory problems and heart failure shortly after celebrating his 93rd birthday in hospital. His wife delayed the public announcement until 11 June, in order to break the news to their family.