To highlight even a fraction of the career of Sir Christopher Lee is to do a disservice to the breadth of his achievements, but he will forever be associated with the films of the British studio Hammer. First playing the Creation in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) for the studio to Peter Cushing’s Baron Victor Frankenstein, that was actually his 39th appearance on film, but it was the following year he would take the role of Count Dracula opposite Cushing’s Abraham Van Helsing, a role with which he is still known almost sixty years later.
Against diminishing creative returns Lee would play the Count for Hammer a total of seven times until 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, all the time fighting against what he felt was an underwritten role in a series of films which did him no service as an actor, though which were the studios greatest success. During this period he also played other roles for Hammer, including including Sir Henry Baskerville the title roles of The Mummy (1959) and Rasputin, the Mad Monk (1966) but most notably as Nicholas, the Duc de Richleau, in The Devil Rides Out (1968).
Based on the occult thriller novel by Dennis Wheatley, this allowed Lee a rare outing as the ostensible hero of the film against Charles Gray’s villainous Satanist Mocata. Having already demonstrated his ability as an actor in 1959’s The Hound of the Baskervilles opposite his lifelong friend Peter Cushing as the great detective and André Morell as Doctor John Watson, when unencumbered by costume and makeup this proved he was also a leading man.
In further contributions to the cinematic adaptations of the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Christopher also played both Holmes himself on several occasions on film and television and his brother Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).
In that decade he played many roles very different to where he established his name, though horror remained a theme, as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973) playing a unnamed role decades later in the thematic sequel The Wicker Tree (2011), Francisco Scaramanga opposite Roger Moore’s James Bond in The Man With the Golden Gun (1974), an alien leader in the UFO-cult apocalypse movie End of the World (1977) and Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in Steven Spielberg’s 1941 (1979).
In the eighties he would appear with Cushing one final time in the last of over twenty collaborations, House of the Long Shadows (1983), alongside Vincent Price and John Carradine before moving into the nineties by mercilessly sending up the reputation he had built in years of horror as Doctor Catheter for Joe Dante‘s Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Commandant Alexandrei Nikolaivich Rakov in Police Academy: Mission to Moscow (1994).
Ceaselessly active, he worked with director Tim Burton on Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Corpse Bride (2005), Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dark Shadows (2012) with Peter Jackson on his Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03) as Saruman the White and George Lucas on Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) as Count Dooku, later revealed as Sith Lord Darth Tyranus.
Publicly expressing his displeasure at having been cut from the cinematic release of The Return of the King (2003) by Jackson, Sir Christopher refused to attend the London premiere saying he “didn’t see the point” even on the director’s assurance that those scenes would be a key part of the extended DVD version. Nevertheless, Sir Christopher agreed to return when Jackson staged the prequel trilogy of The Hobbit (2012-14) appearing in the first and third films.
With television credits including Ivanhoe, Space: 1999, Charlie’s Angels, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, The Tomorrow People, Gormenghast and Ghost Stories for Christmas among many other notable shows, he twice appeared in The Avengers. A series with a habit for spoofing popular culture years before it became fashionable, in the 1967 episode Never, Never Say Die, filmed during his famed run as Dracula, Lee’s Professor Frank N Stone apparently dies numerous times but always returns.
A gentleman of intelligence, integrity and a sometimes almost challenging directness, he is survived by Birgit Krøncke, his wife over fifty years, and his enormous body of work.
Speaking of his dear friend Peter Cushing, he said “There’s nobody around today with whom I have that kind of relationship… He was an extraordinary person and everybody loved him.” In the days and weeks to come, there are many who will say the same of Sir Christopher.
Les Anderson – As someone who is fast hurtling towards sixty I can safely say that Sir Christopher, through his sheer ubiquity, has played a large part in my viewing life for over fifty years.
His most famous horror roles in the sixties and seventies were mostly inaccessible to me at the time because I was far too young to get into anything at the cinema with an X certificate, however I was able to appreciate them later on whenever they surfaced on television, usually broadcast late at night and preceded by the warning that they “may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition.”
Fortunately his resume is packed with so many titles that it was perfectly possible to enjoy his performances at that time in more family-friendly fare. One I have a very soft spot for and which I haven’t seen for forty years is a silly little television movie called Poor Devil starring Mr Entertainment himself, Sammy Davis Jr, with Sir Christopher as a very hip Lucifer dressed in salmon pink and sporting a medallion and an uncharacteristic floppy fringe.
It was one of his rare forays into comedy and my memory suggests he was the best thing in it. I have no desire to watch it again because I have such fond memories of it and his performance in particular. Whenever his name is mentioned I think first of his 1958 Dracula and then of this little confection amongst many many other performances.
When he received his BAFTA Fellowship four years ago I found it distressing to witness his frailty but I am certain that from this point on, age and its frailties will fall away and he will be remembered fondly as the towering figure with the sepulchral voice and commanding manner that dominated his work from 1958 on.
Matthew Rutland – What can anyone say about Sir Christopher Lee that hasn’t been said already? The man far surpassed the genre of horror to become a stalwart of the science fiction genre, has starred in films for over forty years and has had countless cinema goers of successive generations growing up with him in at least one iconic role.
Growing up in pre-Sky and freeview years, it’s a surefire thing that anyone staying up past their bedtime would have encountered Lee in one of the many Hammer horror films he brought to life, usually in tandem with his friend Peter Cushing. It’s fair to say they brought up at least one generation of British horror fans on their brilliant work.
When you then add one of the biggest cult classics of all time in The Wicker Man, and Lee was riding high on a wave of popularity. It could have been easy to stay in that niche, but choosing to branch out and still maintain that devilish charm and charisma Lee epitomised the Roger Moore era of Bond as Scaramanga, one of the most genuinely threatening and frightening portrayals of a Bond villain ever seen, before or since.
In later years he would go on to establish his legacy in arguably the two biggest film franchises of all time in Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, but for me it will always be his early Hammer work that set him apart from the rest of the field as an actor. His screen presence was so foreboding, yet with it he carried a sense of refined dignity and intelligence, sadly something the over-saturated and gore/schlock ridden genre of horror could sorely use these days.
He knew how to use these traits to his advantage and was remarkable in even mediocre productions, but not in a smug cynical self-aware way we might see in todays stars. I could wax lyrical about the man and his lasting influence on films, but moreover I’d say that it was his work that made me a fan of horror and science fiction and shaped my formative years into the enthusiastic film fan I remain today. His work will rightly live on, even though we will never see the like again.
Adam Dworak – Having grown up in a country where I simply wasn’t exposed to his work, until 2001, I genuinely didn’t know Christopher Lee. The first time I saw him on the big screen was as Saruman and I was amazed by his performance. In 2002 I saw him in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones portraying Count Dooku and again I was enchanted by his performance, cold, intelligent, cunning and elegant, in one word true Sith.
It wasn’t until 2012 when finally I learnt more about him and his career when my partner introduced me to the Hammer movies that I realised he had such a history and I was able to truly appreciate the talents and acting skills of Christopher Lee and other actors of his generation like Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. He became for me much more than his Star Wars character, though for me personally he will always be Count Dooku – because like master Jorak Uln said “A true Sith never dies.”
One of my favourite movies of all time is The Wicker Man where he played Lord Summerisle – you can’t forget him in drag! I am glad that he never dissapered into shadows and was able to work till the very last moment of his life.
I can honestly say that with his death the golden era of the cinema is over.
Michael Flett – I watch a lot of films, old and new, in my line of work. A lot of films. And it was always welcome to see Sir Christopher. Even though he was involved with, lets face it, some less than wonderful projects, he never gave less than he could. Look at Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, with his dress and his long wig waving his leafy twigs as he leads the May Day procession, utterly ridiculous, but giving it everything.
I never met Sir Christopher, though I know many people who did and many who worked with him, and all were in awe of him, but I think they were also in many ways afraid of him. I always got the impression he didn’t suffer fools, and when he was unhappy he would make it known very precisely. Look at what happened when he was cut out of The Return of the King. Peter Jackson is a brave, brave man to risk that wrath. But if anyone could be justified to publicly call out someone who had slighted him, by merit of his body of work, of his achievements, it was Sir Christopher.
I recently reviewed Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, and he is in two of the special features, one a dreadfully scripted piece of American filler television where he quite obviously knows it’s beneath him, the other an on-camera interview where he is left to speak at length and leisure about what he wants to talk about, and it’s a different experience.
When I met Robin Hardy at a screening of The Wicker Tree we spoke about Edward Woodward, and of course Sir Christopher came up in the conversation, and Robin had nothing but adoration and praise for him, for both of them, but I wish now I’d had the foresight to ask him more specifically about working with Sir Christopher.
I know the next time the chance comes up, I’ll take it.